Cath Bishop: “Less is more”

Be interactive, it makes a difference to the level of engagement — think about how you can connect directly with the audience, through a question or picture perhaps. As a part of our series about Inspirational Women of the Speaking Circuit, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Cath Bishop. Cath Bishop is an Olympic medallist, International Diplomat […]

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Be interactive, it makes a difference to the level of engagement — think about how you can connect directly with the audience, through a question or picture perhaps.

As a part of our series about Inspirational Women of the Speaking Circuit, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Cath Bishop.

Cath Bishop is an Olympic medallist, International Diplomat and Cambridge University Business Coach. Her new book The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed is out now, published by Practical Inspiration Publishing, priced £12.99.

Cath Bishop is a leadership expert and writer, bringing her unique experience in both top-level sport and international diplomacy to the most pressing issues facing businesses in the 21st century. She competed as a rower at three Olympic Games, becoming part of the first British women’s crew to win the World Championships and winning a Silver Olympic medal in coxless pairs event. As a senior diplomat, she worked on policy and negotiations, specializing in the stabilization policy for conflict-affected parts of the world.

Cath now works as a coach, facilitator and consultant, advising global businesses on team and leadership development and cultural change, and teaches on the Executive Education Faculty at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University and other leading business schools. Cath is a regular newspaper reviewer on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House and has commentated on rowing for the BBC, Eurosport and BT Sport.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex with my parents and older brother. We were a very non-sporty family, and I certainly seemed to be following in their footsteps at school (and I have the PE school reports to prove it!) I enjoyed music and was a decent pianist growing up, and inherited my father’s love of languages — travelling to France and Germany on family holidays and school exchanges opened my eyes to different cultures and I found it fascinating. I never really encountered sport until I got to university…

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career path has taken many different wonderful turns. First, I was an Olympic rower for a decade, competing in three Olympic Games, winning a World Championship gold medal and Olympic silver. I was a diplomat for 12 years, with postings to Bosnia and Iraq, becoming a specialist in conflict and post-conflict environments. I now work in leadership development as a speaker as well as a coach and consultant. I speak at conferences across sectors and around the world (in the days when we used to travel!) as well as working directly with companies to support developing teams and leaders, and teaching on Executive Education programmes at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University on teams, leadership and organisational culture.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Which one to pick? Certainly, going to the Olympics is an incredible experience, being one of those 10,000 athletes standing in the stadium at the Olympic ceremony is both thrilling and intimidating. I never expected there would be crossovers between my sporting and diplomatic careers but there have been many. Broadly, my interest in teams crossed both worlds — rowing crews and diplomatic negotiating teams all needed to develop clarity, strong connections and resilience. But the most interesting overlap was when I was posted to Sarajevo, and found that my Olympic story connected with many politicians and other leaders there who all remembered fondly Sarajevo’s positive moment in the global spotlight when they hosted the 1992 Winter Games — I never expected to be discussing Torvill and Dean’s mesmerising gold-medal winning performance with Bosnia political leaders! I feel fortunate to have so many stories to pick from speaking about my approach to success, ‘The Long Win’, based on the importance of Clarifying what matters to us, developing a Constant learning mindset and prioritising human Connections in everything we do.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The first day I ever went rowing as a university student, I broke my blade in the boat. I hadn’t intended to start rowing at university as I had not been sporty at school, and this seemed a very full-on sport that also involved getting up early in the morning, which had never been on my agenda for student-life! But lots of friends that I was making had all signed up to give rowing a go, and half-way through the first term asked me if I’d join them when one of their novice crew got injured. I was reluctant at first but they persuaded me to try it — on my first outing I was hopeless, I didn’t have a clue, and as we drifted near a bank, I didn’t realise that you had to pull your oar in when you were on the bank side — I failed to do that and ended up breaking the end of it. I felt awful and wanted to get out of the boat and run away — but my crewmates and friends laughed and told me not to worry. The coach said the same and cycled off with the broken one and brought back another one, and we carried on. It was an inauspicious start to my rowing career for sure — though it was a great introduction to the camaraderie and supportive community I have always found in rowing. I am still friends with many in that crew, and they always remind me that it was them that introduced me to the sport and helped me through those early days, long before the Olympics beckoned!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who supported me along my Olympic journey, listened and reassured me when I lost (a lot in the early days) and believed in me when my self-belief wavered. I am hugely grateful to my two legendary coaches at university, Ron and Roger, two retired rowing coaches who were a wonderful balance of inspiration and support, challenge and knowledge. They really helped imbue me with a love of the sport, and helped me fine tune my instincts to sense how a boat moves in water, and how to develop all the aspects of rhythm, timing and flow that are crucial to move a boat fast. They pushed me hard but always in an encouraging way, and left me with a deep love of the sport as well as planting the thought in my head that the Olympics was a possibility when I left university.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging and intimidating. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Failure is inevitable and essential to learn and improve — the key thing is to get good at learning from failure, and making sure you have others to support you whether you fail or succeed — whatever the result, it’s the experience and the friendships which outlast the result which are of the greatest value.

What drives you to get up everyday and give your talks? What is the main empowering message that you aim to share with the world?

Great question! I often ask my audiences about what gets them out of bed in the morning, what excites them, energizes them and makes it worthwhile getting up. For me, the talks are a way of connecting with others and helping others to realize their potential. I appreciate the opportunity to bring new stories and perspectives into the audience’s minds, and to remind them that, regardless of their situation, role or challenges, they can themselves take control of so many different aspects of their own learning and growth, through developing their mindset, behaviours and investing in relationships with others. I love challenging people’s assumptions about what success really means and helping them tap into deeper motivations and passions. Each talk is always slightly different, so every engagement also helps me to develop my own thinking further and make sense of my own experiences and how they relate to research about organizational performance and culture, and how I can combine the two to support teams and leaders to reach their potential.

Can you share with our readers a few of your most important tips about how to be an effective and empowering speaker? Can you please share some examples or stories?

I think, firstly, understanding the audience, their opportunities and challenges is always an important starting point. Although I have lots of stories and experiences I draw on a lot, I start each talk afresh, thinking about who is in the audience and what they are looking for. I always try and involve some interaction too during the talk, to make a direct connection with the audience between my stories and their own. Secondly, challenge your audience — think about what you can do to disrupt their thinking, challenge their assumptions, and leave them with something that will stay in their mind for a while. You don’t necessarily have to have ‘answers’ for them, sometimes asking them really good questions has the deepest impact. Thirdly, vary your pace when speaking, as if you were telling a story to primary school children. Think back to the best storytellers in your childhood — it was the ones who vary their tone and speed, who pause at key moments and speed up at others. The same remains true throughout life.

Many people are terrified of speaking in public. Can you give some of your advice about how to overcome this fear?

I enjoy speaking, it’s an opportunity to stretch myself, to connect with different people and explore what might be possible from that new connection. It’s similar to when I was an athlete and about to do a race. The nerves would be terrifying, but were a part of doing something that mattered to me. When I felt racing nerves, I always reminded myself that I’d prepared well and that it was time to explore what I could do — that was so much better than thinking I had to win the race, or now thinking I have to be the best speaker they’ve ever heard — it’s about exploring what I can do at this point in time with the preparation I’ve done, and then afterwards I’ll consider what I might be able to improve next time. I knew that the nerves, although extremely uncomfortable (and each time, you think, ‘was it this bad last time?!’) would help me to deliver the best performance, and that without them, I wouldn’t do well. Routines definitely help — prepare what you’ll do ahead of the talk, know the timings of what comes before your talk, prepare top-level notes to read through. I always have a small card with key points on it that I take on stage. I have never yet looked at it, but I have it on the lectern or in a pocket, and it just reassures that me if I ever froze, I would be able to get on track. It hasn’t happened yet….

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

As a speaker:

1.) That your personal story is more important than your slides — people connect to human stories, so open up and share the details that will get the audience curious and engaged in what you have to say;

2.) Less is more — take time to explore the content, don’t just pack in tons of knowledge.

3) Be bold — you have the stage, say something worthwhile and challenging. We all have so much information coming at us throughout each day, it’s important to stand out from that and say something that sticks with the audience after you’ve finished.

4) Be interactive, it makes a difference to the level of engagement — think about how you can connect directly with the audience, through a question or picture perhaps.

5) Befriend the tech people — they do an incredible job, and have saved me on lots of occasions. Be sure to check they know how best to support your talk.

Things I wish I had known about a career as an Olympian/International Diplomat:

  1. Prioritize people in everything you do, whether it’s taxi drivers or key stakeholders — it’s others who will make your experience the best it can be and who will add perspectives and enrich your work further than you could imagine.
  2. Back yourself — don’t be afraid to fail, it’s going to happen, just set yourself up to learn as well as you can. In my rowing career, I wasted time in the early years berating myself for losing races — looking back, I wasted time and energy which could have been focused on learning new things, working out how to go faster and simply getting read to try again.
  3. Don’t compare yourself to others — it doesn’t make you better (or worse). See others as potential collaborators and friends. The test of success shouldn’t be beating them, it should be about finding how to be your best (with their support and challenge.)
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help — whatever the career, and particularly when I’ve switched careers, I have been bowled over by how complete strangers have been willing to help me find my feet when out of my depth or simply learning something new.
  5. Look after yourself — don’t let yourself get run down, take time to recharge. This is still a challenge for me, I naturally push myself hard and look after others first, so it’s a work in progress!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

My first book is published in October. It’s called ‘The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed’. It’s already opening up lots of interesting conversations about organizational culture in education, business and sport. The message that we need to rethink what success looks like is particularly relevant to our experiences in 2020, where our projected aims and results have been swept away by the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a successful year, we just need different criteria for defining success, which will help us appreciate how we are managing the multiple challenges and adapting in so many ways we didn’t realize were possible.

I love starting new partnerships with companies who want to shift their organizational culture, challenge conventional thinking about corporate life, and rehumanize the workplace in order to get the best out of their people. Whether it’s through workshops, team development or leadership programmes, there is a lot of evidence about how much more productive, creative and motivated we would be if we shifted work cultures to prioritize purpose, a learning mindset and collaboration. That sits at the heart of Long Win Thinking.

I love being part of Executive Education programmes at the Judge Business School and meeting people from a range of organisations who are curious and wanting to be challenged. They challenge my thinking and move it on, and I love finding new ways to help them broaden their lens and perspective on work teams, cultures and reflecting on how they might shape the future workplace to be a place that liberates not constrains, motivates not directs, and includes rather than excludes.

My book is resonating hugely in the world of high performance sport which has come to a crossroads where it is looking back at a couple of decades of incredible achievement, particularly in the Olympic and Paralympic world, but also looking at the costs of some of that success, where wellbeing and athlete welfare have at times been overlooked. It’s a great time to be thinking more deeply about the purpose of sport in our society and how we might shape it at all levels to be a positive force in all our lives, whether it’s about leading a healthy life or winning the Olympics.

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

Exercise is critical — for me, I like to do something active daily. It’s no longer about world beating Olympic workouts, sometimes it’s 20 minutes mixing up the rowing machine and weights or getting on my bike for an hour. Exercise helps me to destress, to recover and recharge, and it’s precious ‘me space’ inside my head when I get absorbed in what I am doing and let go of the stresses and strains of the day.

Music is critical to me too — songs that energize me, radio programmes that are familiar and feel like being with a friend, or classical music that is simply sublime and serene. Whether it’s a Beethoven symphony or Abba, music is a huge source of energy and comfort wherever I am. It’s also a source of great connection with my children, we love listening to all sorts of music in the car, and love a sing-along on a long journey!

I love reading too — I always buy more books than I can read, and love reading business books, though sometimes it’s lovely to just relax with some fiction.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Hard to choose! My latest favourite that sums up how to take a more inclusive approach is from Abraham Lincoln: ‘I don’t like that man — I must get to know him’ (Abraham Lincoln) — if we had this attitude, we would live in a much more tolerant world.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It would be a Compassion Movement — be kind to yourself, be kind to others, it would make all our lives so much better. Be kind if someone bumps into your car, be kind to the delivery man who is late, be kind to parents, teachers, nurses, doctors who are doing their best.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Another difficult question — Michelle Obama is deeply inspirational, and I just want to ask her how she remains so true to herself, through thick and thin.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

Yes on Twitter, @thecathbishop, insta: cath_bishop and linkedin.

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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