My Story: interview version

So what’s your story?

I’m a former Finance Director who always gravitated towards people roles and creative work, but who generally took the logical, safe path. I’ve co-founded a consultancy, Capital Conversations: Inspiring Better Business which helps finance leaders spring the numbers trap they’re caught in driven by short-termism and an over dependence on financial goals and targets and have the conversations that create true value.  I’m also a leadership coach with TPC Leadership a global executive coaching and leadership consultancy.

I founded Courage Matters as a place to help me explore the topic of courage in the context of living a meaningful life.  Through writing, I discovered that what was at the heart of bringing my own meaning to life, was finding the courage to tell my own story – and finding the courage to tell a new story – because the version I was telling wasn’t serving me. So, now I help others, particularly those in leadership roles, entrepreneurs and creative folk connect to their own story and tell a new one if that one’s not serving them.

I’m Mum to Euan and Skye, aged 13 and 11 (and Hamish the cocker spaniel) and wife to IT consultant Stephen living in Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Em…I’m 44, I like food, music, reading, shopping, talking about the meaning of life (which invariably includes men) with my girlfriends and sitting on the sofa with my husband, dog and children watching Modern Family and S.H.I.E.L.D.  I do a bit of yoga (would like to do more) and a bit of running (I used to do marathons).  I read a lot. I laugh at my own jokes, because obviously they’re hilarious.

A finance director?! How do you get to from there to here?!

In 2003 when I was pregnant with my son, my husband was made redundant. I was working in London for a global FMCG at the time and loved my job – I was doing really interesting work in M&A and strategy and travelling all over the world. We decided that I’d be the breadwinner and he’d fulfill his dream of studying for a degree in History of Art at university. With hindsight I feel grateful for these circumstances as they prevented me experiencing working mum guilt or having to make choices regarding part time or flexible work – I just ploughed on with a career I loved.

However, as I became more senior and my husband returned to his career in IT when our youngest started school, the trade-offs became less palatable. The hours got longer and I hated the short-term focus of the work – it felt like there was no time to breath or think. The corporate world began to feel confining and I knew I wasn’t contributing fully. But doing something more purposeful, more aligned with who I am was just a pipedream, maybe something I’d do in my 50s and anyway I only had one way to measure success and that was through climbing the career ladder.

If you mean how did I ever become an accountant? Well…I wanted to be like my dad.  In the past ten years though I’ve not done traditional accountancy roles, although investor relations required me to be very comfortable with the financial statements and reporting.  The bulk of my experience has been mostly commercial finance, M&A and strategy –  I was in Marketing for a year working on a proposition for African-American haircare products!

So how did the move actually happen?

Moving from thinking to action took a long time. Doing the Franklin Covey ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People” course in 2002 had a big impact on me, in terms of inspiring me about how I wanted to live my life.

In 2011 I reached a real career milestone when I left London to return to Scotland to head up the IR and Comms function of a newly listed FTSE100 company. Two pivotal things happened that year – firstly I found the 7 Habits workbook I’d completed in 2002. Reading that gave me a real jolt – how little of the principles I’d truly assimilated into my life.  I’d got it all at an intellectual level only. Also the dreams I’d written were all about who I was relative to others – wife / daughter / friend / potential mother. I found that quite shocking.

Then my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer and with her in London, me in Edinburgh and work very full-on, I felt like I was failing her and my dad by not being there. Circumstances transpired to allow me to leave that company with a package, which was stressful, but a friend’s advice “how can you see things as happening for you and not to you” became my mantra. I spent time with my mum before she died and had some space to start thinking about who I was and what I was all about.

In 2013 I began working for an ex-colleague, now at a UK retailer, and this was when I started to be more assertive about staking a claim for me in my career; I negotiated 11 weeks holiday pa and I worked 2 days a week from home, 3 in the office a few hundred miles away allowing me more flexibility to manage family life. I intended also to invest more time in myself and potential re-training, although I was vague about what that might be.

In October 2013 I designed a 3 day leadership programme for my 50-strong finance team with two people I’d worked a lot with before – Michael, an expert in transformational change and corporate finance and Jamie an expert in communication with a background in advertising and filmmaking.  I loved everything about doing it – it was all about connecting people to their purpose and values and creating a working environment that said people matter. Something clicked with me and we started kicking around some ideas for a business together. Shortly after, my boss moved on, the function was restructured and I knew the universe was asking me “if not now when?!”

So, I invested in re-training and became certified in Time to Think, a coaching technique based on “listening to ignite the human mind”.  I’m now an NLP practitioner and I’m certified to deliver a tool that takes a company’s values and measures the level of “cultural entropy” in an organisation. I studied “quantum leadership” with Danah Zohar.  It’s all been about reconfiguring my life.

I also retained a coach to help me get Capital Conversations off the ground – she encouraged me to write as she believed writing was a key way I was going to bring myself to the world. I’d studied English Literature at university – I’d kind of forgotten I used to love writing. Maybe having to write financial press releases and reports turned writing into a chore, but whatever, after 14 days of having to submit 500 words a day on a topic of my choice, I was hooked. I started contributing articles to a startup called Lifeshifter in its early days as a way to practice the discipline of writing for a target reader.

So I found that I loved coaching and loved writing and wanted to combine the two in a way that was more personal, more female, less corporate and so created Courage Matters as an outlet for that.  I have no idea where its going – it’s a place for me to explore stuff at the outer edges of the experience of being a human.

 What was the most challenging aspect of making the shift?

 All my challenges have been psychological. I think a lot of us believe that we need to become “more” somehow to achieve our dreams, but in my experience it’s getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t serve us that frees us to be who we need to be. I had loads of psychological challenges – initially I struggled with seeing myself as the source of my own wealth and security. It took several conversations with my coach and partners to uncover the “who am I to….?” beliefs at the bottom of this, but getting clearer on my “why”, writing and practicing yoga helped overcome these feelings.

I found that having the courage to face into these challenges was key to moving through them.  Brene Brown says “you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability” – that is so true. The kind of courage you need though isn’t the bold and brave kind – she calls it “ordinary courage” – it’s about speaking from the heart and listening to your own heart. The word courage used to mean “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” That’s what I hope I’m helping people to do – cultivating the ordinary courage required to tell all of your heart, in the first instance to yourself. This is really the nub of how you can then understand what it means to be you and bring that meaning to life and make your unique contribution to the world.

What three pearls of wisdom would you share with people seeking to cultivate the courage to bring their meaning to life?

  1. Heed the wisdom of Pema Chodron. She believes feelings like disappointment and fear are messengers that tell us with “terrifying clarity” where we’re stuck. And “rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we should acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.” The point isn’t to pass the test or to overcome the problem, the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and they fall apart again. It’s just like that. It’s normal, it’s life.
  2. Rumi said “the wound is the place where the light enters you”. The people I admire are the living embodiment of this. People like Martine Wright who survived the 7/7 bombings and went on to compete in sitting volleyball at the Paralympics at London 2012. Double amputee Chris Moon’s raised thousands for charity doing ultra marathons and crazy physical feats. Chris, Martine and others like them challenge the concept of limitation and prove that you can take whatever life throws at you and no matter how wounded physically or mentally, you can assimilate it all and transform it into powerful energy to redirect your life and become who you need to be.
  3. Umair Haque nailed it in his blog for HBR “How to Have a Year That Counts”: “Don’t start with your goals. Don’t start with your plans. Don’t start with your objectives. Start with your dreams. We feel as if our lives count when – and only when – we brush against our dreams, with the fingertips of our days”. The magic carpet for our dreams is our “why” – you need to maintain a really strong sense of why you are doing what you’re doing to realise your dreams. There will be lots of people who just don’t get it and preferred the old you – people get scared when their friends change. Even if at first you can’t really articulate your why, it’s the why that drives you onwards. We all have a why – sometimes it just gets a bit buried by our “shoulds”.


So what’s your “why”?

Honouring my dead Mother. She was complex and remarkable and I never really got that ’til the end.  I want to support people to cultivate the courage to embrace all of who they are (even the shitty, rejected bits) and bring all of who they are to the world – right now the world needs people who are truly alive. That’s what bringing your meaning to life means to me. Extending from that, in my corporate work, I want to contribute to creating working environments that allow people to flourish.  Because, often, our work is the most visible, outward expression of our why.  If people can bring all of who they are to work, they will bring their meaning to life through their work.

The values that drive me are connection, integrity (as in wholeness), imagination, vitality and equality. Few of us take the time to think deeply about our values, but they’re driven by our emotional needs and at the root of why we behave as we do.

And so why the interview version and the other version?

This one makes the journey sound way less grueling than it was. There was way more shit and way more tears. I think bringing anything forth from within you is painful – doesn’t matter if that’s art, a business or your own sense of identity. As Brene Brown says in Rising Strong “vulnerability is the birthplace for many of the fulfilling experiences we long for”, but it’s tough being vulnerable, it’s a risk. Especially in an interview.