I’ve always had an ambition to write, specifically a fictional story for children. I have the title, lead character and plot intention (if not an actual plot) clear in my mind. But aside from sporadic attempts on holidays to start writing it, my masterpiece has hovered patiently in the wings for many years, unformed, waiting to be told. And yet to my surprise, this week I find myself penning the final chapter of a business book, The Future of Time, due to be published early next year. It’s making me ponder: what form does a story take? What does a storyteller look like?
My English teacher at school advised me not to do English A-level alongside French and Spanish. Apparently Maths would be far more useful. I disagreed then and still do now (I never used trigonometry or calculus again). But being the obedient type, I obligingly sweated over Maths instead. Somehow, despite exploring vast quantities of international literature during my A-levels and my degree, the idea lodged in my head that I wasn’t cut out for creative writing or storytelling. That was reinforced by my career choices: I’ve always worked in the world of business, not books.
After a brief but entertaining flirtation with retail at Harrods, I spent 15 years in management consulting helping big UK and multinational companies to implement large-scale changes in their organisations and HR functions. This might sound dry and impersonal but it was the opposite. Yes there were numbers involved but mainly, it was about people and human dramas playing out in the workplace. Changes that are imposed on us in our work lives – like mergers and restructurings – can be exciting, stressful and sometimes traumatic. Our jobs enable us to pay our bills but for many of us, our work also shapes an essential part of our identity and purpose. So we care deeply when we discover our job is at risk, our team is being re-organised or our work responsibilities reshaped.
I conducted hundreds of focus groups and interviews with people in all kinds of roles and at all levels, listening to their views, concerns and hopes for the future. Feelings and emotions frequently ran high. People needed to tell someone their story, their anecdotes about working there and how they felt about what was happening. Some were excited, others fearful, others angry. I listened and listened. I felt a weight of responsibility to help their voices be heard. Not to gloss over the details and the impact, but to reflect these back to business leaders. To remind those leaders of the humanity they held in their hands, as well as their business plans. Not just to report the facts but the emotions and experiences that added depth and meaning. The hopes and fears, questions and ideas that I’d heard. I wanted to honour what people had shared with me and to amplify their voices. It’s not easy to be heard in a workforce of thousands. Over the years I wrote countless reports, presentations and communications for many different audiences, never thinking I was storytelling.
I continued to listen to people’s stories in my next role running professional networks in the City of London. I heard high-profile businessmen and women talk about how they’d reached the lofty heights of their careers. I spoke with people who were just starting out, who’d fought tooth and nail to land their first job in a prestigious firm. People in their 30s and 40s returning apprehensively to work after a career break or a new baby. Older workers what their late stage career might look like. I interviewed, wrote articles and white papers, spoke at conferences and to the press, brought people together to discuss topics of mutual interest. Still I didn’t think I was storytelling.
Now I work independently, speaking and advising on creating workplaces where everyone can flourish. And yes, I write too. My business book is about how organisations can manage working time better and by doing so, boost the productivity, diversity and wellbeing of their workforce. Writing this book and reflecting on the creative experience has led me to realise that I am indeed a story teller and I always have been. I tell other people’s stories. I collect them, weave them together, see the common threads, look curiously into the gaps. And with my book, I’m telling my own story of how our world of work could change for the better.
Maybe one day, sooner than I think, I’ll write that children’s novel too.