Dr Terri Simpkin- “I have been told time and time again that I’ll never make it."

This blog is from Dr Theresa (Terri) Simpkin- CEO, Mischief Business Engineering, Founder, Braver Stronger Smarter and www.forfakesake.org, Associate Professor & Director of SLDA – Exec MBA, University of Nottingham. We are so grateful that Terri has taken time to write this blog for us! She gives some amazing advice and it is definitely worth a read!

Where to start with my career?! It’s been an eclectic career to put it mildly. I started off life pouring beer and waiting tables in Australian pubs and then moved on to running hotels. Working hospitality jobs gave me an insight into human interaction and a firm appreciation of the centrality of people to organisational success (or otherwise).

It also taught me a lot about leadership and that regardless of industry, treating people as people and not as elements of production is the only way to run a business. I then worked in a number of different HR roles, I devised and developed a hotel school then started teaching hotel management and leadership. I eventually started my own consulting company and worked with some amazing projects delving into workforce challenges, talent pipelines and sector-wide skilling reports for the government and industry bodies.

All through this time I was running two companies and working through my undergrad and PhD qualifications while simultaneously teaching at university. Doing all this while raising a son taught me the value of time management and being resilient.

Recently, I’ve moved through international academic management and developed a portfolio career blending consulting, academia and research. My work is highly diverse and is spread across innovative corporate education, the digital infrastructure sector and the inclusion agenda. It means I can work for a salary, as well as doing pro-bono work supporting women to identify and address their experiences of impostor phenomenon and encouraging workplaces to understand the costs of allowing IP to fester through poor practices and structures.

There is no typical day in my career! I might be working with our Senior Leader Degree Apprentices or delivering awareness-raising sessions on the impostor phenomenon or crunching numbers and making sense of data to inform our understanding of barriers to women in the workplace.

I could also be consulting on broader HR topics. A recent piece of collaborative piece of work based on emotions in the workplace went viral- you can take a look here! so I’d spend time responding to that. Or perhaps I’ll be on morning radio or afternoon TV talking about my research.

You might also find me delivering keynote or panel sessions around the world speaking about Industry 4.0 or talent challenges in the Digital Infrastructure sector. I could also be indulging in my hobby of relating the work of Sir Terry Pratchett (Discworld novels) to contemporary leadership and management theory.

It’s a varied and sometimes fascinating suite of professional activity. I’m very pleased to be able to do such an interesting range of work.

I rarely say no to a challenge...

To be honest, I’ve fallen into all my roles. I have often found myself with a unique set of capabilities that fit very niche projects or roles. For example, I had the opportunity to work on reports to the Australian government on skills and labour issues. That came about because I had particular knowledge of the industry, sector-based research, vocational training and higher education. There are times when the stars align to bring together a demand for very disparate skills and knowledge and I’ve learned to make the most of that. I rarely say no to a challenge and believe me, some of the roles I’ve taken on have been challenging!

From scrubbing toilets and waiting tables to being flown around the world...

Reflecting on my career path has been more ‘crazy paving’ than a nice well-trodden road. I know other people look at my career choices and think ‘that was mad!’ But that’s been exciting and has taken me all over the world. I’ve never been unemployed. Firstly, because I’ll do what needs to be done. I’ve literally scrubbed toilets and waited tables (and even worked in a toothpaste factory) and equally, I’ve been flown around the world business class to speak at conferences.

I think the only constant is that I’ve always tried to do interesting work. I get bored easily and have a low tolerance for mediocrity, inefficiency and ‘settling’ for ‘just good enough’ which has not always been a good thing. This is one of my challenges.

I now know that my experience of the impostor phenomenon pushed me to strive for perfection and I expected that of others too. Of course, there is no such thing as perfection in the human experience and so I have often been disappointed by my own achievement and sometimes that of others. It wins no friends and leads to one’s own burnout and anxiety.

I think early barriers relating to gender pushed me to want to prove myself time and time again. For example, I was once told I’d never make it in hospitality management because I’d have no credibility as a woman in a ‘man’s role’. So rather than taking the normal route of working up from the bottom (there was no career path for me to do that) I studied hotel management, earned my ‘stripes’ in middle to senior management and then spun off into consulting on leadership, workforce development and advising the government on hospitality sector development.

Gaining a diverse set of capabilities and knowledge allowed me to bypass the usual route and this ended up being a more interesting, better-paid role with more kudos and impact. Sometimes the ‘crazy paving’ route pays more dividends and allows you to walk around challenges and barriers rather than taking the path more travelled.

Imposter syndrome...

My work on the impostor phenomenon is very important to me. It’s a bit of a labour of love driven by intense academic curiosity. I’ve been working on it off and on since I first became aware of it as a ‘thing’ in 2011 when I finished my PhD.

The research is telling us more about the experience of women and how the workplace and other social expectations are fuelling the sense of ‘intellectual phoniness’. While much of the early and current work focuses on what’s going on between the ears of women who are genuinely unable to accept their own capabilities, achievements and successes, my work looks at how this feeling is confirmed and kept alive by the way we run our organisations and how our structures (e.g. talent management, succession planning, pay and rewards) implicitly support this irrational set of thoughts and behaviours.

Having women coming up to me or sending me messages after my workshops or seminars telling me how getting to grips with their fears and experiences literally changed their lives makes it all worth it. Women have burst into tears in front of me with relief that their experiences have been explained and they can stop thinking of themselves as ‘crazy’. That’s really moving and so then I feel an obligation to keep going with the work. It’s intensely rewarding.

Drive and Determination

Sheer bloody-mindedness gave me my determination! I come from a very poor working-class East London background. No one in my immediate family went to university and it was never on the radar. My family never talked about it because it was never a consideration. And so early on, I went into jobs that were consistent with my class.

It wasn’t until I started studying for my hotel management qualifications that the world opened up to me and I realised I could have other opportunities if I could bring value to those around me. By that, I mean working to create better workplaces or business systems or improve profitability or facilitate positive change. My success was dependent on building value. The motto for my company (Mischief Business Engineering) is ‘dare to be better’ and I’ve never moved away from that.

I have a keen sense of justice and I think if I can do something I enjoy and find interesting, and provide something back to help others, then that’s the best job or role or project. I’m also never satisfied and that’s a blessing and a curse. It has a lot to do with the narratives I picked up in childhood that contributed to my experience of the impostor phenomenon. I’m still working through that one!

I do get a quiet sense of satisfaction knowing that I have been told time and time again that I’ll never make it or I won’t be taken seriously because I don’t fit into the male-dominated sectors I’ve worked in. There’s nothing quite like revisiting those people who had written me off and told me I couldn’t do it when I have done so much more. That’s shallow and egotistical I know, but just once in a while, I forgive myself the indulgence!

Seriously, however, mentoring younger women is hugely rewarding. Helping them navigate through their challenges and seeing them develop responses to barriers is really very gratifying. Teaching others can also be a great joy. Seeing people develop into their potential is professionally and personally satisfying.

Raising a ‘good human’

As a mother, I’ve got to say my son is my biggest achievement. He’s grown into a man with a keen sense of equity and respect for others. I’m very proud to see him taking a truly equal approach to his home life as a partner and parent. He does this without any question of it, it’s automatic and absolutely natural – as it should be. It’s a joy to know that he’s decent and ethical and humble with a sense of social justice that he’s developed from childhood. I don’t think there’s a better legacy than that because I know he’ll pass that on to his daughter. Behaving as a good human being ripples widely through the world.

Lesson Learnt...

Know when to give up. This is opposite to the thought that you should never give up. Winston Churchill is said to have suggested ‘never, never, never, give up.’ But he also said ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal it is the courage to continue that counts’ and I think between the two quotes I have found a middle ground. Know when to stop doing something that does not serve you or those around you. Learn when to cut and run to try something that will serve you better. When something is clearly not working quit and try something else. Flogging a dead horse never served anyone.

Gender Challenges.

My gender has brought unnecessary challenges to my career. Mainly the frustration that I’ve been written off before being given a chance to prove myself. Then proving yourself becomes doubly difficult and unnecessarily tiresome. Implicit bias in systems, processes, behaviours and thinking keeps this unnecessary demand for proof of capability or suitability of women alive and it’s insidiously socially embedded.

So many women have influenced me but the one key factor they all have in common is knowing that you can only be successful when adding value to the lives of others. This comes in many forms and may not be a direct ‘value add’ but somewhere along the line, I think there’s not much point in an activity that diminishes others or if your success comes at the cost of others. I’ve left jobs and stopped working on projects if I can’t see a value add. I just can’t seem to find enjoyment in it.

Not enough is being done to address gender imbalance. I think there’s lots of good intention and a lot of surface-level activity, but true equity across gender and other forms of diversity (e.g. social class, neurodiversity) will not come about unless a behavioural and genuine change to thinking is achieved. We’re a long way off from that at the moment.

The way to combat this is to work together. Network, but get sh*t done. There are lots of women’s groups that are great at getting women together but not so hot on bringing about positive change to the status quo. I’m very action-oriented and need to see achievement and outcome and progress and I get very frustrated with women who think they can’t make a change.

It’s hard and risky and people will call you names behind your back, but pushing for equality of opportunity, pay, rewards, voice and recognition may not simply happen. Work together and create a force for change that becomes difficult to ignore over time. Help others. We often talk from a position of privilege. We need to recognise that there are women in precarious work who can’t risk a loss of pay or status or feel they can’t rock the boat by themselves because they simply can’t afford it. Those of us who have the privilege of having a voice must lend it to those that don’t.

Key motivators?

My key motivator is learning. I have an insatiable need to know ‘stuff’. I love the academic pursuit of finding out new things or generating insights that others may have missed. Often my learning ‘greases the wheels’ or opens up opportunities for others and that’s a real joy. I often meet former students years, sometimes decades after I’ve been their lecturer or mentor and hearing about their achievements because their world may have got a little larger, or a little better or less difficult because of learning is the most profound motivator to keep doing what I do.

Outside of work…

Ask any of my friends and they will tell you I have an obsession with Duran Duran (yes they’re still making music and yes it’s still bloody brilliant!). They’d be right of course but their rather unkind suggestion that it’s tragic is a little harsh! I’ve been a fan since the beginning (1981) and it’s a delight to travel the world to see them in concert.

On top of that I’m a ‘Kevin’. It’s the ‘official’ term for a devotee of the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett. If you’ve never heard of his work think Dickens meets Douglas Adams meets Monty Python. Laugh out loud funny and deeply, deeply profound. Come to the Cambridge Festival of Ideas to see my take on the application of leadership and diversity and inclusion theory as applied in Sir Terry’s Discworld featuring trolls, zombies, witches and various other fantasy species!!

“Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things” Sir Terry Pratchett

Never treat people as elements of production, commodities or ‘things’. Whatever our endeavours, being human and treating others as a human is key.

Top tips

Be kind (to yourself and others)

Keep learning (you’ll never know it all and there’s always the joy of finding out something new)

Trust your instincts (your intuition and sense of what’s right should never be dismissed)

Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. Saying ‘no’ is powerful. It means that boundaries you set for yourself remain intact. When getting busy and building a career means that compromises need to be made, there are certain things that are non-negotiable. Maintain those boundaries as it’s easy to lose yourself if you don’t. In a world where being true to yourself is getting harder and harder, saying ‘no’ and feeling OK about it is a core capability.

Women in leadership

Bring your human self to work. This sounds daft but we’ve grown up with leadership lessons that seem to have written out the human side of working with others. This is not a question of gender. While it’s true that we’ve seen a traditionally masculine leadership approach (strong, steady, decisive, perhaps aggressive) what’s going to serve us today and into the future are characteristics of humans. Compassion, collaboration, creativity and humour. Often said to be more ‘female’ this stereotypical description denies the fact that men can be just as good at these things as women – but they may not have learned or been supported in expressing them. So, be human – it’s what’s important as we move further into the fourth industrial age.

Secondly, question your narrative. Many women aspiring to leadership positions doubt their capacities because of an experience of the impostor phenomenon based on faulty narratives. Simply put, they make true their story of not being good enough, not knowledgeable enough, not worthy enough for promotion, reward or recognition. Usually, that story is untrue but deeply held. Question it. Challenge it. If it’s broken – fix it. If it’s not serving you – get rid of it. This takes time and can be deeply distressing for some. But life (and work) is so much better without that ‘broken record’ playing at the back of the mind.

Thanks so much to Terri for this blog, she has given us some amazing advice and we hope she has inspired you too. If you feel ready for more inspiration then check out some more blog posts here. You can check out www.forfakesake.org here!


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