Build an interdependent relationship with the business and those around you. Use language like ‘the business’ not ‘my business’ or ‘my employees’ to help you avoid a disorganized attachment which leads to emotional reactivity. It will also make for a smoother transition when you retire or exit down the line.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is it about the position of CEO the most attracted you to it?
It wasn’t so much that I was attracted to it as I arrived there. I’ve always been very determined and goal focused and naturally upon achieving each goal, and refocusing for the next, it took me to the next level.
Reflecting on where my drive comes from — I was about 9 years old and I came across my mum sitting at the kitchen table late at night. She was sat with a calculator, notepad, pen and a smile. She told me another month was passing and she’d balanced the household bills again. As a single mother at the time — with three children all under 10, a full time job, a Saturday job, and curtain making (she’d be up doing until 3 a.m.) — she had achieved it. In that moment I learnt everything I needed to about the power of goals and achievement. I’m a creative at heart, as are both of my parents, so the corporate ladder was never going to be my route to financial security. Instead, over time I worked hard to build connections and a community to help me access new opportunities, keep me growing and achieve the next goal.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other executives?
For a long time I thought the CEO was the person that had to steer the business with command and control. Never crack under pressure, never let anyone see emotion or doubt. Although, as I found out, this isn’t the case at all. A CEO is human like everyone else, and is allowed to be human at work. In fact, as Flux reports — it’s increasingly necessary for CEO’s to adapt and become more human at work. They must share when they have doubt and empower others more skilled than them in certain areas, in order to make decisions. It is now, more than ever, the CEO’s role to prioritize healthy business practices and model citizenship with curiosity, candor and compassion to cultivate psychological safety. The commercial benefits are enormous including, increased effective use of higher cognitive skills, which are essential for continual transformation in 21st century business.
What were your biggest struggles throughout your professional life and how did you overcome them?
Finding out that the traditional model of ‘control and command’ leadership I had experienced and known, didn’t work. From a business perspective, the impact of me leading this way led to high turnover and general discontent. While for me, it brought chronic depression and anxiety. I was still high functioning so no one knew, but I was struggling. Operating as a sole-founder of a scaling start-up with no leadership training, I reached tipping point and had a breakdown. Taking responsibility for my emotional well-being was the start of my recovery, and discovering how to show up at work as the real, whole me — a calm, caring, and considered person, as well as a creative, commercial and critical thinker. I now live this responsibility through my work with Flux, coaching first time entrepreneurs to develop on the job and avoid this pitfall. I don’t want to hear of another story like mine.
What are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I’m not sure whether it was naivety or blinkered determination to succeed, but I can’t remember any challenges or ceilings I’ve hit that I’d attribute to being a woman. My father is a strong character and has always empowered my sister and I to achieve anything we set our minds to, so I’ve never seen limits. I do however acknowledge the experiences other women face and stand with them. Something I found surprising recently was a Nuffield Health study, which reported three quarters of women experiencing menopausal symptoms feel unsupported at work. It seems there aren’t the support systems in place (yet) within organisations to help women thrive under these conditions. The Faculty of Occupational Medicine has produced a helpful guide, which I recommend all leaders and those working in Human Resources read and develop resources around.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?
Developing others, getting to enjoy curious conversations, and exploring new business opportunities.
What are the downsides of being a CEO?
It can be lonely. Many leaders experience anxiety and isolation because of the lack of peer support. It can also feel as though you’re in a vice — between the board and citizens of the organisation. Making decisions on behalf of others and letting people go is tough. Sitting with uncertainty can also be incredibly destabilizing. I grew better at noticing a sense of disconnection and when it came over me I’d get up, put the kettle on and invite everyone to stop for a tea break. The simplicity of this basic task helped mitigate my sense of overload, as it required little cognitive effort, and provided a sense of social purpose and inclusion.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I arrived at work one morning, just like any other. But unusually there was a piece of post on my desk. It had on it a gold ‘By Appointment to HM The Queen’ crest. Double checking the gold foiled address label I carefully opened the envelope. To my total surprise, inside was an invitation to Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange. I was overwhelmed that within four years of building Seen Displays, I had been recognized as a key contributor to the British fashion industry.
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?
I pretended to a new client that I knew what a ‘mannequin spigot’ because I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t know. I had to come clean when they asked me to pass them one, which was a bit awkward. Looking back it’s quite funny really, because the relationship with this particular client led to the first global roll-out of Seen Displays. Later this client joined Seen Displays to expand the New York office, and a few years later became my successor as I exited the Company. The moral of the story? Be honest and open to learning.
Specifically, what is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I envisaged building a core studio team of eight for the business but with demand it grew to three times that! This required far more time and energy in developing others and nurturing a healthy culture.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a CEO, what specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful CEO and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be a CEO?
If you see yourself as a visionary, commercial, creative and critical thinker then great, a CEO role could be for you. Being able to bounce back quickly is imperative. In the morning you might be called upon to help solve a crisis and by the afternoon you may need to deliver an inspirational keynote speech. Developing, empowering and listening to others is essential too.
If you want to work in a very structured, boundaried way, avoid travel, experience little stress, and you’re not interested in developing others, then it’s not going to be for you.
In addition, there are certain cognitive attributes which make for more effective leaders, such as empathy, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. We all have these to some degree but they must be honed to work effectively and support higher cognitive skills such as idea generation, creativity, and advanced communications skills such as negotiation. Leaders who do not allow themselves the sufficient rest required to nurture these higher cognitive skills — which use more energy — will simply burn out and become ineffective.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Prioritize your cognitive health and that of your staff. Mental illness goes beyond having a ‘bad day’, it is cognitively and physically debilitating. It is highly nuanced, contextual and individual, and it calls for emphatic human connection to restore homeostasis, engagement and productivity at work. Get curious and find out what works for you. It may be exercise, reading fiction, meditation, volunteering, baking — whatever it is for you, is what you must make time for. No one way is right for everyone.
To address cognitive wellness at work I’d suggest the following:
Provide access to anonymous mental health support for your team, regular rest periods and calm areas.
Invest in a culture of play and directed curiosity, provide opportunities to cultivate positivism and joy.
Encourage more empathy in the workplace — cultivate collective citizenship, encourage emotional sharing at work, bring at-risk lone workers together.
Develop a peer mentoring scheme, partnering a person who has lived through a specific experience (peer mentor) and a person who is new to that experience (the peer mentee).
Maybe even a book club! Whereas non-fiction adds to the cognitive load of the day, fiction is recommended as it’s known to reduce stress by up to 68%, support cognitive restoration, and foster creativity.
Who inspired/inspires you and why?
Tara Mohr is brilliant. She is an expert on women’s leadership and well-being, and the author of Playing Big. There is a humble knowingness in her work that I find deeply connecting. Reading this book two years into running Seen Displays helped me shift to a scale-up mindset and play bigger.
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?
Wow, there are so many I am grateful to. In particular I’d say Moe Krimat. The first senior employee I hired and the one that helped me transition the business from a team of 6 to 24. He was adaptable, always keen to learn and offered support when I needed it. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
During my tenure with Seen Displays I carved out time to volunteer weekly. At first in my local primary school and then as a befriender to young adults experiencing mental health difficulties. Keen to do more — Flux, my second business is a social enterprise and coaches corporate executives as well as socially excluded men in custody to help set them up for success.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Find your purpose and live it through your work because money is never enough.
- Leave perfectionism at the door. Business is complex and things fail. If you have impossible standards people will fear mistakes and you will limit growth.
- Build an interdependent relationship with the business and those around you. Use language like ‘the business’ not ‘my business’ or ‘my employees’ to help you avoid a disorganized attachment which leads to emotional reactivity. It will also make for a smoother transition when you retire or exit down the line.
- Take responsibility for how you show up and model citizenship. This fosters connection and humility.
- Double how much you think you should budget for professional development. The most common reason talent leaves is due to lack of opportunities to develop. And find a great coach to support and help develop you, without a manager to do this, it is your responsibility to outsource this need!
You are a person of great 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? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Cultivate joy and connectedness with others. Two resources I can highly recommend are the loving-kindness meditation (originally called Metta Bhavana), and The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They have profoundly moved me and offer a way to peace for all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Remember that the only constant in life is change” — Buddha
Only when I truly embraced this and let go, did Seen Displays really take off. Now I’m leading a business called Flux and work as a leadership coach and futurist — I live for change!
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Donald Trump. Because I’d like to hold a mirror up and offer him a way to course correct.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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