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After years of pretending she was an extreme social butterfly, Sarah Ellis finally came to terms with her introversion and decided it was time to start being her true self.
Like many introverts, she never imagined herself to become an entrepreneur with her own business, especially as she runs it alongside her very extroverted best friend.
Sarah has had to learn how to navigate her partnership and run her company in a way that re-energises her and keeps a healthy balance between work and friendship.
In this episode, she gives her personal guide on how to effectively design your days, work alongside friends and how to spot your reoccurring red flags—all while being your authentic self.
Here’s her unfiltered advice below:
- You don’t have to be an extrovert to be successful in life or in business
- Find a work pattern and life balance that re-energises you
- Leadership is all about being more yourself—but with skill
- Don’t use your label as an excuse—instead learn to design your days in a way that is most effective for you
- Take control of how you’re spending your time to avoid burnout
- Starting your own business will require a reshaping of your mindset
- Learning how to stay relevant during the pandemic
- The complexities of working with your best friend
- Finding the perfect balance between work mode and friend mode
- Spotting your reoccurring red flags and finding the right ways to fix them
- Push yourself out of your comfort zone and talk to one new person every month
- Don’t try to be someone else—focus on what you’ve got to give
You don’t have to be an extrovert to be successful in life or in business
Now, Sarah, I’ve known you for years, and you’ve always been really open about being an introvert and how the idea of walking into a room with hundreds of people terrifies you.
Can you tell us a little bit about how that impacted your early career?
Well, in my early career, I just spent all my time pretending to be an extrovert.
So at that point, I hadn’t accepted my introversion, and I think that was partly due to the pressures of what society tells us ‘successful’, in inverted commas, people should look and feel like.
And so I was really ambitious, and I wanted to progress in my career, and both of those things are still true today.
But at that time, I felt like there was a formula that I should be following, and that formula included being an extrovert, being the life and soul of a party, connecting, and with that ’80s network of going into a room and tossing business cards left, right, and centre.
And so it was definitely never me, but I certainly, for the first part of my career, I spent too long, I think, pretending to be somebody I wasn’t, which is always exhausting and just get to the point where I think it’s not sustainable.
Once I started to accept and understand, I think, my introversion, and how that could be just as good as extroversion, I was much more comfortable and confident, but also, I was so much better at my job.
So did you spend the early years of your career feeling uncomfortable then?
Yeah, I think I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in. I felt like I was copying other people’s behaviour versus trying to be a better version of myself and what I’d got to bring.
I don’t want to describe it as, oh, every day was really hard for me. That also wasn’t true.
And I think there are different levels of introversion, but I definitely didn’t feel like I was being myself until I think I’d been working for seven or eight years.
Find a work pattern and life balance that re-energises you
And what was the point then when you thought, actually this isn’t me, I’m going to start to understand my own behaviours and become more confident in who I am?
Well, I do think there are moments where a book finds you just when you need it.
And I read Quiet by Susan Cain, and that’s all about the power of being introverted. And I just recognised lots of the behaviours that she described.
And also, I really liked the way she talked about how we re-energised.
So as an introvert, I am someone who, I spend quite a lot of my days with lots of people delivering career development, and I do a podcast and I stand on lots of stages and I actually love standing on a stage, but that’s actually not that unusual for an introvert.
Lots of standup comedians, for example, are introverts. I think what she then talks about is let’s imagine myself and then my co-founder who’s a real extrovert, had both stood on stage all day, what do you do after that day?
And so what I do after that day is I don’t want to talk to anyone. I want to go home. I want to be by myself. And that’s how I re-energise and plug in my battery, essentially.
Helen, my co-founder, and I find it very hard to understand, where’s the party? This room is a room full of people who I can now make friends with, and I’m like, at that point, I’m done. I don’t have that capacity, but that re-energises her.
And so I think it was just really when I read and watched Susan Cain’s TED Talk, I started to understand, okay, well re-energise in a different way.
It doesn’t matter that I get nervous walking into a group of a hundred people I’ve not met before, or 200 people I’ve not met before. That’s okay. I can learn to cope with that. I just need some good tactics to cope with that.
But do you know what?
I’m brilliant one-to-one, and I build some really long-lasting relationships that are sustainable and really meaningful. And there isn’t one shape of a network.
Again, sometimes I think, networks are all about how many people you know, whereas I think they’re much more about, well, how many people can you help or how many people are you growing? And also are you doing it in a way that works for you?
I was definitely that person who I thought networking was, you’ve got to go to an event in the evening. And then all I’d spend the day doing is thinking, how do I get out of it? Or just telling myself, my work is so important that I can’t go to this thing.
Obviously, I just didn’t want to go. And then when I did go, it was so hard for me. I found it so difficult until I learned a bit about how I could navigate those moments.
And so that was actually also quite exhausting. Doing that is really exhausting, whereas then once I found a way of creating connections in a way that worked for me, honestly, bizarrely, it became something I really looked forward to.
And now when people describe me, they say, “Oh, Sarah’s incredibly well-connected.”
And I just always really want to tell people that you can go from someone who I would’ve been like a two out of 10 or a three out of 10. And now I’m often held up as a “Wow, you just know so many people, and you just do that so seamlessly and so well and so effortlessly.”
And I’m always like, it’s not always effortless, that’s for sure. But also I have put a lot of work into figuring out how to build relationships in a way that works for me.
Leadership is all about being more yourself—but with skill
Do you think reading that book almost gave you permission to be yourself and display your own behaviours?
I’d also had a real track record of working for extroverts, and I actually really like working for extroverts. And now I’ve got a co-founder who’s a real extrovert and my best friend is really extroverted.
So I really like spending time with extroverts. Albeit my partner in my life is an introvert, but all of my work connections are usually more extroverted than me.
I also really admired all of them. And they were brilliant at their jobs. So you know that trap you can fall into of comparing yourself.
So I would compare myself and think, well, that’s what I need to do and that’s what I need to be. And then when I, exactly as you’ve described, gave myself permission to do it my own way, it just released, I think, something in me in terms of to find my flow.
I always really like the leadership definition that Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, they wrote a brilliant book called Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?
And their definition of leadership is, be yourself more, with skill. And I think that is the best definition I’ve ever come across in all the work that we’ve done.
Once I started to do that, it really unlocked opportunity for me. And if I hadn’t discovered that for myself, I don’t think I’d be running my own business, that’s for sure.
Don’t use your label as an excuse—instead learn to design your days in a way that is most effective for you
Do you think it’s helpful or unhelpful to have these labels of introvert and extrovert?
Well, it’s interesting. I’m always quite reluctant to give people labels where people feel like they are put in a box because I think labels can be limiting.
I also think on the other side of the coin, you can’t use a label as an excuse.
And I do see that sometimes. So I don’t think I can say, well, “Oh, I’m an introvert, so I’m just not going to do that.” or “I’m an introvert, so I’m not going to meet new people,” or “I’m never going to put myself out of my comfort zone.”
The description that I always really like is our personalities are a bit like rubber bands. And when we are a rubber band at rest, we are our natural, very comfortable self.
So that’s me by myself, not talking to people, reading a book, perfect, but my rubber band can stretch in all sorts of different directions, but just not for too long. And also not to the point where you’re going to snap, and snap would be burnout.
So burnout for me would come from, let’s say every day I’m doing lots of career development on big stages or doing keynotes and those kinds of things.
If I then had to go out in an evening as well, and then I had to do that consistently, over time that rubber band would get stretched and stretched and stretched to the point where then you snap, and you burn out.
And we don’t want anyone to get to that point because then you get to feeling really demotivated, you lose meaning, and we all spend so much time at work, you don’t want to do that.
So I don’t think labels should limit us in terms of our learning. And I don’t think labels should equally be excuses to not try things out because also, in my experience, we all have more potential than we give ourselves credit for.
So all of the people that I work with on their careers and their career development, we’re all our own worst critics. So sometimes I think when we use these labels, it can make us smaller.
So I think that’s the danger, but I think you choose, I think you make some active choices. That’s what I say to everybody about, we all have a quiz, don’t we? Like a career quiz or a personality quiz.
And I would say, well use them if you find them useful, but see them as inputs, not as outputs. So see them as insights that you choose what you then want to do with those things.
So do I still go into rooms where I’m nervous and have to meet loads of new people? Yes, but do I now know, okay, that’s going to be quite draining for me.
I still get some enjoyment from it, but I think really carefully about how I design my days, about how I spend my time. I had a big session this week where I was by myself for a day facilitating a really big group, and then the next morning I got nothing in my diary.
And that’s really important for me to be at my best.
And I wonder whether even three or four years ago, I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence or maybe the self-awareness to spot how I design my days makes a really big difference to my ability to do my job.
Take control of how you’re spending your time to avoid burnout
And before you developed that self-awareness, did your rubber band snap? Did you ever hit burnout?
I think I had a moment where I got so focused on work that I gave up lots of other things that were important to me.
At that moment I was studying for an MBA, and I was working for a bank in Canary Wharf. Quite different to the entrepreneurial environment I find myself in now, I think it’s fair to say.
But interestingly, I’d got a job that I really enjoyed. So I was really enjoying that role.
But it became quite all-consuming, and I was doing quite a lot of things outside of work but connected to work. And so I thought, oh, do you know what? I’m going to stop some sports stuff that I like. I’m going to stop seeing some of my friends.
I got rid of all of the rest of me and all of my identity became about the work that I do. And scientists actually have a phrase for it. They call it enmeshment. And enmeshment is basically when the work you do becomes who you are.
And I think I have fallen into that trap before, I lost sight of perspective. And also that we know rationally actually doing things outside of work, like seeing friends, building relationships, having hobbies would actually make your work better.
Objectively, we all know that, but I often think these things creep upon you rather than happen overnight.
So when I talk to people who’ve really experienced burnout, I would say more seriously perhaps than I have, it’s not like one week, you’re fine, the next week you’re not. I think it’s inches not miles.
So it creeps up, but it creeps up, and you almost don’t notice it. And then suddenly you get to the point where you’re like, I can’t remember the last time I saw my friends, or I’ve cancelled loads of plans on my friends, and I keep cancelling.
And then you just start to see a trend or a theme. But sometimes it takes someone else observing that to notice that that’s the case.
I actually really remember my sister who I played netball with saying, “Why are you not playing? You love playing netball.” and then I also got to see her when I was playing netball, and I was like, “Oh, actually, yeah, I don’t really know why.”
But I think I was just restricting everything. So I felt like that focus was going to help me do my job better, but it didn’t.
It wasn’t like my performance absolutely skyrocketed because I’d taken all of these things away. If anything, like I said, I think it probably got a bit worse because I think you need those other things, they provide you with balance and perspective and looking after your body looks after your brain, all that good stuff that we know.
So yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever had burnout the way that the World Health Organisation would define it in terms of burnout where you really lose that sense of meaning and motivation.
But I definitely have moments where work has become too much of who I am.
And you’re right, all the research points to the fact that actually if you have balance and happiness, you are much more productive at work.
We just have to remind ourselves of that when our to-do lists look incredibly long, and you’re like, do I go for a walk because I know that fresh air and moving will be really good for me?
But equally, that list has just got longer and longer.
But I think it’s practising. That’s what I always say to everybody. I’m like, this is not about trying to be perfect. We don’t need the Mark Wahlberg, get up at 4:30am and get yourself into some ice bath type scenario.
And I think all of those things where you think CEOs or the best entrepreneurs, they’re all getting up really early and go for 10 mile runs, and then they’re only drinking juices and all of that stuff.
They’re absolutely not.
I think you have to figure out, though, what works for you and really try and take control of how you’re spending your time, how you design your days so that you can be at your best.
And what that looks like for me versus what that looks like for Helen as a co-founder, having a co-founder is really interesting because we are so different. Everything about how we work and how we approach things is very, very different.
And at times I have small wobbles and I think, oh, but Helen’s up at 5:30am in the morning because she’s genuinely up at 5:30am in the morning. And I feel a bit bad, but I’m like, yes, but I’m never going to get up at 5:30am in the morning.
But then I’m more of a night owl, and then I take loads more breaks than she does. I’m very much I’m quite intense burst and I need a break where she’ll sustain and works for a bit longer before she needs a break. And so we’re just very different.
So I think I’ve got more and more used to being myself rather than trying to be anyone else.
Starting your own business will require a reshaping of your mindset
And what was the light bulb moment then of you and Helen starting Amazing If together and did it feel like quite a natural move for you to start a business or did it feel uncomfortable?
Oh, it felt massively uncomfortable. That’s why it took me ages to do it.
So I was super happy in my corporate career, which sometimes people feel, surely everybody wants to escape the corporate world.
I didn’t, and Helen didn’t.
We were both really enjoying it, and we were both really good at it.
We’ve known each other for about 24 years. We were at university together, and then we were just friends. No intention to run a business. I think I also looked at people who ran businesses and thought, oh well I’m not that.
You see serial entrepreneurs, people who love taking risks, all of the stereotypical profiles that I actually think are often not true but that you see from a distance when you’re not in that world.
And I was like, well obviously that’s not me.
So I wouldn’t go and run a business, definitely not part of the career trajectory that I’d got in mind. What happened really, was that Helen and I were working in the same city for the first time ever.
So we’re both in London, and we met, and we were chatting about career stuff because we both love chatting about work things. And we did talk about this shift away from careers feeling like ladders to careers feeling much more squiggly.
And actually that everybody was getting more squiggly, whether you were really senior, whether you were just starting out.
We were all developing different directions and this ladder didn’t feel like it was a useful frame for career development.
We also found that career development either tended to be sometimes just for the fortunate for you, so it’s great if you’re really senior, but not so good for everyone else and not as accessible and affordable as we would like it to be. And also just not as practical.
So sometimes it was super academic, which can be interesting, but sometimes quite hard to apply, or you got into the real clichés, which I am very anti, which is where you just see things on Instagram that tell you to do what you love.
Which actually I think is demotivating rather than motivating because you’re like, there’s no information on how and there’s no help there, feels more like platitudes rather than things that are practical.
And so we just had these insights really, and I just remember drawing like, oh it’s not about the ladder, it’s about the squiggle. And we started doing a few workshops really for our friends.
So once a month we did a workshop, we were drawing these tools, trying everything out and people enjoying it, and we just enjoyed doing that. And then very organically that expanded in different directions.
So we started our podcast, eventually we got a book deal with Penguin. These things sound like they happen seamlessly. They absolutely didn’t.
Nobody wanted to talk to us about our book, The Squiggly Career. We got rejected loads of times, and then we just went, “Okay, well we’ll leave it for a bit.”
And then funnily enough, we left it for a bit, then we got two book deals at exactly the same time.
It’s like buses coming along.
Yeah, no one was interested and suddenly everybody was interested, which also shows why it’s okay to give up for a bit, I think that’s what we learned from it.
So we were convinced it was a good idea, but organisations weren’t quite ready, but people were. Actually from day one, individuals have always got the idea of squiggly careers, but organisations were a bit like, what does this mean?
Maybe they’re a bit more hierarchical at that point. This is back in 2013. Maybe they weren’t quite ready, just yet.
So yeah, we just organically started playing with and testing ideas, enjoying ourselves. Neither of us had kids at that time. So we had loads of time. In hindsight, we had a lot of time. And there was no pressure. You’re not trying to raise money, you’re trying to cover your costs.
And that was about it. I guess what then started to happen is that organisations started to ask us to go into their companies to run career development.
So I used to take holiday from my day job to go and do another job. Now that didn’t feel that sustainable when you talk about burnout. There is only so long that can last for.
But even then, Helen and I weren’t convinced we should go and run Amazing If, which is the name of our company. We just thought, oh maybe it’s something we do for a couple of weeks in the summer.
And the turning point was Helen feeling like she was ready to leave Microsoft, and we had got enough money in the bank that I think we could pay her for about six to nine months. So I was like, why don’t you just give it a go for six to nine months?
Then obviously I got a bit jealous because I also wanted to do it.
But it took me a long time to let go of everything that was wrapped up in all the hard work that you have invested into the other careers that you’ve had so far.
And actually in hindsight, I definitely could have let go of that earlier, but it just took me a little while, I think, mindset wise to almost reshape who I was because I had always had jobs in brands that people recognised.
My mum knows Sainsbury’s, she can tell me about what she wants to change about Sainsbury’s and Barclays and Boots and all these big brands I’ve worked in.
And you have these fears of like, well what’s going to happen if I move away from these big shiny jobs in big organisations to doing my own thing?
The risk of failure and the risk generally feels much higher. But I had one really pivotal conversation, the lady called Lisa Thomas who knew me and knew Amazing If, and I saw her at an event, we were both grabbing a cup of tea, and she’s very direct and very to the point.
And she just said to me, “Why are you not doing Amazing If now Sarah?”
Just in a really why, and why questions are always quite confronting. It’s why we have to be careful about when we use them.
But that was the why question I needed in that moment because actually I hadn’t got a good answer, but we could afford to pay me for at least a bit.
Both Helen and I have paid ourselves from day one, which I think is something people don’t talk about that much, but we have. We have to.
We had no choice and I thought, do you know what?
The reason I’m not making that move now is not practical things, it’s me. It’s me and my mindset, and I’ve got to make a choice.
And I’m like, I don’t have to go and do it, but I’ve got to make a choice either way.
Now, ironically, I made that choice, had an incredible 10 weeks because I started full time in Amazing If in January 2020.
So for 10 weeks life was a dream. We had a number one Sunday Times bestseller. Amazing.
And then obviously the pandemic hit.
Learning how to stay relevant during the pandemic
And what was the impact of the pandemic on Amazing If?
Well the impact of the pandemic was that we lost all of our revenue in three days.
So all of our revenue at that point was generated by keynotes, in-person development, training, those kinds of things.
We’d got a really good pipeline, we were feeling really good about the year. Of course everybody stopped doing that and in that moment it felt quite hard and scary.
I do actually remember my partner being like, “Oh, do you think you’re going to have to go and get another job?” I was like, oh great, thanks for the vote of confidence there.
And I was like, no, I do really believe that we can do this, but we’re going to have to think a bit creatively for a bit.
Now, where we were very fortunate is we had everyone talks about the shape of your business, particularly during the last couple of years, we had a hockey stick recovery, so we basically fell off a cliff and in lockdown one, no one was paying for career development.
So we tried to keep our profile high, we made the decision to keep going with the podcast despite the fact it cost us money every time we produce an episode, we decided to do some things that were quite high profile but for free.
So we weren’t really generating any income but for quite a short period of time. And I think that just kept us relevant and top of mind for people so that actually, once organisations were sorted, so they’d figured out everyone can work from home and how that’s going to work.
Our advantage is that we have always used loads of tech, so we live draw in our sessions. We are very comfortable using tech. The fact that Helen loves tech is also quite helpful.
So we were playing with all these interesting ways of doing annotations and drawings and so then companies were quite keen to bring people together to do interesting and creative learning.
Actually by the September that year we had started to rebuild all of our revenue, felt like we were on a much more positive trajectory and that’s continued since that point.
So we had that real hold your breath and keep your nerve moment, and it was hard for us because it didn’t feel familiar. Neither of us have ever run a business before, and we don’t know that many people who were run businesses.
All the people that I knew, some people were obviously furloughed, or some people were like, my friends were still working in Sainsbury’s and obviously trying to help with getting food out to vulnerable people.
So they were very busy but in a very different way. So it was so interesting how all of our experiences were so different, particularly during those first couple of lockdowns.
Obviously on top of that I’d moved back in with my parents for 10 weeks to get some help with childcare. So you’re suddenly living somewhere you’ve not quite imagined. I thought it’d be for two weeks, it was for 10.
And managing all of that and family dynamics and things like, nursery fees and mortgages and all that stuff. I’m always really proud, actually, of how we stayed pretty calm and collected during that 10 weeks.
And I think a lot of that is due to our partnership.
I’m not sure how I would’ve fared if I’d have had to do that alone because there were moments where it felt very tough, or you are getting into a thinking spiral, or you’re like how is this going to play out?
There’s a lot of uncertainty that we had to navigate during that time.
And of course you’d only just left your corporate career to fully go into Amazing If, so was there a point where business fell off a cliff, and you just thought actually, I’m going to step away and go back to my corporate career?
Yeah, no, actually I don’t think we ever got to the point where I felt like I had to do that.
So financially that would’ve been a really big reason to have to do that, but it never quite got to that point, so we could keep paying our bills, my partner was still working. So between us and Helen was in a similar situation, we were okay.
So it never got to the point where I was thought I’m going to be ringing Sainsbury’s back-up and saying, “You fancy giving me a job again?”
Or my previous agency where I’ve been a managing director and say, “Oh, I’ve just left, do you want me back again?”
So no, it never has got to that point, and I’ve never had a moment since I started Amazing If where I thought, oh, this has been the wrong decision, or I wish I was back in that area.
It’s just more, I just enjoyed it when I was there, but I’ve never been as happy as I am running our own company and running Amazing If.
The complexities of working with your best friend
Yeah, never looked back. You’ve talked a lot about your partnership with Helen, but with you being an introvert and her being an extrovert, has that caused any tensions between the two of you?
How do you make that partnership work?
So yes, we have tension.
It’s not always because of our introversion or extroversion. I think sometimes it goes beyond that into our working styles or our approaches to things, like we approach problem-solving in quite a different way.
We’ve got quite different personalities. And so that sometimes creates friction.
One of the things that we’ve definitely learned over time is to fix friction fast. We basically use that as a saying, fix friction fast.
And there are moments when it just feels like something’s not working, or we basically start to get… I was described as a bit antsy, we start to get a bit antsy with each other.
Yeah, it does feel a bit like that.
And it’s interesting when that has happened, what we are increasingly good at is calling it, and knowing that it’s okay.
I think when it first started happening, because obviously we’d just been really good friends and when you’re just really playing with the business, which we were for a good seven or eight years, we didn’t have the friction because you’re playing, and it doesn’t matter, and you’re not paying anyone, and you’re just having fun, and you’re just testing if there demand for what you’ve got to supply?
And that’s a smart thing to do because other than the pandemic, we had tested our business model, so we didn’t have any of that friction before.
So it wasn’t like, oh we’d been resolving that. It was only when we were both in it fully that we were like, oh we don’t always agree, or I think we should write in this way, and she thinks we should write in this way. How do you decide?
And then your WhatsApp messages get increasingly aggressive/passive-aggressive depending on whatever it is.
And we did have one very notorious moment where we really disagreed over a chapter of a book, which in the big scheme of things obviously doesn’t matter, but it feels like it matters at the time.
And she would be WhatsApping me in the morning, and I wasn’t even awake. So I would wake up to a stream of messages, and then I would be sending her messages in the evening because I’d be working at a slightly different time.
And we had to prepare our TED Talk during the pandemic. We couldn’t see each other to do our TED Talk, so we were having to do everything remotely.
I really remember standing in the rain in a not so very nice park, with loads of graffiti around us, two metres away from each other, shouting our TED Talk at each other so that we could at least try and practice it together.
And that’s quite stressful.
So call it, I think fix it fast, and I think we’ve found just not letting it simmer and also knowing that it is okay for things to feel really hard or for someone to get upset. That’s happened. We find it really upsetting.
So some things have sometimes upset both of us, but you’ve got this friendship overlaid onto the business that you are running and so then you’re like, oh crikey, on one hand we’ve got to run this business.
But on one hand, ultimately she’s my best friend.
And so I think we are just finding our way. We’re trying to be really open, always trying to have the conversation.
Lots of people advised us, they were like, it’s a really bad idea set up a business with your best friend, you won’t end up friends.
I’ve had quite a few people say, get really good legal agreements in place. What happens if she steals your money?
Almost like a prenup.
People are very serious about it because, in fairness, I think the advice comes from it when it’s happened, and you hear loads of examples of where those things have happened.
But I think we back ourselves and someone will probably listen back, and you’re like, oh well then, they very notoriously fell out five years later or something. I don’t know, who knows?
But I think we’re both in it for the long term. We share some really important values.
So because we’re doing quite a lot of work on values, what motivates and drives you, we’ve got a lot in common about though we’re very different people, we have a real core set of shared values and I think what we’re both ambitious to achieve is very aligned.
And so yes, we approach some things differently. Yes, we’re very different people, but ultimately we’re there for the same thing.
I think overall our friendship always does come first, and we’ve always said that, but most of our friendship anyway before, we were talking about work, so now we’re just talking about our work rather than our individual’s work.
So, so far, so good. But definitely the last couple of years you end up learning a lot more about conflict resolution, but with someone you really care about, which is different to when it’s just managing a difficult relationship in a big corporate.
Finding the perfect balance between work mode and friend mode
And is there a particular way you prioritise your friendship over the business partnership?
I think there are just moments where you need to recognise it’s more about being a friend than it is about being a business partner.
And we’ve sometimes got that role, and to be honest, not taking yourself too seriously. We laugh about it. It’s better to laugh and to have fun because if you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point?
But even in our WhatsApp messages to each other, of which there are way too many, we will switch very, very quickly from a work question to a friend question.
And we literally sometimes will be like, “Oh, back to work mode.”
Or “Oh, quick friend question. Yeah, it’s Helen’s big 40th and birthday celebrations tomorrow. And so I have some friend questions for her about the logistics.”
And so sometimes it’s just like this is just a friend moment or a friend question. I don’t know, personally I’ve had a really hard start to this year, but she was just in full friend mode when things are happening that are completely outside of work.
But actually I needed her to also be really supportive in work mode too. And so I think we just got really used to the lines being really blurred, and I think we both feel really comfortable with that.
But I would recognise it’s not for everybody. I think how we work is definitely not for everyone, and we are pretty relentless and really care about what we do. And so I think there is a uniqueness, I think, in our partnership.
Often when people talk to us, and they know us both, before people really knew about Amazing If, sometimes we would get introduced, which I always used to find really funny, they’d be like, “Sarah, do you know who I think you should meet? Helen.”
And I’m like, “Yeah, okay, sure.”
But that genuinely would happen. But I think we are very lucky because people will often say the thing they really wish they had was a partnership that reflects the way that we work together.
And I think in lots of ways you can’t buy that or find that.
We are lucky, we just happen to have known each other for a really long time. We do get on really well, and we have got a lot in common. So it’s worked really well for us.
Spotting your reoccurring red flags and finding the right ways to fix them
And were there any moments where you felt you got it really wrong in your partnership?
Yeah, I think we had one particularly notorious moment because we’ve talked about it a lot and laughed about it in hindsight, but at the time it felt hard.
And I really remember it because every time I have a meltdown, apparently it always seems to be on a train station.
Train station platforms are my nemesis. And I don’t know whether that’s because you’re travelling, and it gives you time to think or whatever it is.
But it was November, December time, it was really cold, quite bleak, it was a grey, cold, bleak London day. And I was at Clapham Junction, and I was looking ahead to when our next book, You Coach You, was coming out.
So it would’ve been looking ahead to January 2022. And I was thinking, I can’t see my way through this, and I am usually pretty good at seeing my way through things.
So like everybody, we’ve always got quite a lot on, like every entrepreneur, the flexibility and agility that you need is really broad. And that’s why I love what I do. Variety is one of my values.
But I honestly looked ahead and almost felt a bleak sense of nothingness, of I can’t solve this. And that felt really unfamiliar to me, and I felt like I wanted to hide.
I was like, I want to get under a duvet. I think just want to get under a duvet and just stop and just get away because this is just not going to happen.
Maybe we’ve over committed, I don’t think we’ve got the time to do some of the things that we needed to do. And my brain almost went into overdrive but then into nothingness.
And I rang Helen, who is a real natural solver, make it happen person. She’s all about prototyping, she moves an incredible pace. And I explained how I was feeling, and it was definitely for how I was feeling. And I was like, I’m also not used to this.
So I was really thrown by feeling that way. And she went straight into how do we fix it? So she was like, right, I think we need to do this, I think we need to do that, I think we need to do this.
And I just didn’t respond. I was like, “Okay, yeah.”
And then I put the phone down, it wasn’t in an aggressive way, but I didn’t really respond, and then I hung up. And it felt really weird, and I still really didn’t feel very good.
And Helen also then went home and spoke to her husband, and he was like, “Well, that wasn’t what Sarah needed. She needed support and a bit of empathy.”
And then I actually spoke to someone different, someone different in my support network. And he gave me exactly what I needed. He said to me, “Don’t think about work this weekend, have a gin and tonic,” those were his first words of advice.
Then he was like, “Well if it was me, I’d be doing some gaming,” because he’s very into computer games, but he was like, “Do some other stuff. Put it in a box, compartmentalise it, come back to it after you’ve had a couple of days off.”
I just needed someone to listen and not to try to solve it.
And what Helen and I realised, and then we had a conversation later that night, and actually she got really upset because she realised, she was the exact opposite of what I needed. And actually she made me worse, which was obviously never her intention.
But then it felt really weird between us. The dynamics felt really unusual. I just remember sitting outside with my son having a bath, we were both just like, what is this? What’s happening?
And the fact that I’d then gone to someone else, and she was like, “Oh I feel really bad that you had to go to someone else.”
And I was like, “Oh no, it’s fine.”
And then I think she felt like she’d been given a bit of a hard time by her partner who was telling her she did the wrong thing. So she was really beating herself up. And I was like, “No, no, don’t do that.”
And I think what we realised then is sometimes it’s really helpful just to spot how you naturally respond to somebody. So she naturally responds as a solutions person, I naturally respond as a sounding board. I’m good at ideas and possibilities, and I’m a good generator.
And some people respond with really support, which is those are the people who are the best listeners, they support. They maybe ask some good questions, but they give you loads of space.
And so we both recognise, first of all, we naturally do different things, but also, we need to signal to somebody if we need something different because the way Helen usually responds is usually exactly what I need.
But it wasn’t in that moment and it’s hard to call that. But if I had said to her, “I think I just need someone to listen? I think I just need to talk about this and not worry about fixing it.”
But she finds that incredibly hard because she is in the mindset of, we will fix this, and we will fix it fast. She came up with fix friction fast.
So that just doesn’t surprise me because she does everything at a hundred miles an hour, which is brilliant because that’s how we make progress. And something that would take me an hour, will take her half an hour.
So for her to adapt and move modes is actually a really big ask just like it would be for anyone. But it took us a little while to just figure out what happened with my Clapham Junction meltdown.
And I almost refused to engage with her for a bit because I was just a bit like I really don’t need that. I don’t need someone to try and fix me or fix stuff practically, it’s not meeting me where I am basically.
And so we weren’t to the point of going, “Oh, this is going to be a disaster.”
But we just both went, oh, this is new.
We needed a bit of space from each other, I think. And then actually when we then came back together, we could recognise what had gone wrong and then what we would do differently, for both of us.
Because that will also be the case where sometimes she’ll talk to me, and she’s like, “Okay, well I don’t need 10 more ideas,” because I will always have 10 more ideas.
She might just be like, “Sarah, you’ve got to choose a solution.”
So then it just stops you getting frustrated, and it helps you to give somebody what is most useful and helpful in that moment.
And I’ve had a few of those moments. You talked about burnout earlier. I’ve definitely had a few times over the last couple of years, which actually never happened to me in my corporate career where everything has just felt a bit too much.
Yeah, complete overwhelm, always at train stations. I don’t know why.
The other one was at Paddington, that was a year later. I’m working my way around London train stations and having little meltdowns at each of them.
But when I had my next one at Paddington,
I was actually better able to at least recognise what it was, felt a bit more familiar with the feeling, and then I really try to challenge myself to think, what has caused this? It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen, I get a real sense of blankness and meaninglessness.
And essentially for me, it is when everything has become, we sometimes describe it as too crunchy. I think I have a lot of capacity, but there’s a tipping point of capacity.
That day for example, I’d had four million things I was doing with loads of different clients, then I had loads of travelling to do and then there was this room that I was trying to find, and I couldn’t find it.
So you know when everything is just too much.
And at that point I’d just go, well apparently now I’ve just got this back myself. I just go, “Computer says no,” and then completely shut down. I back out of everything and back off.
So it’s fascinating. I do think you learn a lot about yourself as an entrepreneur that actually I would never have learned about myself in corporate life.
I’m more self-aware than I’ve ever been. Which is also important given the job that we do is helping people with their self-awareness.
But I do think you have experiences that just help you to learn, and you’re always getting better. But I don’t see any of those moments as like, oh, I’ve failed, or I’m not doing a good job. I just see them as, okay, well what can I learn from this? What would I do next time?
What I don’t want, we call them reoccurring red flags. We naturally now call them that in our company. So we are now always on the lookout for reoccurring red flags.
One red flag, sure, stuff goes wrong. But when I then had the Paddington train meltdown, I was like, oh that’s interesting. This is happening a bit more frequently.
So this becomes a reoccurring red flag. Right. I need to take accountability and ownership for that because I don’t want these reoccurring red flags. It’s not good for me, it’s not good for the team. What do I need to do differently?
Change comes from action. I’ve got to take some action and figure out and experiment with what am I going to do differently?
And that’s actually been a really useful phrase for us in our company, is just recognising the difference between when you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re growing a company quickly, of course you make mistakes.
We have mistake moments. We call them that in Amazing If. What’s your mistake moment? What did you learn? Fine, move on. We don’t want people to stress about their mistakes.
What we do want to recognise is if there’s this reoccurring red flag, you’ve got to intervene because otherwise you’re just making the same mistake over and over, and you’re not actually learning, and then you’re surprised when it happens again.
So I really hold myself and everybody in Amazing If to account for that to be like, right, okay, you’ve said that to be two or three times now. So what are we going to do about it? What help do you need? How can we all help to solve this?
Let’s just not keep doing the same thing over and over on repeat because we’ll never do the things that we’re aiming to achieve. We’ll never have the impact that we’re hoping to have if we’re having all these reoccurring red flags along the way.
Push yourself out of your comfort zone and talk to one new person every month
It’s really interesting how you and Helen both behave and show up so differently as business leaders.
I’d love to know how you are developing and growing as this untypical entrepreneur. I know you said as an introvert, I set myself the goal of one curious career conversation every month.
So what do you mean by that, and how does that help you as an entrepreneur?
Well, I think it’s really easy, actually in corporate life, but particularly when you’re running your own business, to get very preoccupied by running your own business.
And so the relationships that you build end up being to do with your day job.
Okay, who’s the next client that we need to talk to in our case? Or a relationship you’re trying to build with media because maybe you want to write for somebody.
Whereas actually we know it’s really important to build relationships beyond the ones you need for your day job because that’s when you get curious connections, that’s when you learn new things, that’s when interesting opportunities pop up that you can’t anticipate.
So of things that you can’t see emerge. And so for me, hoping that’s going to happen is really unrealistic because it just won’t happen. And we talk about having this create, not wait, mindset generally when it comes to your career development.
And so if I’m Helen for example, I definitely don’t need to set myself the goal of one curious career conversation every month because she’s probably having one a week. It’s so in her DNA that she’s out and about talking to people all of the time.
For me, because we all have habits and rituals and routines, I could easily go for three months and not meet anyone new.
We talked about that rubber band, that would be my rubber band at rest. I’ll spend time with people who I really like and who are nice and who know me really well. I’m like, well that’s easy and comfortable.
But by setting myself this goal of one curious career conversation every month, what that means is probably saying yes to a conversation that if I looked at my business priorities you would say no to.
So say yes to somebody you’d say no to, say yes to somebody who you just think I don’t know anything about what they do or who they are, where the purpose of that conversation is to explore and is to find out more.
And maybe sometimes you are approaching people for those conversations, maybe sometimes people are approaching you. And I do find that every time I have one of those curious career conversations, I never think, oh that was a waste of time.
I always come away energised, and I’ve enjoyed it. And you never quite know where those connections are going to take you. And I always think, well, as a minimum, if I commit to that goal and stick to it, I’ve met 12 new people every year who have shown me something different that I wouldn’t normally see.
And for me that feels like a realistic goal. One per month feels realistic. And like I say, if you’re a real extrovert listening to this, you might be like, well I’m going to do two a week. In which case also great.
But I also think it stops you zooming in too much. You know the staying in your lane, only seeing your world, I think it’s so easy to forget. And I’ve seen this in all the jobs and companies I’ve done, what else is out there?
And actually you need to do that because that’s what your customers are doing. They’re not in Amazing If world all day, every day. They’re not thinking about their career all day, every day.
When I worked for Sainsbury’s, they’re not only thinking about their supermarket shop all day, every day. So I think it is really important that you do just be in different spaces and places.
And there’s this great phrase, borrow brilliance. I’m like, who, what, and where am I borrowing brilliance from?
And if that answer is the same all the time, I know I’m limiting my learning.
So I’m always looking for things I could say yes to, which often just feel a bit left field. But I’m like, oh, okay, I’ll just do it and see. And you can’t do it all the time because of course you can’t because you’ve got to prioritise a successful sustainable business.
But one a month feels about right for me.
I love that, borrow brilliance. Such a great quote.
Don’t try to be someone else—focus on what you’ve got to give
So for other introverts, whether they’re just starting out in their career or they’re running their own business, what would be your advice on having impact and presence at work?
I would focus on what you’ve got to give rather than what you’ve not got.
So sometimes I think introverts are very good at seeing all the things they’ve not got. It’s like, oh yeah, but I’m an introvert who’s very happy on stage, but some introverts are like, that’s my worst-case scenario.
And when people say that I’m always like, fine, how often in your job do you need to get on a stage?
For most people, the answer to that is not very often. You’re not doing big presentations that often, you’re not going to do a TED Talk.
No one needs you to do a TED Talk. And so think about what have got to give. Maybe you are really thoughtful, you’re probably very empathetic, maybe you’re a brilliant listener. We all need better listeners in our organisations.
Also, really think about what does influence and impact look like for you?
I think the really transformational moment for me was when I figured out what I’d got to give was passion for career development and time, essentially, because I hadn’t got expertise in career development when I first started. I’d got just passion for it, and I had got some time.
So I was like, okay, I’m going to bring those two things together and just see how I could be useful for the communities that I’m in at that time, which was in marketing.
And so I just started to create things. And creating works for me because I’m naturally good at ideas, I’m good at creating things.
So I’m putting together the pieces of the puzzle that are, well, what are my strengths? So what are things that really give me energy? Creating things, having ideas.
What have I got to give? Time and some passion around career development. And then who can I help?
Well, actually there are loads of marketeers who are ambitious and want to progress who would probably come together to learn a bit about careers.
So I just started to do some creating of some small networks with no expectation, really, in terms of where they would go to help people developing their careers in marketing.
I Got really good guest speakers, started to test some of the content that eventually became Amazing If content, really low-key, asked people for help. I found it much easier to ask people for help when I got something really specific that I was passionate about.
I could ask for help. Can we borrow room for this networking thing? Can I borrow room for this session? Will you come and speak for free?
Because actually you’re going to be helping the next generation of marketeers. And it is amazing how, for me, I then realise, oh, that’s what I’ve got to give and how I’m really valuable in that way. I can be really useful.
We had a brilliant guy called Jack Graham on our podcast, and he created a really great business called Year Here, a big social enterprise.
And he said, one of the questions he always asks himself is, how can I be useful?
And I just think as an introvert, ask yourself, how can I be useful?
And don’t try and think, oh, I need to be useful in the same way as the person next to me or the person opposite me. Just figure out what does that look like for you? What makes you distinct and different?
And I think when you start to connect the dots on what makes you distinct and different, they’re always the people that I see succeeding in their squiggly careers, and they never look the same. What makes Helen distinct and different is very unique to her.
Same for you, same for me, same for all of us.
So I think if you can start to put those pieces of puzzle together and then do stuff, but you do learn by doing.
I remember talking to Anne Boden, who’s the founder of Starling, and I was like, “Right, what’s your one piece of advice for entrepreneurs?”
And she was like, “Well, you just have to do it.”
She’s so straightforward. She was just like, well what are you waiting for?
Stop thinking and start doing. And actually, even though I’m a reflector, and I am a thinker, I have never been afraid to start small but to do something. And I’ve found that that’s always what gives you the momentum.
You can stop some stuff if it doesn’t work after a while, you can change direction for things, but if you’re not actively making progress, then those things won’t change.
So yeah, my advice, I think, would be just to try and think about can you connect the dots between strengths, what you’ve got to give, and what makes you distinct and different.
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