In December 2010, I started my first real job out of university. Like any new graduate, I was extremely nervous. Were they going to regret hiring me? Was I really up to the task?
As the first in my family to graduate university, I had no idea what to wear, or how to act. I also had a few more responsibilities than most 22 year olds. I was the mother of two young daughters. Bailey, 5, had just started school, and Charlotte was only 9 months old.
2010 had been a tough year. I’d completed my postgraduate study remotely, as a broke single mother living alone. I’d juggled late-night feeds with thesis research, and pushed hard to keep up with my course load, stretch a meagre budget and be a good parent. The worst of it had come in June, when a traumatic tooth infection put me in hospital with septicaemia. My eyes burned with tears and shame as I begged at the local Studylink office for a loan to cover my root canal and treatment, despairing at a lack of resources and support.
As I left the office, dental voucher in hand, I made a decision that changed the course of my life and career:
I was never going to be poor, or depend on anyone else’s charity ever again.
It wasn’t a decision made lightly. My teen years were spent in foster care so unlike most of my peers, I didn’t have a home to go to, or a safety net to fall back on. I’d moved often, attended countless schools, and dropped out when I became pregnant at 16. I’d been looking out for myself since I was little more than a child, and it was clear to me that if I wanted a better life for my girls, it was up to me to make it happen.
I’d hoped to go on to complete a PhD, but after the dental debacle, those ambitions were quickly put on hold. After securing my first job, as a policy advisor in local government, I doubled down on my determination to make something good of my life.
Over the next few years, I worked extremely hard to do just that. I married a wonderful man, bought my first home and grabbed every opportunity to stretch my skills further. Quickly frustrated with the pace of progress in the public sector, I founded the first iteration of my consulting practice at just 25. That same year, I welcomed my third daughter into the world without skipping a beat – with Harriet attending her first client meeting at just 3 weeks old! I kept grinding, accumulating cutting-edge accreditations in strategy and change, working on exciting projects and going on to write my first book and hit the speaking circuit.
But by 2019, things started to unravel. Things looked rosy, and I was proud of myself, but I wasn’t enjoying the hustle quite the same. Somewhere along the way, I’d become stuck in high gear. The commitment I’d made in university had never left me and as the years passed and my business rocketed forward, over-functioning became my default, no matter what was happening around me. When my marriage came to an end and it was time to rebuild, I didn’t take any space to recover. Instead, I took a deep breath and faced the financial and emotional pressure head-on, working longer and harder than ever before.
In my 32 years, I’ve moved 34 times. I had three kids by 26. I’ve moved cities, left jobs, started businesses and coped with parental abandonment, divorce, and the death of my loved ones. And in all the madness, I’ve never really… stopped. I’m grateful for how those experiences shaped me, and I know that without them, I wouldn’t have developed some of my best qualities – persistence, motivation, a strong appetite for risk and a capacity for managing disaster. I have a commercial savvy and a hustle that can only come from lived experience. But as I came to learn the hard way, they have a ceiling.
In the last two years, it became clear that my grit and self-determination had made me an insufferable control freak, and a shocking delegator. My inability to let go started to get in the way of building a sustainable business and a balanced life, and I found it harder than ever to trust others. As the months ticked on, that fear got in the way of my personal and professional relationships, disconnecting me from my friends, partner and children. Years of pushing myself to the limit finally took their toll and in late 2020, I reached total burnout. Unable to think straight, my mental health caved in and I watched in terror as my burning passion and drive slipped away, replaced by naps, Netflix and gardening.
As I write this piece, in mid-2021, I can’t help but feel as though I’ve started again. I’m learning new ways of living and working that prioritise connection and interdependence, by building a team and learning to call for help. It’s not an easy journey, and I still get it wrong most days, but I know it’s the only way I’m going to find a balance between doing what I love and living to tell the story.
Little about my story is unique. I work with overwhelmed senior leaders with their own version of this journey – where the skills that got them to the top aren’t paying off anymore. It’s true for us all. When we buckle down too hard on our unique skills, we reach a point where those become the very things that trip us up. Our strengths, overused, will eventually become our weaknesses, and it’s our job to stay aware and flexible, to shift the balance again as we need to.
For me, that was my work ethic and lack of trust. For others, it’s their empathy and lack of boundaries. For others still, it’s their technical expertise and lack of perspective. While our challenges might be different, the process is largely the same. Our lives, work and leadership are a constant process of building and unravelling, and when we accept that, we find that there’s no failure – only growth.
In my work with ambitious leaders, I’ve learned that genuine flexibility is the single-most important skill for sustainable success. When we stay aware of ourselves and our surroundings, take agency over our future, and build resilience for ambiguity and disaster, there’s little that can hold us back. From that core, we can build the other skills that will set us up for leadership success –strategic decision-making, systems thinking, performance leadership and influence. But if we stay inflexible and cling too tightly to what we’ve invested in, it’s impossible to make real progress.
If I could leave you with anything, it would be this: you have infinite capacity for transformation. Nothing that’s happened to you has the power to define your future, and you’re never stuck. If you find yourself unravelling right now, don’t despair. If you stay open to it, there’s a new you right around the corner – and that’s someone the world needs to know. Keep going.