Best Boss Series – Young Leaders: Lucy White, Founder, UK

Lucy White is Head of Marketing for GrowthInvest, having started her career working for high-growth technology businesses and their investors. After holding marketing roles at CMR Surgical and Silicon Valley Bank, Lucy also developed and co-launched a social impact accelerator programme for early-stage SEIS/EIS-qualifying businesses. Lucy is the founding director of a charity that exists to champion girls and young women in their faith. She has advised on investment and fundraising strategy for several small businesses and charities and is a Marketing Mentor for the Durham University Women in Business society. Lucy has a First-Class degree from Durham University and is qualified with the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your day-to-day role.

I grew up in Cambridge before studying at Durham University. As a fresher, I founded a digital media platform with a mission of inspiring young women of faith. The charitable organisation now operates in the UK, US and Australia, and I continue to lead our team of volunteers who make it all happen.

Once graduating, I started my career working with high-growth technology businesses and their investors, working in the marketing and commercial teams at CMR Surgical and Silicon Valley Bank. I then moved to Resurgo Ventures to co-launch London’s first social impact accelerator for SEIS-qualifying businesses.

I joined GrowthInvest in January 2019 as Head of Marketing. My role covers:

·       Building and leading a best-in-class marketing team;

·       Developing our brand across multiple channels;

·       Relationship and account management with our clients;

·       Generating sales leads and commercial revenue through marketing initiatives;

·       Overseeing our market research, thought leadership and PR strategy;

·       Developing our marketing campaigns and content creation;

·       and working on a whole range of other strategic initiatives with the wider team.

Do you think that your age is a positive or negative thing? Do you feel that people still provide the same level of respect to you as they do to leaders who are older?

I have often been one of the youngest people in my workplaces, and have always been conscious of it. Coming into my current role as Head of Marketing, I was hesitant about sharing my age, in case it discounted my ability and influence in some way.

However, I’ve found that the way you earn respect is through your character, your track record and the value you add – not through your age.

I have always found my colleagues and clients to be incredibly supportive of me at every stage in my career, and I actually think the biggest barriers to my confidence levels have been my own internal doubts. My advice to anyone stepping into a leadership role at a young age is to remember that everybody’s viewpoints and experiences are valid, and as long as you stay smart, humble and collaborative, you should earn respect at every age and stage.

As a young person, sometimes you may feel uncomfortable being in charge of someone older than you or perhaps someone who has more experience than you. How have you managed to assert yourself? How do people take you seriously?

I have definitely found this a challenge at times, and think feeling apprehensive is normal for anyone taking on a leadership role at a young age. In fact, it’s a healthy thing to feel – it shows you’re aware of your blind spots and your room for growth.

I take two main approaches; the first: channelling my inner Girl Scout and always being prepared. Practically, this looks like absorbing all the information I need ahead of a meeting; devoting proper time to preparing for reviews and 1:1 check-ins; and making sure I have all the data I need to make informed and wise decisions. Not only does preparing well give me confidence that I’m equipped to handle the responsibility, but I hope it shows that I’m respecting the time and talent of the person I’m managing. I try to function at my best to make sure I bring out the best in them.

The second approach is to remind myself that leadership isn’t about being ‘better’ or ‘smarter’ than the team around me. I try to model the servant leadership philosophy – where the main goal of the leader is to serve.

Robert Greenleaf said this about the approach:

‘Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?’

Servant leadership is especially important when I’m working alongside people who are older or more experienced than me, because I’m reminded that leadership isn’t about competing, it’s about serving.

In 5-10 years time, where do you see yourself in terms of leadership?

At this point in my career, I’m aware that much of the leadership wisdom I’ve absorbed has been received second-hand through books, podcasts, Twitter or my mentors; so I haven’t had much experience of putting it into practice in my own context. With this in mind, I see the next decade as a time where I can really start to shape my own leadership style and find my voice.

I know that leadership development is never something you fully ‘crack’ – but 5-10 years from now, I’d like to have discovered what works effectively for me and to have developed the discernment to shake off anything that’s hindering me or those around me.

More tangibly, I hope that in 5 years I will have built a best-in-class team at GrowthInvest. My vision is to build a marketing function that fuels the growth of our business, so that in five years (or fewer) we are the market leader. This isn’t an easy goal, and will no doubt involve a lot of highs and lows along the way – but is the perfect place to learn and grow.

Longer-term, I would like to see myself holding a senior leadership role within a high-growth business – perhaps as a CMO, or in another position that involves innovation and strategic thinking. I would also love to contribute to the non-profit sector by joining the Board of an organisation I really believe in.

While I have lots of external career goals for the next decade, I imagine that the biggest growth area for my leadership will actually be internal. I hope that in 5-10 years I’ll have built enough of a track record to start believing in my abilities as a leader, so I can get to a place where I can operate with confidence and integrity, keeping imposter syndrome at bay and enjoying the ride!

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People often refer to millennials as ‘lazy’, ‘unambitious’ and difficult to manage. What do you say to that?

Through my charity leadership role, I have worked closely with over 50 millennials over the past five years, and my experience has been incredibly inspiring and positive. Our team work voluntarily on top of their full-time degrees or jobs, and they are diligent, humble and ambitious. However, we do tend to attract young women who are very driven by using their gifts to make a difference in this world – so perhaps I speak from a biased position.

In a wider context as a millennial myself, I do think our generation are often prone to wanting instant results – and this can cause tensions with the generations above us, who are used to working very hard and seeing results happen over time. This might explain why our generation can be perceived as ‘entitled’.

This might be driven by the vision that many millennials have been sold from a young age: that we can achieve anything we put our minds to. Having sat through recruitment fairs at university, I’ve seen large corporates overpromising the working world to young graduates, selling a vision of a dazzling and high-profile career. When those same graduates are a couple of months into their new roles and they find themselves doing another Excel spreadsheet at 9pm in the evening, it’s normal to wonder – is this it?

To conclude: I don’t think millennials are lazy – we are as ambitious and gifted as those who have gone before us, but I think millennials do need reminding that working life is always going to be a mix of the mundane and the exciting. Pursuing a career path is never going to be all glamour and recognition, and we need to remember that the truly great leaders we see ahead of us have always put in the long hours and hard grind to get to where they are today.

What do you think are the qualities of a successful leader?

I started a new role in January, and before I entered the office for the first time, I sat in a coffee shop and asked myself what kind of leader I wanted to be in this new chapter. I wrote down all the values and qualities I wanted to embody, both in this corporate role and in my charity leadership; and I landed on these as my core values:

1.        Courage to push boundaries, have integrity, break new ground, and do the right thing – even when it’s hard.

2.        Creativity in the way I approach projects, solve problems and drive strategic initiatives.

3.        Kindness as I interact with my team and others across my network. The corporate world is fast-paced and high stress, and a little bit of kindness goes a long way.

4.        Humility to accept when I’m wrong and to put the interests of others above myself.

5.        Humour – the leaders I’ve loved working with all had a sense of humour. When the going gets tough in the workplace (as it inevitably will), the ability to laugh together and get some perspective is often underrated.

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?

I can’t pretend I always feel like a very impactful leader; but the first time I thought about my own leadership impact was at university, having founded More Precious (a digital media charity for girls in their faith). I’d led the charity for nine months, had brought a small team around me, and I was at the point where our subscribers and website hits were rocketing because of a series of articles we decided to publish on mental health.

Someone I really respected a couple of years above me asked me if they could take me for coffee in exchange for ‘my wisdom as a leader’ – and I was genuinely very surprised, as I’d never applied the word ‘leader’ to myself. They went on to share how impressed they’d been at the team culture we’d built as a small organisation, and our bravery in pushing boundaries with what was (at the time) quite a groundbreaking series of articles. That was the moment I first saw that ‘leadership’ wasn’t just for CEOs or coaches – leadership is demonstrating qualities (courage, integrity, empathy) that inspire others to follow your vision.

After this revelation, I started to take out endless books from the university library on leadership and how to get the best out of the people around you, and I vowed to invest properly in what leadership would look like for me. While I’ve still got a lifetime of learning ahead of me, I’m so grateful to that person for calling those leadership qualities out in me and kickstarting the process.

Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.

A very special highlight for me was our 5-year dinner for the charity I founded aged 18 at university. As the anniversary approached, I met with one of my mentors and shared my frustrations and disappointments about how far we still had to go as an organisation, and how often I’d been disappointed by my leadership mistakes and shortcomings.

She stopped me right there, and made me promise to pause, take a breath and celebrate with our team – with absolutely no business agenda on the cards. She even covered our team expenses for a celebratory dinner at a beautiful venue in London!

Sitting around the table that night with our brilliant, bright and gifted team was an enormously significant moment for me as a leader. Many of the girls I’d walked with for those 5 years wrote beautiful thank you letters, sharing their own journey and the way that my leadership had impacted them. The significance of the milestone was testament to the wider momentum and vision as a team – not my personal leadership abilities, but it was significant in showing me that:

a) I’d played a part in building something incredibly impactful.

b) Just because something is still imperfect doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. I’d been too fixated on my future plans, and I’d become distracted from celebrating how much had already been achieved.

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?

One challenging situation actually happened before I’d had much chance to do any managing at all! I’d been trying to fill a social media role for a number of months and was getting desperate for somebody to come in and use their talents to take the workload off my hands. I interviewed someone who I thought was perfect: creative, smart and a brilliant communicator.

We had done around 12 hours training together, and I thought it was all going swimmingly – until the person in question asked for an urgent meeting. Totally out of the blue (to my mind), she told me that she had deep concerns about using social media to achieve our vision, and that she was stepping down from the team.

I’m not a naturally confrontational person, so I was surprised and a bit hurt at her bluntness – but to my surprise, the conversation stayed respectful and productive. We decided not to go ahead with her taking the role, but we both made it a priority to keep our relationship intact. This taught me the importance of ‘ending well’ and dealing with conflict respectfully – and to this day the person actually remains an active supporter of the organisation.

What have I done differently since this experience?

–       I’ve made sure that anyone I hire onto my team is fully supportive of our organisation’s core vision. Making sure expectations are aligned beforegetting distracted by detail was a simple but important lesson for me to learn.

–       I now set ground rules before tricky conversations, having seen what an impact it makes when conflict is done well. I try to aim for an atmosphere that is both honest and respectful.

–       Finally, I’ve learnt the importance of never rushing a hiring decision, even if you are desperate to fill a role! Better to go slow and get it right, than face a whole lot of undoing and redoing later down the line.

How do you respond to employees or colleagues who are diagnosed with mental health issues, e.g. depression or anxiety? 

This is something I’ve encountered a number of times in both my corporate and charity leadership journey, and I’ve made it a real priority to wise up on how best to engage with people in a helpful and thoughtful way. I’m keen not just to talk about mental health when things get to a crisis point, but actually to keep conversations about mental wellbeing regular and close to the surface. Mental health is just as important as our physical health, and having a robust understanding of it is a crucial part of leading a healthy and flourishing team.

For me, education and empathy are key.

1.         Education, because it’s important to be clued up: Are we equipped as leaders to spot when somebody might be struggling with their mental health? For me, this looks very practical: getting training; making time for conferences; reading advice from experts; and making sure I have mental health professionals that I can ask for guidance and wisdom in specific situations.

2.        I believe if you’re educated on mental health, empathyis a natural next step. Extending sympathy isn’t enough – and this can often be patronising and misjudged.

Sympathy says: I feel sorry for you. (Not what you want to hear if you are fighting acute depression).

Empathy says: I’m taking this situation seriously. I can’t pretend I know exactly how this feels for you, but I’m here to support you at every step and make the situation as manageable as possible.

Having an informed understanding of mental health is enormously important as a leader, wherever you are – in our workplaces, schools, homes and all other walks of life. We are becoming better as a society at talking about mental health, but I believe that the truly great leaders of our generation will lead those around them with a holistic understanding of mental health.

What do you think stands in the way of great leadership today?

Ego. Great leaders are releasing: they choose to put others first and communicate a big-picture vision that inspires people around them to flourish.

When leaders are preoccupied with their own success and reputations, their ego gets in the way of great leadership and that’s when micro-management comes into action.

Truly great leaders aren’t afraid of other people outshining them, because they know that success is not a zero-sum game. Great leaders prioritise helping others reach their full potential, and they don’t let ego stand in the way of that vision.

How much do you value courage as a leadership skill?

Courage is my word for the year! It sits at the top of my core values list and holds prime position in the mission statement of the charity that I founded, which is all about raising a generation of courageous Christian women.

I was initially a bit intimidated by the word ‘courage’, because I always equated it with needing to be brave, loud, determined and opinionated. These aren’t negative qualities, but they’re not always aligned with the way I naturally operate as a leader in the workplace. However, I’ve learnt over time that that courage isn’t all about the visible, high-profile moments – it’s often built in the unseen moments and the choices you make when nobody is watching.

Courage is the decision to take the right path in the face of discouragement or opposition, and for leaders in today’s world, this is a deeply important quality.

What does it look like if you have courage?

Courage can manifest itself in a number of ways, and in workplace leadership this could be:

·      Prioritising another person’s wellbeing and career progression over your own.

·      Having integrity and sticking to your values, even when it risks your reputation.  

·      Challenging something you disagree with, even when it means going against the views of someone more powerful than you.

·      Running towards a vision that you believe in, even when the road gets rough!

However, I think people sometimes struggle to believe they can develop ‘courage’ because we often feel fearful or anxious about our lack of certainty or ability. Sometimes we think we need to get over our fears before we can be courageous, but actually courage isn’t the absence of fear – it’s having strength to push forward despite your fear.

I love this quote from Mary Anne Radmacher, which says – ‘Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow’.

For me, holding a leadership role early in my career, choosing to exercise that little voice at the end of the day and ‘try again tomorrow’ has been a simple, effective tool for developing courage that won’t crumble when the pressure rises.

What are your top three book titles that you were most impactful for your leadership development?

1.     Radical Candor by Kim Scott 

Confrontation has never come naturally to me, but I’m passionate about becoming a leader who is both honest and kind. This book showed me this was possible, by teaching me how to give feedback and be candid in a way that still values the people around you.

2.        Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

I hate making mistakes, and am prone to falling into the stereotypical ‘Good Girl trap’ of wanting to sweep any errors under the carpet. Adopting a ‘black box thinking’ approach in my leadership and work life has shown me that I can often tackle mistakes by working out why they’re prone to happening. This book taught me to adopt a growth mindset rather than a guilt complex.

3.        Dare To Lead by Brene Brown

Brene Brown’s work reminds me how effective it is to be vulnerable as a leader. ‘Dare To Lead’ encourages me to be brave and honest. It inspires me to step into confident leadership, even on the days I feel underequipped, inadequate, or like a total fraud!

What vision or goal are you working towards in your career? What accomplishment would you like to retire with?

I would love to reach retirement and be able to look back and see that I’d prioritised these areas:

·     Courage in my career.For me, success would look like being able to say I’ve made courageous choices – taking risks, pushing boundaries in the work I’ve delivered, leading teams of people wholeheartedly, and stepping up to big challenges with confidence, even when it scared me. A personal ambition is to lead a business from ‘zero to hero’ – helping it to scale from a little startup into a successful organisation.

·      Innovation and creativity. I’m passionate about starting new things and think that I often function best when I’m helping to launch new ideas or get things in motion. Right now, I’m in the process of transitioning More Precious into a full-time funded organisation – so a personal ambition is to see this as a financially stable and creatively flourishing charity! I’d also love to start my own business one day.

·      Business as a force for good.I’d like to have tangible examples of workplace cultures that I’ve helped built into inclusive, diverse places where people love to work. I’d also like to become an angel investor – perhaps through a syndicate or a fund of my own, prioritising businesses that are female-founded, or those that have a social impact mission that’s inherently aligned with their business strategy.

·      Generosity.I want to be in a position to give my resources to things that matter. Causes close to my heart include: education for girls across the globe; tackling modern slavery (through organisations such as the International Justice Mission); support for people with additional needs and disabilities; and churches like the one I’m a part of at Holy Trinity Clapham. I would love to have the resources to give generously, ideally through a trust or foundation in order to have real impact. My goal is to reach retirement knowing I’ve made personal sacrifices in order to be generous, and to be certain that I haven’t turned a blind eye to the injustices in the world around us.

·      Finally, mentorship. Investing into others is a priority for me. I am deeply grateful for how many people have invested into my own career and personal development and am passionate about ‘passing the baton’ onto others in that same spirit. By the time I retire, it’s likely that my career will have spanned around fifty years; and if I continue mentoring five people a year throughout that period, that will be 250 lives reached! I’d like to have encouraged those 250 individuals to pursue their gifts and talents in a meaningful way.

For me, success at retirement stage would be looking back and know that I’ve approached my faith, marriage, family, friends and career wholeheartedly, with courage and integrity. I hope that my reputation will be firmly built on these values, and that I will have made a meaningful impact on all the people I’ll encounter along the way.

The Best Boss Coaching Project brought to you by Talent Investors is here to promote excellence in the workplace. Throughout 2018 we are speaking to people from across the world, and across different industries, regardless of the companies’ size or their job title. Over the course of 52 weeks, you will be introduced to 52 bosses, from 52 backgrounds, answering 20+ questions. All designed to motivate you to lead, and grow effectively. We are here to provide wisdom from, and recognition for those making every day other people’s lives better.