I’ll admit, I’m out of practice. My last first date was nearly a decade ago when I met my future husband.
For this latest one, I was nervous. I’d been through the usual pre-date anxiety. What should I wear? What if I talk too much? What if she doesn’t like me? We were meeting near Borough Market by London Bridge. A romantic destination and one I know well, but what if I got lost, what if my train was late?
With these and other doubts rattling through my mind I found myself on my way to meet Nan Williams, CEO of Four Communications – one of the UK’s leading integrated agencies with more than 150 staff and offices in London, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Having started the business in 2001 after 15 years at Charles Barker, Nan and her team have built it to become one of the UK’s leading agencies in just 13 years.
Unlike many PR start-ups, Nan and her three business partners decided to go big from the outset. During our conversation Nan casually reminisced about asking her sons if she could sell their home to give her the cash to invest in the business. They agreed – in return for a swimming pool in the long term (I never did find out if they got one).
While setting up Four, Nan was also single-handedly raising two young boys. And this was after a degree at Cambridge and an MBA at Cranfield...
So, sitting in front of this genuine industry leader, what was I going to ask?
The answer was everything. From a near two-hour delve into what made this leading lady tick, a number of lessons emerged.
First up, we talked business. Cutting straight to the chase, Nan asked me three questions that still had me racking my brain days on from our meeting.
What drives you?
So simple but probably the first time I had stopped to really think this one through in a long time.
What are you afraid of?
It boiled down, like many I think, to failure. Though boredom and lack of control were in there too, ultimately I dread not delivering on my promises.
What do you want out of this?
Talking through your ambitions with someone who just ‘gets it’ is a revelation. No, I’m not mad to think big and have ambitious goals, but I am foolish if I do it without a clear plan.
Practically, Nan also wanted to know how I was going to blend my professional ambitions with my home life.
In her own experience, raising two children while building a global business, there were sacrifices to be made and many lessons learned.
Walking away from our first encounter, a plan was already forming.
Set objectives, devise a realistic strategy, agree evaluation measures and a clear schedule. Sounds basic – the foundations of many a business or even a good communications plan, but applied to my own career really for the first time objectively, I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain already.
What I learned
Figure out what drives you – Sounds easy, but after you get past the money point, you have to work out what would still get you out of bed if you really didn’t have to.
Know what you are scared of – From letting down colleagues to not being at your child’s Christmas show, what is your tipping point?
Ditch the guilt –Decide what kind of parent you are going to be, and then be happy not to be the other. If being at home is what makes you happy then don’t worry about not being at the office – it’s not what drives you.
Similarly, if work and providing for home through it is what gets you up, ditch the guilt when emptying shop bought muffins into Tupperware for the school bake sale.
Know your strengths and weaknesses – Nan started her business with partners because she knew she was better as part of a team. Each partner brought something to the table. They all had strengths that could cover others' weaknesses.
Learn the numbers – An MBA might not be for you but without knowing how to understand a balance sheet you’ll only go so far in a commercial environment.
Follow Amanda on Twitter: @amandalowe_bham
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