Learnings and Leading

I have been inspired to write this blog following a recent leadership course I attended. It was a course for female leaders and I admit to some initial scepticism as to why it needed to be female only; surely the leadership values were the same for all genders? However, there were two reasons I felt afterwards that it was useful being a women only course:

• The content on the course reflected the fact that women naturally have different leadership styles to men, and was focused on those styles and how to best develop the stronger ones.
• There was something about the room being full of women, all 80 of us, that gave it an amazing energy. I don’t want that to sound naff; but it was such a friendly, open, sharing environment. I genuinely felt that everyone in there had known each other months – not minutes by the time we did our first group session. And because of this, I got so much more out of the day than if the environment hadn’t been as relaxed.

Anyway, unnecessary scepticism aside, I took quite a few learnings away from the day, which I wanted to share. I’m a very practical person; I like tangible outputs. And so immediately after the event, I could say I had taken away:

• An understanding of my leadership style. An important one this; I was classified as a ‘Pioneer’. I like challenging things and coming up with new ideas. Not a great shock. What was good to learn though was that I always assumed that this created an exciting, fun environment to work in, and the course showed me that that’s only the case for other Pioneers. Everyone else would just feel unsettled and insecure, craving a bit of stability and for me to not come up with a new idea every 5 minutes!
• A list of practical things I could implement, such as training for my strategic leadership team (the all female Para-Dolls!), and an accountability partner to make sure I stick to my plans (and vice versa); someone to be accountable to is actually something I’ve never had since starting the business, so is an interesting one!
• I got on well with a group of the ladies there; we immediately set up a Whatsapp group and so now I have a network of people to bounce ideas off or ask for advice, again, something I’ve never really had.

However, there are more, intangible benefits from the day; things that have only come to light as I’ve spent more time reflecting over the last few days, and which I think will profoundly impact the way I take the business forward now.

1. Firstly was the reminder as to why I started Para-Sols in the first place. We did some work on what our passions were as children, to trace how they led to what we do now. I really struggled with this – I couldn’t think of anything I was passionate of as a child! Eventually I remembered my favourite ever Christmas present… a box of stationery (insert geek emoji!)*. I absolutely LOVED all the coloured papers and envelopes and little stamps. My other passion, which I’d forgotten about, was writing stories. My school even arranged for some of my short stories to be displayed in the local library; so no surprise at the paraplanning career!

However, we then delved a bit deeper. Those reasons explain, to some extent, my career choice. But not why I had started a business. The exercise brought up my true reason; that as a child, I was one of six children, to a single parent, and we didn’t have two brass tacks to rub together. I mean really, we were so far under the breadline, the breadline was a dot to us (to paraphrase Joey Tribbiani). While I don’t think it did me any harm, I always knew that I would never, ever want my own child to know the embarrassment of not having school shoes, or being unable to afford the gas and electric meters on a regular basis. And that was why I started the business; because I needed control of my own destiny, and control of the future for my babies.

The upshot of this, on reflection, is that I’ve always been guilty of micromanaging the company. I knew I did this, and I knew I shouldn’t, but now I know why. I know it’s because I’m terrified of losing what I’ve built and so I try and control every single element of it, which just results in stifling the growth. To counter this, I’ve decided to create a Plan B; what I will do if Para-Sols collapsed tomorrow. I haven’t finalised this yet, but just the process of it is giving me comfort and reassurance in the future for me and my children, which, in turn, will help me to unshackle the business and allow it to blossom.

2. Any other business owners recognise this scenario? Someone asks what you do for a living and you explain that you run your own business. They ask a few more questions, which you answer, and then say they’re really impressed. You respond with something self deprecating like “yeah I really don’t know how I’m running a business; I just kind of bumble along and make it up day to day”… That is how I ALWAYS respond to these questions. I was always aware of suffering Imposter Syndrome; who doesn’t suffer it to some degree on at least one part of their life?

But on the course I was in a room with 79 other female leaders. I had expected them all to be entrepreneurs, but actually only one or two I spoke to ran their own business. The rest were in leadership in roles in organisations of all shapes and sizes, across all industries. And as we talked, each time someone asked what I did, I told them, they expressed how impressed they were, I put myself down, or blamed my success solely on luck, or ‘joked’ how it will all probably end tomorrow since I don’t know what I’m doing and that’s why I’m on a leadership course….

After the 7th or 8th person told me how impressed they were, and after two ladies who were in really influential roles asked for my number as they were ‘inspired’ by me, something started to click. It’s taken a few more days of marinating but I’ve decided that it’s time to stop. To stop putting myself down. To stop saying that my business is only functioning down to luck. To stop assuming everyone else is doing a better job at managing their companies than me.

Instead, I’m taking ownership of what I’ve done. I always say how proud I am of my team, and I am. But, it turns out I’m also proud of myself. I’m proud to have a built a successful, profitable business, that employs 17 people. I’m proud that although I started off bumbling along with no idea what I’m doing, I’ve studied, and developed and learned so that I actually can run a business, by design, not chance. And I’m proud that this has been achieved not through luck, but through learning from my mistakes, making any necessary changes quickly, no matter how painful, and from sheer bloody hard work.

So there we go – pretty useful course huh?! The upshot is that I feel far more confident about the business, far less scared to take risks, and I think you’ll see that in the coming months as I now have the strength to launch some of the things I’ve thought about, but cautiously held back from.

It’s going to be quite a ride, and I can’t bloody wait!

Cathi x

* True story. I asked my mam a few days later “do you remember what my favourite Christmas was as a child?” and she replied, without hesitation, “the year you got all the stationery”! Apparently I used to spend hours pretending I worked in a Post Office (no surprise then that I worked at Royal Mail for 6 years from the age of 16).

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