Co-Founder Helen Interview: Discusses Business, Health and the Journey Towards Knowing Oneself
"Learn to listen to yourself and get to know your mind. I cannot emphasise enough how much this helps you navigate the challenges that come up in business. It’s difficult and it can be painful but it’s the best investment you can make and opens up a world of possibility."
Helen, tell us a little bit about your journey through the corporate world since university?
I graduated from the University of Bath with a degree in Biology. During my degree I spent a year in industry working for a large pharmaceutical company and that made it pretty clear I didn’t want to work in pharma once I graduated – it was a great experience but very much not for me.
I joined McKinsey and Company almost by chance – my background wasn’t in business and at the time I applied and was accepted onto the graduate programme McKinsey recruited graduates almost exclusively from Oxbridge (I think I was one of two people in my intake who weren’t at either Oxford or Cambridge as undergraduates). This, combined with my science background, meant I didn’t really know who they were or what they did, but they were running a conference in Athens and I fancied a holiday so I applied!
Understandably they didn’t let me attend the conference but they encouraged me to apply for their BA (business analyst) programme and so I did – not really expecting it to come to anything more than some good interview practice. After four rounds of pretty brutal interviews I had decided I really wanted to work there and thankfully they offered me a place. I spent two years working on a wide range of projects across the public and private sectors, I loved the intellectual challenge of the work, the people and the diverse and varied nature of what I was doing. However, there was a gap when it came to my own personal values and those of the firm so when I left I knew I wanted to work for a charity and do something I cared more about.
I joined Comic Relief on a temporary contract to manage a project for three months and after 5 years I left! Laterally I was running the Red Nose Day and Sport Relief Campaigns, interacting with a team of 350 people to deliver extremely ambitious and complicated media campaigns that collectively raised over £172m. It was an AMAZING job – and Comic Relief was a place that I felt I could be completely myself and thrive and add value – things I still hold as sacred in any job I would consider. After 5 years though I was exhausted and needed a break so I took 10 months off during which I traveled and taught English in China.
When I came back I spent a year at the Department for Education working for one of the Ministers which was fascinating but missed the mark on a number of key factors that are important to me so I went back to Comic Relief to help them launch Red Nose Day in the USA. After 18 months of Red Nose Day I decided it was time to move on and that’s when I went freelance.
McKinsey runs a notably challenging graduate program! What life or business skills do you think you picked up during your time there?
Oh goodness there are so many. McKinsey’s training is astonishing, they really invest in their people and I am still reaping the benefits of that now. I learnt how to structure problems, find the real issues and see past the smoke-screen ones, simplify the complex and apply logic to extremely tangled and difficult issues.
I also learnt to work very fast in different teams that changed regularly so it taught me a lot about working with different people and rapid change. I was exposed to extremely senior people very early, presenting to CEOs of FTSE 100 companies at the age of 22 isn’t something that many people get to do. It is absolutely the bedrock of the way I approach a lot of things now and has been of huge value to me in every job I have done since.
Your work at Comic Relief must have presented many stressful situations where you had to think quickly on your feet. How do you stay calm in a crisis? What inspires you in the more difficult moments at work?
I often said working at Comic Relief was the most stressful thing I ever did – far more so than McKinsey was. Of course part of that was the level of responsibility and seniority I had at Comic Relief, but it was also the challenge of trying to manage something hugely complex when you are very reliant on outside partners in an environment of ambiguity and almost constant change. I think my McKinsey training and being able to see the big issues helped a lot – I tried not to get too distracted by small things.
Getting things done was often pretty challenging as everyone was being pulled in so many directions and everyone was overstretched in terms of time and capacity. The approach of putting an answer down on paper and testing it, rather than waiting for other people to propose a solution was invaluable and I used it a lot. I found I could do this using common sense and logic in many areas that weren't my specialism and it helped to speed up decision making a lot of the time.
I also had an amazing team who could all laugh in the face of adversity and that made a huge difference to how work felt, even on the bad days.
You now work for yourself – in a nutshell can you tell us a little more about what services you currently offer?
I now have what I think some people call a ‘portfolio career’ but essentially I do a range of things. When I went freelance I had one ambition I wanted to test – that I could just do work I enjoyed and I’ve pretty much managed to stick to that.
I now work with charities and public bodies on strategy projects and other major initiatives. I offer the perspective and structured, logical approach to problem solving I used every day at McKinsey. On top of that I bring along with me the experience of delivering large and complex projects across the public and third sectors so I hope I also bring a dose of reality in addition to the purist, logical answer. I love it – helping people to find the path through the tangle of issues they are facing is extremely rewarding both emotionally and intellectually.
In addition I am a coach for women in the first 5-15 years of their careers which is one of the most rewarding parts of my portfolio. I was encountering a lot of women in senior management roles who were being offered coaching as part of their personal development through work. My experience of coaching and self inquiry is that it is a learnt skill that requires constant practise, so why do we leave it so late to expose people to it? I believe that learning these skills early sets you up for greater success later in your career where you can build upon them through executive coaching as and when necessary.
I offer training in both structured problem solving and logical approaches, business strategy, excel fundamentals and other key skills I was lucky enough to learn very early and I believe are of great value to almost anyone working in business. In addition I offer training that brings a creative approach to business problems - I am a true believer that the more ways you come at a problem, the better your solution will be. Creative approaches that may seem somewhat 'left field' can be a great partner to more structured and logical frameworks to come up with something more holistic that addresses 'heart' as well as 'head' issues.
Now that you work for yourself what are some of the main challenges you face from a business and health perspective?
Going freelance has certainly been the most challenging thing I’ve done in my career. On the mental health side, there is just you and your mind and you learn a huge amount about yourself and the way you behave and tend to respond to certain situations. Staying motivated is tough, as is managing your work so you don’t overdo it – running that tightrope is a challenge.
From a health perspective I definitely spend too long at the computer and taking up yoga recently has been of great help in easing some of the tension that creates in the body. Otherwise though I think I am far healthier now than I was in my previous jobs – mostly because I have more control and flexibility about how I spend my time so I can build in exercise and relaxation more easily.
You recently started practicing yoga more regularly – what are some of the things you’re enjoying about the practice?
I love that it’s starting from scratch and that I'm still pretty rubbish at it! I have always loved learning new things so this is a whole world of learning opening up to me. It’s great for my shoulders and back, it gives me time to quieten my mind and focus on my body.
How do you think the skills you learn in yoga transfer to business?
There are a lot of parallels actually between what happens during a yoga practice and the challenges you face in business. Being bad at something when you are just starting out and wanting to fast forward until you’re good at it, sitting with discomfort and listening to your mind and body. I find all of these things are so helpful for self-awareness in business and they are strengthened and practised in yoga every time you step on the mat. Self discipline, being kind to yourself, meditation – it’s all of such value to your entire life, including your work.
You also have a thriving online sewing community Stitch My Style. How do you think crafts and creative pursuits can help someone with running their own business?
This is a personal hobbyhorse of mine but I firmly believe making things and doing something with your hands is an amazing access point to the meditative state you can achieve through yoga or meditation. It stops you touching your devices (a very good thing), it forces complete focus, and it allows you to access different neural pathways that can allow problem solving to blossom in completely unexpected ways. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been making something and a solution to a problem I have with work seems to magically pop into my head.
You also run a discussion forum called Women Discuss Work. What are some of the common themes or issues that you see women in business wanting to discuss or get help on?
The themes that come up are extremely common, irrespective of seniority age or experience. Confidence is a massive one – understanding your inner monologue when you are feeling unconfident and how you can address those little voices. Having presence in male dominated environments is another – particularly for younger women. The challenges of managing people and personal interactions are also discussed a lot.
What are the main messages or take-aways you’d like women attending the Finding Balance in Business Women’s Retreat to walk away with?
Learn to listen to yourself and get to know your mind. I cannot emphasise enough how much this helps you navigate the challenges that come up in business. It’s difficult and it can be painful but it’s the best investment you can make and opens up a world of possibility.