Bravery & Bouncing Back
One thing I love about our uber-socially-technologically connected world is the ability to make contact with people who might once have been out of reach. This month I’m bringing you an inspiring* interview with Kate Wilson, esteemed publisher who appeared on BBC Radio 4’s The Bottom Line programme with Evan Davis (Feb, 2014) discussing her firing in 2010. She’s a brilliant example of bouncing back and bravery. If you’re one of the people who flagged these as themes worth exploring in the reader survey last year then I hope you find it especially valuable. Equally if you’ve ever wondered about starting your own business, experienced a devastating setback professionally or personally or currently find yourself in a funk I implore you to read Kate’s story.
Golden nugget if you haven’t got time to read it all now: “Looking brave is a bit like being brave: you sort of come to occupy that space. For me, looking as if I was working again sort of became working again.” (And click on the ‘Take Away’ button to download a pdf version to read later).
*a word I use sparingly.
As Kate explains in The Bottom Line, she’d had a successful career in children’s publishing (she brought us The Gruffalo and worked on Horrible Histories series amongst other things) and was head-hunted by a company publishing books for adults in 2009. It didn’t work out, and Kate was fired after five months. My interview with Kate explores her bravery and the practical steps she took to bounce-back. Whether you’re currently on solid career footing, out of the employment market, or somewhere in between, I think there’s something valuable to be gained from Kate’s approach you’ll get something positive from Kate’s story.
>> I started by asking Kate to tell me something about how she consciously shaped her internal environment. Just what was it about her mindset, and what beliefs was she holding about herself, that kick-started the bounce-back?
1. Reminding myself of all my successes
“I reminded myself I’d been a successful children’s publisher. I had slightly over two decades of children’s publishing experience behind me during which I’d published The Gruffalo and Horrible Histories and The Hunger Games: I’d published a lot of things that have been commercially and critically successful. In fact, my previous children’s job had been more of a management job and less of a straight publishing job. I felt a bit far away from books, and that was one of the reasons for going to the adult job that I was fired from: I wanted to get back to doing the things that I felt had been good at, which was making books – connecting with authors and connecting with illustrators and working on books to make them the best they can be. So this is something that I had quite a lot of confidence in – I had made money making books before. I felt it was a skill I had.”
2. I believed that I had to make working for myself work for me
“There was, frankly, another thing. I thought – and this is sort of like the title of that book about the woman who was told she wouldn’t be able to find work in Hollywood (though publishing isn’t as glamorous as publishing!) – that I’d “never eat lunch in this town again” . I thought that I probably wouldn’t find another company to employ me. I’d been pretty senior, and I’d been fired from a large, prestigious company – one of the biggest publishing companies in the UK – and I thought that there wasn’t much chance that I would be offered another senior publishing opportunity any time soon. I didn’t really think I was looking like a terribly attractive employee, and I didn’t feel that there was an obvious place for me to go.
So I thought that I’d have to work for myself, and set up a publishing company.
It would be wrong to say that I suddenly knew I had to be an entrepreneur: that I saw the light. That’s not how it was. The decision was the result of two very practical things: I had made money doing publishing children’s books in other companies and I didn’t think I would get another job.”
3. Focusing on the upsides to starting something new
“At times, when I’ve been frustrated in the past about my job, it has never been about not loving the business that I am in: I love the business I am in! And it’s not usually been about the staff or strategy. The truth is that when I have been frustrated, I have been frustrated about my bosses. So after I was fired, I also began to think: I wonder if I can have a punt at seeing whether I can do without a boss, whether I can create my own culture that I don’t have to fit into. Can I make my own culture?”
4. Taking time to assess my strengths and weaknesses
At the time, I was in my mid-forties and by then I had a pretty strong sense of my weaknesses as well as my strengths. I felt, for example, that I wasn’t a terribly good political operator in a corporate context. It’s not that I was completely clueless, or a bonkers maverick, but I think it’s hard to be great in a corporate context for the people who work for you if you are not really good at managing up. And I felt that that managing up was not necessarily one of my core skills. So I was looking for something that would use my strengths, which I think are about creativity and dynamism and leadership.
The assessment that I made of my strengths and weaknesses weren’t made in the twelve hours between leaving the building after being fired and suggesting that we set up the business that became Nosy Crow to my husband. My assessment was based on years of experience – a kind of growing awareness of what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at.
5. Accepting that it was OK to feel uncertain about the next step
The idea that I was able to hold onto the idea that I should set up my own publishing company with complete, unwavering conviction in the months between being fired and setting up Nosy Crow would be a misrepresentation. I had the idea immediately, but I wavered and sometimes I didn’t feel confident that I could do it.
I’d always been tempted to set up my own company. Over the years, whenever I was frustrated with work, my husband always said that I should set up on my own and my response was always, ‘I’m too scared.’ And, also, there was always another corporate ladder opportunity for me: I didn’t apply for any of the jobs I have had since I was in my late 20s. I was head-hunted. So there was always kind of a next corporate step for me each time and suddenly there wasn’t another corporate step. That was scary. Part of me wanted the apparent safety of a next corporate step.
>> Kate, I’d love to hear more about how you managed to bring back the conviction when it wavered, and grow it into certainty. Could you give us some pointers?
1. Gather support people around you
“I had lots of support from my family, and especially from my husband who knows the business of publishing and is now my business partner (we work together every day!). He was a combination of knowledgeable and supportive.” The take-out: when it troubled times, let’s increase the time we spend with people who believe in us and support our very essence.
2. Create a structure for each day
“My husband also helped me to give a bit of shape to the day in the early days after I was fired: we used to take the children to school together and we’d go to a cafe after drop-off for a coffee and to talk about what I might do next. I bought a new note book. I got a smartphone (I’d had a company one before). I had my computer. I tried to surround myself with small accoutrements of working and small patterns of working: being outside the house and talking about work made me feel like I was doing the sort of things I had done as a working person. To be honest, I wanted to keep feeling as if I was someone who was working even though at that point I was not.
3. Connect, connect, connect
“I met anybody would talk to me. I went to industry events, paying for myself if I had to. I went through my contacts and fixed up meetings with anyone who’d see me. And through the conversations I had, and the recognition that there wasn’t an obvious corporate job out there for me, that I refined the ideas that I was having. Gradually the conversations that had been about the possibility of employment started to be about exploring the market and how I might fund a company: the nature of the meetings started to shift.
>> You’ve talked about how vital making connections and having conversations was to eventually getting Nosy Crow going. Can you say more about how you set about getting those meetings?
“Well, I was at a level in the industry where there was some trade press coverage of the fact that I had left the company. So when I called people, it wasn’t new news to many of the people I was talking to within the trade, and I had been in the trade for twenty-odd years so I was lucky to have a pretty extensive contact book.
I talked to my contacts and I asked other people who had been in comparable situations if they knew of any head-hunters. (And that is something I always do now – I always try and make time for anyone I know reasonably well who’s been fired. It’s just a tiny act of kindness, but it matters so much.)
I had some formal meetings with recruitment consultants and look at The Sunday Times’ appointment section. Sometimes it was a good experience but sometimes a rather disheartening experience! And then I would just have to move onto the next thing.
I found that looking brave is a bit like being brave, you sort of come to occupy that space – looking as if you are working sort of becomes working. The week after I was fired, I went to the Frankfurt book fair which is the corporate industry event and I went there under my own steam and I stayed in the cheapest and nastiest hotel – because all the cheap hotels that are not really repellent had already been taken by the time I was trying to book. I was there with NO appointments (by contrast, we have a book fair next week and three of us have around 150 appointments in 3 days), but I walked the aisles in my new raincoat looking as if I knew what I was doing. And it almost looked as if I did!
An industry event like that was a good way of making contacts that I didn’t already have in my contacts system but where they were people that I knew I wanted to talk to. I just wanted to grab five minutes to arrange to meet up for a coffee when we get back to London. So I spent some money going to events and conferences to get back in.
It was awful, devastating and terrible, there is no point in pretending – I went back to the hotel and I cried because it had been ghastly doing it – having to be that person all day.”
>> Kate, thank you so much for your honesty – I came to you because I felt utterly convinced that delving into your story could help others and I’ve gained a tremendous boost myself. Can you tell us about how you kept going?
“At that book fair, I went back to the horrible hotel room and I rang home and I talked to my husband and my kids; I had people who loved me. I thought ‘I may have fluffed this last job, but I am not a totally worthless human being. I have a family, I have friends.’ My work is hugely important to me, but in the whole scheme of things, I recognise that it is only part of what makes me. I don’t have any kind of deeply-held overarching philosophy of life or religious conviction, but I hope I do have a sort of perspective on things most of the time!”
>> Some closing thoughts from you about when you felt things started coming together and what’s happening now?
“Everything is always a work in progress so there isn’t a happily ever after ending to this, any more than there is to any things in life. Now I am running a small publishing business and we have triumphs and disappointments just like any other business has, but things are pretty good!
There were important points like being offered a couple of sources of funding for the business and being able to make a choice. Going through the process of actually signing the paperwork felt like a moment of beginning. Securing a flexible lease on a workspace that felt right for the business was another significant moment. That was February 1st 2010 and, since then, I’ve looked back every year by writing a blog post on what’s happened – where and how we’ve sold books and apps; how many languages we have had our books and apps translated into; prizes that we have won – and we have won lots of prizes! There are lots of great moments that make me sure I am doing the right thing.”
Find out more at www.nosycrow.com