After an initial stint in the civil service, working mainly in the Middle East, John became concurrently Secretary to the UK Automation Council in London and the International Federation for Automation and Control in Paris.
He then joined Hay Management Consultants to head a group of consultants working with nationalised industry clients on privatisation issues. On the Saatchi & Saatchi takeover of Hay Group, he created a specialist public sector search and selection division as Director of Public Appointments at MSL International. In 1988, he formed Succession Planning Associates, which was bought by Tribal Group plc in 2004. In 2007 he left Tribal to set up John Smith & Associates, covering essentially the same ground as had SPA.
Clients include Al Riyadh Company, Audit Commission, Civil Aviation Authority, Coal Authority, Department of Communities and Local Government, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Environment Agency, Falkland Islands Government, Gloucester Cathedral, Greater London Authority, Home Office, Landscape Institute, Local Government Association, London Fire & Emergency Planning Authority, Marine Accident Investigation Branch, National Trust, Office of Rail Regulation, Prospects, Royal Town Planning Institute, Theatres Trust.
John was the independent member of the Task Force commissioned by the Cabinet Secretary to examine external recruitment to, and performance in, the senior civil service.