Kay White: “Power, courage, presence”

Before I speak, I go very quiet. As an introvert with extrovert tendencies, I find I need to be quiet and then — when I’m introduced on stage, I can flick an internal switch and be right there. I use my Wonder Woman pose as made popular by Amy Cuddy and her TED talk and book Presence. […]

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Before I speak, I go very quiet. As an introvert with extrovert tendencies, I find I need to be quiet and then — when I’m introduced on stage, I can flick an internal switch and be right there. I use my Wonder Woman pose as made popular by Amy Cuddy and her TED talk and book Presence. I find it changes my state and behind stage or in my office before a virtual talk, I will stand like Wonder Woman for 2 minutes. It’s something I recommend to my clients before meetings, interviews, presentations. It really works. Reducing your cortisol levels — fight or flight hormone — and raises your testosterone — power, courage, presence.


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

Kay White, corporate career coach for women and author of the Amazon Number 1 bestsellers The A to Z of Being Understood (2011) and It’s Always Your Move (2018) empowers corporate career women to overcome the belief they have to sell their souls or sacrifice their well-being to get ahead at work and she partners with corporations to accelerate the leadership potential of the female talent pipeline.


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?

Ironically I grew up more than most of my friends and family! From an early age I was always tall and stopped growing about 18 years old at 6 foot (1.83 metres) and struggled at times being tall. I now embrace it and wear heels as and when I want to and am married to someone 6 inches shorter than I am.

Standing out like this as someone who’s quite shy was a challenge and I was always remembered — whether I wanted to be or not. Described as ‘that tall one’ or asked ‘what’s the weather like up there’ can feel very overwhelming at times when, as a teenager, all you want to do is to fit in. My mother was very clear about encouraging me to stand up straight saying “Shoulders back Kay, you don’t want to look like a question mark do you?” It was great advice and what I realised was I was taken to be older than I was which was useful. People gave me an authority which I didn’t notice at first — I do now. I encourage others to embrace their differences rather than to seek to blend in. This courage and confidence comes with age and experience.

When I was promoted at work to a Director so many people said “Oh Kay, I thought you already were” — something I’d underestimated. That air of authority which is given to you when you’re taller, even if it’s not wanted or appreciated at first!

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

Running my own business and starting it from scratch offering my services is one of the biggest personal development exercises you can ever undertake. Being a paid employee as I was for 20 years sets you up with business experience and connections but deciding to start my own business was a huge jump. At the time, I doubt if I would have had the courage to do it if I’d known all it entailed but that’s the same of most big challenges we take in our lives. Saying “Yes” and getting going, it unfolds as you do.

I draw upon my corporate career experience all the time in my coaching work with women. Over 20 years of insurance broking in a large corporate in London — starting as a Secretary and ending up as a Director — is a huge chunk of my life and I learned so many lessons which I bring to my corporate work now. Lessons of what to do — and many lessons of what not to do too. I wish I’d had guidance and mentorship in the way I offer my clients back when I was navigating the choppy waters of my own career. It’s my purpose which drives my business — to empower corporate career women to empower themselves to be, do, have, say, expect more and to lift other women as they climb.

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

Crikey! Where do you start with a career spanning nearly 40 years packed with life lessons? When I first left my corporate career I was so frustrated and stuck I just didn’t know which direction to head in. My role was so full on I didn’t have time to consider what else I could do to change things so I resigned without a new role. I had a 12-week notice period which gave me a buffer to work out “now what”. In the time between then and starting my own business I worked part-time for The British Heart Foundation, the biggest UK charity for heart related health. One day I met up with an ex-colleague, James. He seemed different. Sounded different — more caring, more curious about me, more grounded and present somehow. I asked him what had happened and he told me he had a coach and that she reminded him of me.

James saw what my next career move could be long before I did. I may well have ended up there by my own investigations, but I was fast-tracked by his observation. Off I went to investigate what coaching was all about. In 2005 it was relatively unheard of here in the UK. Enrolling on a weekend taster course, I was hooked. Off I went to get myself qualified and then started my own business in 2006. What’s so interesting is that people see things for us before we do a lot of the time. The trick is to listen. To be curious “what makes you say that?” “how do you see that for me?” “what skills do you think I have that makes you say that?” — these kinds of questions rather than just laughing off an observation that someone has for you which could be the doorway to your next chapter. I’ve thanked James a number of times and helped him with his own career at different points too.

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?

Being taken for someone older and more experienced than I had got me into some scrapes when I was starting out. I was at a cocktail reception for clients and was introduced to the Head of Securities for a large US insurance broker. This gentleman would have been the gatekeeper for companies’ financial ability to back risks and ‘securities’ was a word I’d not heard in this context. I said to this Director that he “must meet Jack, he’s our Head of Security” which he was — on the Reception Desk. Jack checked people in and out of our building. When I told me boss, Ted, the next day he thought it was strange, then when I explained, he thought it was funny. He gave me a very helpful lesson on what Securities were and why the two men had little in common in the business sense. You don’t know what you don’t know do you? Until you do.

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?

Ted was a mentor and guide to me when I first started work. I was his secretary or Personal Assistant and at 18 years old didn’t know what I didn’t know — or like — until Ted started to guide me. He’d recommend books to try (Margaret Atwood, Edna O’Brien, Sylvia Plath, Iris Murdoch) and he encouraged me to use chopsticks when we went out with our Asian clients. Ted would also help me understand about business and how it worked rather than my rudimentary business-skills course experience. Introducing me to people and exposing me to different experiences early in my career — speaking in front of clients at 19 years old, lunching with C-suite executives, taking clients to the opera, ballet, theatre — all these experiences helped shape me. When it came to me wanting to move into the business of insurance broking, one of my many connections quickly said “Yes” — it came from me being known and in front of people early on. Ted encouraged that and for that I’ll always be grateful.

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?

It’s never over! Lily Tomlin said, “The road to success is always under construction” and it’s so true. We’re never the finished article unless we decide we are. I wish I’d known this a long time ago as it would have made decisions and changing direction easier and less scary. “the prospect of failure” is such a loaded phrase. Success and failure are so polarizing aren’t they? It’s only a matter of opinion if something is a success or a failure overall and even when it can appear that something hasn’t worked or isn’t working, you can always learn something and then stop or start something else. Taking the lessons with you. With my work showing corporate career women how to get promoted and partnering with companies to retain and help their women leaders accelerate their careers, I’m always using Lily Tomlin’s quote to encourage and galvanise women to trust themselves and to take leaps of faith. If you believe that you can always course-correct once you take action or make a decision, it makes that decision or action less ‘fixed’ and therefore less scary or daunting.

I’ve launched products which didn’t sell in the way I wanted them to for example. Even though the investment was huge financially and timewise, I took the lessons about what I did, how I did it, what the results were and instead of throwing myself on the floor — which you can feel like you want to — I used the lessons to guide my next decision. The difference between success and failure is so blurry at times because it’s all about how you define your personal success.

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

My business exists to support corporate career women to empower themselves. It’s what gets me bouncing out of bed in the morning, walking our 3 rescue hounds and then plants me either at my desk writing, speaking or hosting sessions with clients. In our Covid-19 world at the moment, the in-person speaking engagements have turned into virtual ones and I host mentoring groups with corporate women — all on Zoom at the moment. Even hosting a 2-day live retreat recently which was such a success in that the clients loved it, made all sorts of career decisions as a result when we could have decided it was too difficult to do it virtually.

I recall being stuck, frustrated, undervalued and overworked. If I’d had the advice, guidance, support and insights I bring to my clients now, I wouldn’t have felt so lonely and stuck at the time. They say “you teach what you most needed to learn” and with my speaking, events, mentoring, writing — I do exactly that!

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?

The first and most important thing is to be passionate about your subject! To care about your audience’s experience more than your own. This sounds counter intuitive but that’s one of the biggest shifts I made when I really started to speak regularly. To stop thinking about myself and what everyone thought about me and focus — like a lighthouse — on the audience. What they were thinking, what they wanted to know, what could be going on for them.

Having spoken on many stages to groups from 10 to 500 when I started out, I soon stopped thinking about me and started to only really care about the audience, their experience. When you do this, you can be more in the moment, more present, more authentic.

I use slides to support my speaking when I can, but I only really have pictures rather than the whole ‘death by Powerpoint’ experience which we’ve all encountered. One of the worst experiences was being in the audience when a really interesting speaker, as was billed, stood up, head down and just read his script. No engagement with us and no natural interjections. It was such a lesson in having just bullet points and letting the moment inspire you rather than reading a script which just sounded wooden and, to be honest, made a fascinating subject boring. He’d started his career in a car company as an engineer and made his way on to the C-suite Board. He had so much material and stories to share but they were lost in the script. A big lesson for us all!

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

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve taken to heart was from Seth Godin. As a marketing guru, Seth maintains the 3 key things in marketing were “Inform me; Involve me; Make me care.” These 3 beacons of advice guide me every time I speak. Inform me — what do I want the audience to know, what’s important and why is it important. Involve me — how does it affect them, how is it true for them. Make me care — what could it do for them or what could they gain from what I share.

The other thing which I always remember when I’m getting ready to speak which helps the jitters is this. You’ve been invited to speak about your subject. In principle, you know more if not as much as your audience on the subject and, they don’t know what you’re going to say next! If you get a little lost in what you’re saying, stop. Take a sip of water, say aloud “now, let me just gather my thoughts for a second” rather than apologise or feel you have to make things up. I’ve found the audience respects you and wants you to succeed and when you’re thrown off by a question or a comment again, take a breath. Say “thank you for that, how interesting, let me just think about that.” Or “Hmm, I’ll come back to you afterwards about that”. It’s about being present in the moment and what you’re there to do.

I found the more I spoke in public, the better I became, the more daring I was and that’s not to say I don’t prepare. I do. But I also allow myself to be in the moment. To ask the audience questions, to invite them to interact rather than me just keep speaking. It’s one of the quickest ways to get engagement from your audience. Invite them to think about something or come up with something rather than sit back and let you speak…it keeps them on their toes!

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

I wish I’d known these 5 things at first…

When I first started using speaking to build my business and get my message out further and wider, I was so conscious of myself and how I used to blush and slap my thigh. I was told this by my husband and whilst it sounds a bit brutal, it was so useful. I stopped slapping my thigh — which was adrenalin trying to escape — and instead moved about on stage. Not like a whirling dervish but intentionally moving, keeping my head up and looking around the room. It freed me.

Then, whatever happens in the room, in the moment — use it! A fire alarm going, an interruption, a telephone going in someone’s handbag — rather than trying to ignore it, it becomes part of my talk. I might say “ah, just checking we’re all safe and where we need to be” or “that might be a reminder about how good it is to have time for yourself, let’s all check our phones”.

Speaking is the fastest way to build credibility and connection with your clients. If you can be present enough to ask questions, to share stories in the moment, to be more yourself, your audience will remember you and want to stay connected with you. I used to skip over the fact that I was very ill as a teenager and as a result couldn’t have children. Sometimes I’d be asked the question “but Kay that’s all very well for you, you don’t have a family do you?” and I decided to build just a little of the reason why into my talks. It’s often been the catalyst for another talk offer or a company introduction because I brought that vulnerability into my talk.

We think everyone is trying to catch us out or assume we’re going to be boring when, in fact, it’s the opposite. People want to learn from you, they want you to entertain and inform them (involve them and make them care) so if you approach your speaking from that angle, you’re always going to be braver, more present and more credible than if you let the fear of what everyone’s thinking overwhelm you. Most of the time people are thinking thoughts about themselves rather than you so, you get busy being you on stage!

You can recover from any kind of misstep, depending on how you approach it. In 2016 I was just starting the introduction part of my own 3-day Live Event. 3 full days on stage, sharing strategies and stories to a group of 100 corporate career women. The hotel ballroom was set, the stage was beautiful, and I was ready with my team to really show women how to accelerate in their careers. The event was called Show Up; Sparkle & Be Heard At Work.

About 75 minutes in, I was just getting going with a story about my own career journey when it happened. The room starting spinning, I felt sick, I was sweating and couldn’t remember what I was going to say. I had to hold on to my music stand with my notes. I knew I was going to fall or faint or both.

As it ended up, I was taken to the Emergency Room by ambulance. I was in hospital for 24 hours with a suspected stroke. I turned out I had a virus called Labyrinthitis which can strike at any time and that’s what had struck me. Live on stage. The event had to be cancelled. Women had flown from the US and all over Europe.

As we unravelled everything, told everyone what was going on and how we could refund tickets, I decided to host it again. 3 months later. And I did. We had a full room with women returning and I made the experience part of the event. How to turn life lemons into lemonade.

Everyone loves a comeback kid and, in that moment, on Day 1 of the second version of the event in 2016, I was. It’s something I’ll always be grateful for. That it was only a virus and that it gave me the courage to share about it and inspire even more women as a result. If you’d told me that I would or could do that when I started you can imagine, I never would have.

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

It’s interesting that as I’ve become more out there, more speaking opportunities come. I’m being interviewed by magazines, just like this, and have media approaches. All the speaking I’ve done over the years makes it so much easier to be present and prepared for these kinds of experiences which all lead to being more available for women and companies to find me.

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.

One of the best decisions I made was in 2017. My husband and I learned Transcendental Meditation — TM — and our teacher came to our home, privately gave us our mantras and showed us how to meditate. It’s changed my whole demeanor. I’m less agitated, more present, calmer, kinder. It’s like having a Gin & Tonic for your brain!

Before I speak, I go very quiet. As an introvert with extrovert tendencies, I find I need to be quiet and then — when I’m introduced on stage, I can flick an internal switch and be right there. I use my Wonder Woman pose as made popular by Amy Cuddy and her TED talk and book Presence. I find it changes my state and behind stage or in my office before a virtual talk, I will stand like Wonder Woman for 2 minutes. It’s something I recommend to my clients before meetings, interviews, presentations. It really works. Reducing your cortisol levels — fight or flight hormone — and raises your testosterone — power, courage, presence.

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

Maja Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s the key to relationships and building them, it’s key when you’re a speaker to encourage an emotion — joy, surprise, curiosity, anger, fear, happiness — maybe all of them. I’m always trying to engage with and acknowledge people. Remember what people said and using their names. All these things add to how you make people feel and this helps you feel good too and the ripples touch your life as you help others feel good, so do you.

You are a person of huge influence. 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 the acceleration of women having the equal opportunities to work, earn, succeed which we all talk about and, happily, more now than ever. It’s good for business, it’s good for homelives and it’s the right thing to do. Doing the right thing is hard sometimes but women’s equality and empowerment is a birthright. Not a nice to have.

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!

I’d love to have lunch with Dame Helen Mirren. Her poise, her intelligence, her experience, humour and ability to shapeshift in her roles is so inspiring to me. I often ask myself “What would Helen Mirren do/say?” in moments of doubt or confusion and ‘she’ guides me well. A virtual coffee would be wonderful as lunch is unlikely in our current world for a while!

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

I’d love to connect and you can connect via my website at www.kaywhite.com/always-your-move — and take a complimentary chapter “Shine In Interviews & One-To-Ones” from my book “It’s Always Your Move”. I’m @kayjwhite on Facebook, Linked In and Twitter and @sparklykaywhite on Instagram. Thank you for these great questions, they made me really think!

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

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