The Mother Lode

Since stepping down as CEO of Spark+Mettle and starting down a new line, I’ve received a number of encouraging and congratulatory responses. It’s been lovely. Some say that I seem to manage well the balance between work and family and purpose; others that I have achieved good things and will achieve more. Lovely, as I say, but I can’t quite imbibe the compliments: I feel like a total fake.

Why? Because any success or achievements to date are just a thin vein in a large rock of all my many actions (some abject failures, some that are neither here or there, others that are perfectly alright but end up not being pressed into anything worth noticing). I am no geologist, and I am far too keen on, er, mining analogies till they are barren, so you may well not want to read on..,

Mineral veins in rocks—like quartz or copper—come about from a couple of different processes (open-space filling and crack-sealed growth, if you’re interested) and there needs to have been some sort of tectonic action to get it going too. In other words, anything to make a little vein of gold you need some serious pressure, heat and some shifting to appear, and there’s a whole lot more that’s down to luck and circumstance that would result in anything like a mother lode. If there is any little vein in my big ole rock, it’s tin if anything

That sounds about right, in terms of success in life. It’s thin, a tiny fraction of everything, formed out of pressure and changes that are often outside of our control. And if wasn’t for everything else, that hunk of unshiny rock comprising all that we do, that gold vein of success wouldn’t exist and it wouldn’t be worth a dime.

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Step down

laroqueI’m currently in a tiny village in the south of France, not far from the Spanish border. I’m here on maternity leave, which has morphed into a whole family sabbatical. My husband is here to write before he cracks on with training to teach, our four year-old is here to spend a term at the local school, and our baby and dogs are just here to soak it all in and stay warm for a while longer than they would back in Brighton.

While out here I am finishing up some research as part of my Clore Social Leadership Fellowship (http://toteachtolead.wordpress.com). I am also in the process of determining what my next steps will be.  I am stepping down as CEO of Spark+Mettle, and moving to become its Chair. It’s a really good time to be going, and we couldn’t have a stronger team in place to take it through its next phase.

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Spark+Mettle has been on a roll since I’ve been on maternity leave. Thanks to Kazvare Knox and her whipsmart team, it has been developing and running a series of programmes to develop character strengths and soft skills awareness to other youth groups. It’s moved into wonderful offices in north London. And, as recently announced, it’s set up an extraordinary partnership with the British Council and HSBC to deliver skills training to schools in nine countries across the Middle East and North Africa. That’s right, it is going global.

I’ve chosen to step down as CEO for a number of reasons. First, I’ve always been aware of the dreaded “founders’ syndrome” and so had only planned to stay at the helm for just 3–5 years. Second, my delight and my strengths lie in getting things off the ground; Spark+Mettle is now moving into a phase where it needs to level off and with that comes a different leadership style. Finally, my work over the last five years has taken me to London a lot. But Brighton is home and it is where I want to be based.  I love a full working day but I have a young family; time with them is precious, not to be truncated by trains. At the same time, Spark+Mettle needs someone at the helm who is a lot more present than I can be.

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I am thrilled that I will be able to take on the role of Chair and support the strategic direction and growth of Spark+Mettle moving forward, while giving space for Kazvare—someone extraordinarily dedicated, talented and focused—to be in charge. It’s been wonderful over the last few months to watch the organisation flourish and demonstrate its independence. It fills me with huge pride and pleasure to see others achieve so much and evolve what was once a teeny tiny kernel of an idea that I had into something that is so much bigger and better than I could have achieved myself.

This is not the end. Far from it. It really is only just the beginning.

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The taste of mettle

I’ve long had a sneaking position that I’ve been treading water in terms of growing up these last few years, and even going backwards a little. But the last week has shown me that, actually, surprisingly, I’ve got more mettle than I used to. For once I won’t go into too many details (a natural splurger of information, this is not in character). Suffice to say I ended up last Friday and again this week having to have some tests in hospital, and spending several days and nights worrying about their outcome. I found out yesterday that the preliminary results are all good, and the lightness I have been feeling both last night and today is glorious.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that over the last week I’ve really had to put my money where my mouth is. I bang on about spark and mettle and flourishing and character strengths and all this crap, and I am obsessed with thinking about how we can consciously practise and develop them and enable others to do the same. And yet when the shit hits the fan for me (as it did in the summer) I waver and stumble and falter and fall into a well. I’m talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

Except, this last week I’ve learned that I’ve got more mettle than I thought I had, and that I used to have. I’ve learned that some of things I encourage others to do when going through tough times (or preparing for them) do actually work. And I’ve learned that every piece of life that we live, the good pieces and the crummy pieces, can help us develop these very strengths that we need. And increasingly need. I mean, if your world hasn’t gone to pot by the time you’re thirty, there’s a whole heap of stuff that’s going to befall you. Illness, death, heartache, betrayal, financial crises… look at me being all chipper. But the little bits of tough stuff we’ve faced already add up to gaining enough experience to be able to manage what’s to come a bit better.

Seven years ago I was diagnosed with Stage III cervical dysplasia, which is one step removed from full-on cervical cancer. It came completely out of the blue, and completely floored me. I didn’t know how to cope, and I didn’t cope, and it was a really rough few months till I had a procedure that gave me the all clear. Since then there have been various other un-fun health situations, from a miscarriage, to a breast cancer scare to all the stuff that’s gone down this last week. And each time, although terrifying, it’s gotten a little easier to cope.

This last week I have focused on the two things I know I need to do to keep refilling my mettle. I need to keep emotions positive (without being wildly optimistic), and I need to do things that boost my energy and vitality levels. I need the strength of people around me—the positive relationships I have have done no end to help me through. And I need to weave distractions through it all.

So I purposefully looked at the positives of all possible outcomes—allowing myself to think through, in some detail, what that would feel like. I prepared myself for the worst by thinking about how it would still in the end turn out okay. Hearing other people’s stories of similar situations was really powerful.

I told my close friends and family, and found the factual recounting of information and probabilities, plus the warmth and kindness of those I was telling, to be extraordinarily grounding and supportive. The relentless optimism of my husband was particularly reassuring.

And I got stuck in to my own version of hygge. It’s not the right time for me to be out running, so instead I get my energy from the pleasurable, old-lady-like pastimes of crocheting and books on tape. No better way to replenish myself and distracting myself all at once.

Finally, I am now at a stage in life when I have stuff to do regardless of circumstances. And boy am I grateful for it. I’m grateful for my work, and how much I enjoy it, and how flexible it can be—so that I can enjoy it from home rather than the office, so that I can have a crazy wonderful day working with a team of people delivering an event and then time out to strategise and regroup. And I am grateful for having a hugely energetic and independent young son who has absolutely every intention of occupying my time as much as he can.

In the grand scheme of things these recent tests and the other dodgy moments in life of late are no big deal. There are swathes of people who have to go through far more significant worries, troubles and decisions than I have ever done. I don’t want for a second to sound as though I am aggrandising this stuff.

I live with someone who has been through the ringer more than most.My husband lost both his parents by the time he was 13. So I am all too aware of the smallness of my bad things, and aware too of how lucky I am that, so far, we’ve had positive outcomes from tricky times.

But I also know that there are lots of people, like me, who haven’t yet experienced a tidal wave of shit, and are nervous about how they might cope when it comes. Because it is going to come, somehow, some time. Life is far from being the hockey stick of success and happiness that we would like it to be.

However inexperienced we are with tough times, there are ways and means with coping and bouncing back. And it’s no bad thing to think about what could help us through before anything happens, and then trying those things out when it does.

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Mo’ mojo

Oh hi, Autumn. Down fall the leaves, early in sets the evening. It seems like the right time of year to be brushing off a few dead leaves of my own.

I’ve had a heavy couple of months, despite the sunshine, of scraping at some stony core—chastising myself for my screw up, long past the screw up was wrapped up, and mourning the loss of such a happy, prideful time of work. You know, this time last year we were building up to a buzzing team of eight, all working purposefully, laying down the blocks for a bright vision. And I was the one—me, me, me!—who had found the money to get all those jobs and make all those things happen. It was looking really successful. And now—well we’re back to a team of three and a bit, officeless, needing a dose of mojo. Success is receding as fast as the midday shadows of summer.

I’m writing this in New York. I’m here to attend a conference for all the GLG Social Impact Fellows. They are a super impressive, ultra successful bunch, demonstrating phenomenal impact the world over. I’m feeling like a super small potato. But last week—as part of my Clore Social Leadership Fellowship (who knew there were all these Fellowships dotted around?)—I started to get my mojo back. And I remembered that there are different ways to scale and grow. I had gotten caught up in the belief that Success = Big Team + Big Office. Thanks to everyone there, I found confidence in trying to push ahead with creating something that is deliberately little and lean at its core.

I think I’m done with moping. Boy, have I been moping. Spark and mettle—both have been in short supply with me this last little while. So I’m writing a list of what’s seen me through, re-energised, and helped me find a little bouncebackability…

  1. Remote hugs. It’s scary to lay out a screw up to the world (or the 34 people who might chance upon this blog). Some people warn against appearing too vulnerable if you’re in some sort of leadership position, because it might make others lose faith in you. But, dammit, I can’t do it any other way. Out and out ego doesn’t sit well with me. I’m also wary about the cult of failure. So too much spin on a bad thing would feel inauthentic. I mean, if I’ve admitted round here to having chin hair, and if I include “Parent” on my LinkedIn profile, it would just be WEIRD if I made out as though I’m this perfect creature at work and everything is just going great, yah. Luckily my confession hasn’t backfired in my (hairy) face just yet. And it’s been unbelievably reassuring to know I’m not the only bright-eyed creature who’s helmed a ship onto the financial shallows. And it’s even better to learn how some people turned it around. So to everyone who has said kind things, or shared their own stories: thank you.
  2. Little steps. Doing the basics to keep things rolling, and feeling good about getting them done. I was waiting for a big break-through moment, a eureka, when I’d realise that I was Back and things were just flowing. But that’s not how it happens. In fact, that’s just a really sophisticated form of procrastinating. Well done me. Thankfully I managed to persuade myself to actually do some of the little things. And after a few weeks of the little steps, when I stop and turn around, I realise just how far I’ve come.
  3. Actual steps. Walking, running, swimming. There’s something about actually physically moving that really helps assuage my mind. Not easy when my natural inclination is to lie down with a pillow over my head. But there are dogs to walk. Thank you dogs.
  4. Bigger problems. As in, other people’s problems. Or their stumbling blocks. Or questions. For example, I’ve just started a part-time secondment, and it is extraordinarily gratifying going to another organisation and being useful to them while they are developing a new strategy.  I can do this stuff. I can. I’m not totally useless. So: got an issue? I am here for you. Mariella Frostrup, eat your heart out.
  5. Bad TV. Thank you, Suits, for being my knight in slim-fit herringbone: my latest, lowest-common-denominator distraction. You are cheesy, and at moments ridiculous, but you’ve seen me through the last few weeks with your tailored jokes and crisp plot lines. I’ve just finished Season 2. What am I going to do? I can’t lose you now, not today.

So, hi Autumn… time to get groovy, baby, yeah.

I guess I know what film I’ll be watching when jet lag kicks in later..

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Running duck

I’m trying to persuade a small group of wonderful people to run a half marathon with me in Brighton next February. I sent an email on the weekend that started with the following true story:

I was on holiday in France last August, it was a little, short dirt track, there was a farmyard on one side, I was on the last leg of my 1.5km route, plodding along when suddenly — WHOOOOOOOSH — a duck shot out of the farmyard gate and careered past me.

We all know that ducks waddle.

I don’t know what that means I was doing.

selfieSince then I’ve turned my non-running self into a creature that actually dons spandex and reflective headbands. Yes, I am now one of those people [to anyone who follows me on Instagram, this is not exactly news]. I long ago gave up trying to google when plodding turns into jogging turns into running because I quickly realised that it really doesn’t matter. I can now run some distance, and I reckon if I saw that duck again I might just be able to get an edge. Not that I’m a fast runner. I’m just faster. And that is clearly not saying much.

runI’m blogging about this today because within the last week I ran my one hundredth run. #patontheback. In fact, I’ve clocked up over 800km since October (I stick to kilometres because they make everything sound so much further).  I never thought, literally or metaphorically, that I would come this far.

I am not a natural runner. When I was at junior school we were made to go on cross-country runs on dark winter mornings, across freezing streams and through muddy fields. I was asthmatic and heavy and it was a cold, dank, breathless kind of hell.  My thighs were built for sprinting, I told myself (others told me they were thunderous). Occasionally in my twenties I’d chalk up a few minutes on a treadmill, or go for a turn around a park. But they were lackluster. We all knew it was never going to last.


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Since lacing up last year, I am yet to experience a running high. But I keep going. With a strained bank balance that couldn’t stretch to a gym, I’ve spent the last few months investing time and sneakers into running outside.  I still don’t quite like running, but I like getting out of the house, being quiet even though I’m breathing hard, listening to music. I don’t do that much any more. I like taking photos when I see things that I like, partly to document my distance, partly to instabrag via a #whatiseewhenirun hashtag. Along by the sea. Up over the race course. By the beach huts. Under skyscrapers, past the Rocky statue and around southern dirt tracks. So there’s the instaglory, and there’s the quiet, but they wouldn’t alone keep me going. My pep-talker of a husband has spent a year telling me that my not being able to run is not a fact—far from it. It’s a belief, a misguided one, and one that I can run out of my head.

Running has had a slow but steady effect on changing other aspects of my life. Teaching myself that I can run, and that I can run fairly far, has increased my levels of vitality and my mettle. It has galvanized me. It has amazed me, and I don’t mean that in a boastful way. I mean that I am, historically, the least likely of runners. Yet I now run.

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For me—a human who’s primed for immediacy and instant access and hyperquick thinking and doing—it’s a lesson in the slow art of dogged determination. There are no quick wins (in fact there’s nothing quick about it with me whatsoever). I’ve just stuck to doing it, and now I do it. A year later, and almost forty pounds lighter, I feel more energised and more focused in my day to day life. I feel strong. I’m doing what I never thought I would do. And the best bit of all, it didn’t start with bang, (nor a whimper). It started with a waddle.