I first met Lesley at ABZWISE, an unusual entrepreneurship programme for women in STEM, at the University of Aberdeen in 2012. Two key aspects of this workshop were characteristic of Lesley. Firstly, she doesn’t do bog-standard. Secondly, she loves to collaborate to spread knowledge and good practice.
Whilst I expected the usual business-type workshop with a lot of talk about business plans and finance, this was anything but. It focussed on exploring my personal motivations in life whilst giving me useful business tools at the same time such as the business model canvas or advice on negotiations. The workshop came about through a collaboration between Lesley and Dr Shima Barakat from The University of Cambridge where a similar set-up had shown remarkable success.
Lesley has spent decades in the entrepreneurial space. She recently published her first book ‘How to support the entrepreneur in your family’. So, this was a good time to catch up and recap her journey from engineer to coach and facilitator for enterprising minds.
You started your professional life as an engineer in England in the 70s.
- What was it like at university?
When I studied towards my BSc in Biochemical Engineering at the University College London there were 6 females amongst the 150 students. One of my lecturers would explain technical concepts using examples that didn’t work for me like “When you a take apart a motor cycle…”. When I asked whether he could use something everybody can relate to, I was treated dismissively and basically accused of being difficult.
In my final year when everybody went out looking for jobs I asked a tutor for some guidance. He wondered why I bothered job hunting given that I would get married anyway and not need a job. That really got to me. Had I put in all the effort for THIS?! In a way that motivated me even more to find a job, and I did.
- How did you experience the work environment?
When I started in a civil engineering company, I was the only female engineer. All other females were secretaries. That made it hard to socialise. I didn’t really find the right company for break time or activities after work. An odd question was to figure out what to wear to site visits. It wasn’t common for women to wear trousers, but I couldn’t go in a skirt either. So, I settled for culottes.
One of my trips was a several weeks long stint in Greece where I was put up in a corporate flat for part of the time. The assignment became so busy that I was more or less working two jobs at the same time. I found it really difficult to fit in things like food shopping, cooking and so on. I had no allowance for any expenses. (I actually had to fight for reimbursements after I got back home.) So, when I pointed out the difficulty to my boss, he just said, “Why don’t you shop at the market like the wives of your colleagues?” – There was a total lack of thought, a disconnect between the expectations for somebody in my job role and for a woman in society. Obviously, I didn’t have the same time as the house wives because I was working the same hours as their husbands.
I have loads more examples that seem ridiculous nowadays. Once I was reported for using the loo! I was the first female manager in the production line of that particular company. I used the shop floor toilet with the other women instead of walking a bit further to the manager’s toilet. The shop floor ladies complained that I was spying on them because they used the loo to gossip. Had I used the manager’s toilet though, I would have been accused of being snobby.
On another occasion, I ran into an argument with my boss over a salary review. When I asked him why he employed women when he constantly complained about them, he ended up confessing that “a girl will work harder for less money”. That really got me. Amongst my friends, I often heard the comment, “Why are you complaining? You’ve got a very good job for a woman.” Even my dad could be prejudiced. Despite his wife and daughter being engineers and him being absolutely supportive of that, he would sometimes mock the fact that he spotted a girl at work. This thinking was just so engrained in people.
But don’t be mistaken, gender bias is still alive and well today. You can observe it in PhD labs for example. I am amazed and horrified by that!
How did your transition into business management come about?
I quit engineering after 8 years. I had lost confidence. It took me years to realise that I actually had a respectable engineering CV.
Eventually, I decided to study for an MBA. These were less common at the time and acceptance criteria much more stringent than nowadays. I wanted to learn how I could de-complicate business. So, I applied to three institutions and got accepted by all. I chose the London Business School. There were about 20% women in class. While the others were complaining how awful this imbalance was, I thought it was wonderful. There were women with similar interests; people with whom I could easily socialise. I was no longer a freak.
After the stock crash of 1987/88 both my husband and I lost our jobs. My husband took this so hard that it ended up destroying our marriage. Such a thing just wasn’t supposed to happen to LBS graduates. Instead of isolating myself, I kept my network with LBS alumni and other working people alive.
Eventually, I became a lecturer for management studies at West Herts College and discovered that I loved teaching. Alongside that I ran a business consultancy and worked for an outplacement company. It was stressful, but a great mix to raise my confidence.
Then I wanted to go back home to Scotland. The University of Strathclyde was looking for somebody for their Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship. My diverse background was a perfect fit. It was great! I stayed there for 10 years.
Why do you focus so much on the role of human behaviour in business success?
Most business problems are caused by human problems. I don’t want to approach these as a therapist, but enable people to manage the human problems in order to deal with the business problems.
Once I delivered competence-based assessments for Toyota when they came to set up a new plant in Derby. Their philosophy was to screen people into the next level, not eliminate them. I discovered that the very best candidates were often the hardest to get through the assessments because they didn’t realise how good they were. They didn’t present themselves that well. That spurred my desire to start something that gives people the tools to present themselves and also recognise other people’s strengths so they can build great teams. Scientists and engineers usually get how things work, but often they don’t get the people side.
I think I’ve always been someone who wants to build bridges and fill gaps.
What is transition coaching?
Transitions are stress points in people’s lives. Some people want to struggle through it, and do it on their own, others want help during these phases.
What I hate in coaching is when people create dependent relationships. I think your job as a coach is to go in, help and get out, and then allow someone to come back if they want. That is ethical, but it is also stronger. If you have done your job well, you’ll be no longer needed. Effectively you have made yourself redundant. You work with me for a while. We set the goals and that might be it; or you want my support to help you achieve these goals.
I had to reinvent myself a number of times in my life, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. I really know about transition.
What is enterprise legacy facilitation?
Some people want to create something that outlasts them. That is not necessarily a business; it could be to publish a book. That’s why I call it ‘enterprise’. I am there to help people build their enterprises. I call it facilitation rather than coaching because it is more complex.
At the start we would set SMAART* goals. The deep value of this is that it covers both external outcomes and intrinsic internal motivation. That makes it so effective. Depending on how long we work together, by the end you would at the very least have clarity about what you want to do and an action plan to follow.
This is different from the transition coaching because in the case of a transition you probably know what you are doing. You are going through a divorce. You are trying to adopt a child. These are transitions. When it’s done, it’s done. You get on with your life. There isn’t really an enterprise left after that. The idea of the enterprise is to create a legacy that survives you. Even if the enterprise is not a business, many of the same techniques, skills and so on become relevant for the sustainability of it.
* SMAART = Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Attributable, Realistic, Timed. Often also SMART.
Let’s talk about your own legacy that you have started to build with your first book ‘How to support the entrepreneur in your family'.
- What was your reason to take this angle?
Through my work with various universities I realised that they share common issues. In essence, we don’t have an education system. We have a qualification system. Some people are lucky enough to get an education in the qualification system, but not all.
When you look at entrepreneurship, there is no doubt about it. Individuals need enterprise and entrepreneurship. Society needs entrepreneurs. We are getting such a push at the moment because we have realised that we aren’t getting enough individuals with the confidence to go and do the thing they should be doing, that’s right for them, and we’re losing out as a result of it.
The existing entrepreneurship centres and incubators cannot give enough support for individuals who are trying to start up. They can give some assistance. But if you are trying to do something creative, you really need a supportive ecosystem roundabout you. You certainly don’t need hindrance. Whilst it is great what’s being done, the budget in the education system or local government is not sufficient to support somebody if they don’t have a supportive environment outside in terms of their friends, their family and everybody else around them.
The other thing you hear from people who have successfully created their own business is something like, “My mum is still asking me when I’m going to get a proper job.” I assume that their mum just means well and wants to help. She’s trying to say that you don’t have to go through all this hell and can just get a job like others do.
- So, what is your suggestion?
My theory is twofold. You need to kick-start the capacity in society so that somebody who is trying to be entrepreneurial gets both more real support, but also less false expectations. The way some advice works is: you’ve got half a business idea, and they say, “Here’s £1000 and, by the way, go to the lecture on being an accountant and the lecture on IP”… and so on. - The person will be overwhelmed. They need support. The obvious support comes from their friends and family. But they have to provide the right support.
My book is meant to help them communicate with the budding entrepreneur. Some techniques are easy, some are more complicated. They help you, for example, to figure out the right kinds of questions, or to know when to shut up instead of criticising. If you know the person, you can help them.
I wrote it because it is a book that needed to be written. It’s not about becoming a best-selling author and making a huge amount of money. However, I didn’t offer it for free on amazon because it has value. One of the things I want more small businesses to do, is recognise the value they deliver and charge for it. If you deliver good value be proud of it.
- That’s interesting. How did you approach pricing?
I consciously priced my book at the cost of a cup of coffee and a cake. That is disposable income for many people. It’s ‘cappuccino money’. Nevertheless, I decided to put a value on it because probably two-thirds of the stuff people download for free, they never read.
If people really struggle to pay the price on amazon, I’d be happy to hand out the draft copy as long as they write a review in exchange for it. People can contact me on LinkedIn to ask for a free draft copy.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights, Lesley.
Interview conducted by Dr Christiane Wirrig