Standing on the shoulders of giants

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Recently, I decided to take myself off on a journey of self-discovery. To Scotland. Buoyed by the history I re-learned in Outlander[1], I wanted to pay tribute to my ancestors, learn more about where they came from and understand why they chose to leave and start anew in Australia. My travels exceeded my expectations and I felt humbled by my ancestors’ bravery, sense of adventure and willingness to seek a better life.

Some called my travels and time away from my children indulgent. Others thought I was on a quest to find a Jamie[2] equivalent. But mostly my friends and family were supportive. I needed to restore my faith in the general goodness of others and rediscover my purpose. This went well beyond work and home. This was about life. 

The giants

One of the most interesting parts of my research into our genealogy was discovering almost all sides of my family originate from Scotland. Aside from a wee dose of Norwegian, English and Irish blood, we are descended from the Scots.   

According to a genealogist I encountered in Edinburgh, one branch of my family only moved to Scotland 600 years ago, so it is apparently debatable about the Scottish heritage on that side.  I am unsure as to how many more centuries will need to pass before they will be considered Scottish. 😊

I discovered stories of immense courage, about the power of hope and the desire for a better life. I learnt about how many sacrifices were made by so many, that ultimately led to my existence, my current opportunities and those of my children. These giants paved the way for me to have the life that I now enjoy.

My family story is not a unique tale. So many others throughout history have also made sacrifices in the desire to find a better life. Remembering this is important, particularly as we often take our modern-day privileges and opportunities for granted. As celebrated British author Anthony Burgess[3] said,

“it’s always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it. To remember where you come from is part of where you’re going”.

Where are the women?

As I dug deeper into my family history, I found a veritable treasure trove of information on both of my grandfathers and their families. There were plenty of documents, records, photos and newspaper clippings about them. I could easily trace their sides through a variety of means.

My grandmothers and their ancestry proved to be much more challenging. Two things struck me about this. My grandfathers both came from relatively wealthy families, whereas my grandmothers did not. And my grandfathers were (obviously) male. 

Raised on a small island in Scotland, my maternal grandmother, Mary Jane, was virtually impossible to find. Her history and that of her mother Margaret mainly constitutes stories passed down to me – documentation is proving to be far more elusive. And yet, their bravery was immense. As I spent time in my Gran’s beloved Rothesay[4], I marvelled at their decision to travel to Australia. They travelled without a husband and father – my great grandfather did not join them. And yet they prospered and created a life in Australia. Surely this is a story that deserves to be told. Perhaps it was one that they didn’t want to tell? It was a different time and society had different opinions then of strong, independent women. It is different now, right?

As we currently watch decisions about women’s bodies and choices being debated and protested around the globe, I cannot help but wonder how much has changed since Margaret and Mary Jane made that voyage to Australia in 1920. As I reflect on my own career and life, has being outspoken and strong like the Scottish women that I am descended from proven an advantage or disadvantage in a world where mansplaining[5], gender pay gaps and casual misogyny at work still prevail? Perhaps being courageous as a woman today is still not as celebrated as one would hope. 

Re-writing history

On my travels, I picked up many mementos for loved ones and voraciously read books and information about Scotland and its history. I wanted to understand how my ancestors lived and immerse myself into the culture of this ruggedly magnificent country. I talked to locals, learnt about the clans and their traditions and tartans. At the urging of one amused friend, I even sampled haggis.

As I tried to find the women in my own history, I realised it was also simply harder to find women in history.  This is particularly true of those that were not wealthy or noble. Obviously, there are some significant exceptions to the rule, such as Mary Queen of Scots[6]. It was in a small gift shop connected to Mary King’s Close[7] in Edinburgh, that I struck gold. My friend pointed to a book and suggested that this was something that I would love. He was right. 

In “Where are the Women – a Guide to an Imagined Scotland”[8], author Sara Sheridan takes us on a journey through a re-imagined Scotland where the women are commemorated in statues and streets and buildings.  An alternative history where streets, buildings, statues and monuments are dedicated to real women, telling their often-unknown stories. In short, a portrait of Scottish history through a female lens rather than the traditional male lens.

Sara Sheridan articulates a message not just about Scottish history, but about all women and our contribution to society. As Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland (and an incredible leader in my view) neatly articulates about this book,

“women deserve to be celebrated and commemorated”.  

This is true in terms of history, work and life. 

Lessons from the women giants

Reflecting on my travels through Scotland and my family’s own journey, and especially that of the women, I can see lessons for me to always embrace and share.

Continue to have an opinion – and voice it! 

Regardless of the repercussions, being strong, courageous and having an opinion is important. Being fearless about this is critical if we want to make a difference. From my own experience, I can confirm that sometimes there will be repercussions to voicing your opinion. But I am also clear that not using my voice today is disrespectful to my ancestors, their sacrifices and their courage. 

Take risks

Although this can be hard and downright terrifying, taking risks is part of really living. With risk comes reward. If my ancestors on each side had not taken the risks that they did, I would not exist today nor have the opportunities that I have been afforded. 

We are not there yet

There is still much to be done. This applies to equality in all its forms. Although I have great hope that my children’s generation will make further progress than my generation and those before, we all have a responsibility to keep moving toward equality for all. Everyone has a story and that deserves to be told – regardless of your wealth, status or gender.

Learning is good for your soul 

So often we get caught up in vocational learning. Learning in all its forms is so important for personal growth. And when the learning is personal, it seems to have a greater impact. Read, travel, listen and watch!

So, what an enormous privilege it is to have such incredible, interesting and fearless forebears.  My travels to the UK provided me with a much-needed sense of perspective about my past and my future. It is up to us to live a life that our ancestors would be proud of, and to provide our future descendants with even more opportunity and good fortune. To the giants that went before me, I will gratefully strive to do my best.

Ps. The image used is from the opening credits of “Outlander” and is a shot of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands near the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie started the Jacobite Rising[9] of 1745. Image credit: Getty Images

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Lessons from Elizabeth

Lessons from Elizabeth

I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a bit of a history nerd. And one of my all-time favourites is Queen Elizabeth I, who not only survived but went onto thrive as one of the greatest leaders of all time. 

One of the remarkable things about Queen Elizabeth I are the many lessons she can teach us about leadership in the business sense. These lessons apply just as much today at work as they did back in the 1500s. 

A former colleague in the US, without knowing my admiration of Elizabeth, once kindly gifted me a book “Elizabeth I CEO” by Alan Axelrod[1]. This book is filled to the brim with stories of her leadership style, and it explores how we can take strategic lessons from her reign and apply these at work today. I have read it many times since gratefully receiving it.

There are countless sources of information available about Queen Elizabeth, as she continues to provide inspiration even today in the 21st century. After much consideration and ongoing research into her reign, I have compiled my top ten lessons for us to heed as leaders at work.   

But first, here is a mega quick overview of her life before she became Queen, for those who don’t share my passion for history.

A quick history lesson to get you up to speed

Elizabeth was the only living child born to King Henry VIII and his second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn. King Henry is famous for having 6 wives, two of whom he had beheaded. One of those was Anne Boleyn for alleged crimes of treason and incest, but really it boiled down to her failure to provide a son for the King. Historically, the union between Henry and Anne was incredibly impactful, as it marked the start of the English reformation.[2]

Elizabeth grew up with two half siblings – Princess Mary[3] (daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife) and Prince Edward[4] (son of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife). Following King Henry’s death, Edward became king at the tender age of 9. He died at the age of 15 and for an exceedingly brief time (9 days to be exact), Lady Jane Grey[5] ascended the throne. She was sadly a victim of politics and was executed on the order of Princess Mary, so that she could become the monarch. 

Let’s face it, that is pretty full on for even the most robust of children! However, throughout all of this turmoil, Princess Elizabeth survived. She was held prisoner for much of her childhood, held to account for the “crimes” of her mother and often referred to as a bastard child. Not an easy start.

Upon Queen Mary’s death, Princess Elizabeth became queen. What she inherited was not what she left behind. When she was crowned in 1558, England was riddled with debt and crippled by politics and opposing religious views. It was a victim of itself and was considered to be at the bottom rung of European nations at that point.  It was known as “this unhappy realm”.  From a business perspective, it was a failing business in danger of a hostile takeover.

Under Elizabeth’s 45-year reign, England became one of the richest and most powerful nations in Europe and was on its way to becoming one of the greatest empires the world would ever know.[6] So, how did she do it? What are some of the lessons we can learn from her approach to leadership?

1.   Create a compelling vision

Elizabeth knew how to create a vision, communicate that effectively and then realise it. When she took the crown, most of her subjects were wary of another woman ruler, after bloody Mary’s disastrous reign. 

Elizabeth deftly used statement and symbolic gestures to her people to make it very clear that she had a vision – she would return England to the path of both Protestant reformation, but also to greatness amongst its European peers.

She didn’t make any rash decisions. She worked with decisive patience and implemented change, whilst retaining enough of the past to ensure that her people felt comfortable.

2.   Build an excellent team

Although Elizabeth was intelligent and well educated, she understood the power of perspectives and data. She carefully built a team around her to provide her with wise counsel. She kept the best people from the reigns of her predecessors (including some Catholics), but then added the best and brightest political and economic minds in England. This nicely engaged both Catholics and Protestants and helped to create inclusivity.

As a result, she was very well informed about the political, religious and economic landscape around her. Most importantly, she actually listened to these experts. There is absolutely no point in hiring experts to your team and then fail to utilise their skills and experience.

3.   Be decisive and accountable

This was one of her greatest qualities in my view. There is nothing more frustrating than working for a leader who cannot make a decision – a lack of decisiveness is crippling. An even worse scenario is when you work for a leader who finally makes a decision and then backflips. Or blames others if it goes badly.

Elizabeth would consider the input from her team and then make decisive commands. She was bold and held herself accountable for those decisions. The buck stopped with her. Everyone knew it and respected her for it.

4.   The power of image

The Protestant reformation was lacking a critical figure that was pivotal in Catholicism – the Blessed Virgin. Elizabeth deliberately chose to fill this void and presented herself as a blend of both Queen and the Blessed Virgin.  Hence, she became known as “The Virgin Queen”.

This powerful image not only filled a void for her people, but also helped her to navigate the pressure to marry and produce an heir. It is quite remarkable that she managed to change her image with her subjects from bastard child to virgin queen.

Elizabeth understood that she was a powerful symbol and that she needed to send an unambiguous message. No leader of a business can afford to ignore their image and how they present themselves. The image of the leader becomes synonymous with the culture of the business. 

5.   Share the danger with your people

On the eve of the anticipated invasion by the troops of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth appeared to speak to her troops, wearing the body armour of a cavalry officer[7]. She did not talk about herself, her courage or her sense of duty. She spoke about her absolute trust in her people. This is significant and creates respect and loyalty.

Too often staff in an organisation watch the blood letting when things go wrong, and yet the leader continues on unscathed. Elizabeth was very clear to let her troops know that would not be the case and that she would share their fate that day. That is powerful stuff.

6.   Communicate beyond words

Elizabeth was a powerful communicator, but not just with her well chosen words. She also understood the impact of her body language. She was very deliberate with how she engaged with her people and was very attentive to anyone that she was speaking to. She always conveyed the impression that anyone that she came into contact with was important to her.

She was well known for making and maintaining eye contact and for her attentive listening style. She would pay attention to all of her people, not just those at court. She made sure to travel and spend time with her subjects regularly, in a time when travel was less than comfortable or easy. She was known to make regular “progresses”[8] for the hearts and allegiances of her subjects at least once a year. No sitting in the corner office for Elizabeth – she was out there meeting her people.

7.   Moderation and a spirit of compromise

More than most leaders at that time in history, Elizabeth was motivated by moderation and compromise.  She managed to skilfully navigate her way through the theological debate that she inherited and spent time building consensus. Consensus building leaders[9] spend energy emphasising the areas of agreement rather than those of disagreement. To do this effectively, the leader needs to show how the areas of agreement vastly outweigh the areas of disagreement. In other words, focus and proportion.

8.   Attack the problem not the person

Elizabeth was excellent at keeping her team focused on the issue at hand, rather than attacking individuals. There was no brow beating, no name calling, no raised voices. Instead, she would give a straightforward summary of the issue at hand, an explanation of the consequences of that issue and a specific and dramatic example. So, no threats but a firm and clear understanding of the consequences of failure.  When Elizabeth would then issue orders, they would be executed effectively by her team.

9.   Exclude no-one

Too many organisations freeze into an inner circle of decision makers who are defensive against the outer circle of the rest of the organisation. At best, this is a waste of resources. At worst, there is conflict between the inner and outer circles, which creates resentment and distrust. 

Elizabeth had an inner circle of advisers, which was very deliberate in size. It was large enough to provide expert opinions on important issues, but small enough for her to manage debate. She had a very clear process around who was promoted into the inner circle, which she communicated effectively. However, she was also careful to not alienate the outer circle, providing they behave as “good and loving subjects”.[10]

Elizabeth also made it her business to know everyone of power, influence or talent in her realm. She did not rely on hearsay but forged her own personal relationships. 

10.  Work on yourself

Elizabeth never stopped learning, even as Queen. She understood that knowledge is power and was focused on being able to speak with anyone on any intellectual topic, particularly political events. As a result, she spent three hours a day reading. 

But her self-care went beyond the thirst for knowledge. Elizabeth was fit and especially loved horse riding, hunting, dancing and long, brisk walks. She was known to sometimes leave tense negotiations to go for a walk to calm her mind. Elizabeth seemed to understand that leadership is not about just the mind – it is also about your physical presence.

It was exceedingly difficult to curate a list of only 10 lessons, as I could easily write another 10 just about her courage, political nous, crisis management and attention to managing the financials. Without doubt, there is a reason that the world continues to have great fascination with her reign – she was an exceptional leader.

Ps. The image used is of Cate Blanchett, an Australian actress, from the 2007 film, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”. This followed the 1998 film “Elizabeth”, which also starred Blanchett.Image credit: Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, IMDb 2007

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[6] Alan Axelrod, “Elizabeth I CEO”.




[10] Alan Axelrod, “Elizabeth I CEO”

What becomes of the broken hearted?

What becomes of the broken hearted?

Right now, the world is grappling with an unprecedented foe. COVID-19 has swept through our lives and changed things so swiftly, that many of us have not had a chance to fully understand the implications. It is hard to see the future, when we are still so immersed in this war with an invisible, yet deadly enemy.

It is inevitable that the impact on the global economy will be brutal. Already the unemployment numbers are rapidly rising, governments are desperately deploying stimulus packages, and companies are bracing to fight for survival.

Lessons from Lockdown

Lessons from Lockdown

Like most, the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown has been quite a revelation to me on many fronts. It has been intriguing to watch how the world has responded on a political, business and personal level. In many ways, our varied responses to this crisis are as fascinating as the pandemic.

As James Lane Allen once wrote, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” I have found this to be entirely true as I have observed the world in crisis. We have seen remarkable leadership, kindness, creativity, compassion and inspiration as COVID-19 unfolded across the globe. In contrast, we have also seen some of the worst elements of human nature too – poor leadership, finger pointing, lying, hoarding and thinly veiled racism.  All of this has played out around us, whilst so many lives have been lost. 

Perfectionism, procrastination and the power of the pomodoro

Perfectionism, procrastination and the power of the pomodoro

Like many others, I have to confess to being one of those people who wants to be really good at everything I turn my attention to. I have driven myself (and probably many others) crazy with this perfectionist streak. Over time, I have learnt to manage it more effectively – and you can too.

As life becomes increasingly more complicated, being a perfectionist can have dangerous side effects. When it is just you in the world, it is easier to indulge your perfectionist streak. However, throw in responsibilities for a team, for a family, for a relationship and for some furry friends – well it becomes an increasingly complex juggling act.


Manners and the modern workplace

Manners and the modern workplace

Once upon a time, things were a bit more straight forward when it came to manners and the workplace. The manners that our parents instilled in us prevailed, and we learnt to take our cues at work from the senior and the successful. We learnt about a term called “professionalism”, and generally it was applied and understood by all in a corporate environment. Things were simpler then.

However, the waters have become muddied in the digital world and suddenly etiquette, manners and professionalism seem to be progressively optional. Well, for some. Not for all. And the separation between those who apply etiquette and those who don’t often strongly correlates with long term success and reputation. Without exception, in my experience the most impressive and successful executives, board members and thought leaders that I have met have been humble, gracious and polite. Coincidence? I think not.