Shaping my Leadership
By Louise Thompson, Legal and Compliance Director at Distributed
Louise is Legal & Compliance Director at Deloitte Fast Fifty company Distributed. Distributed is a remote first, on-demand, globally distributed software engineering organisation. Louise has enjoyed a 25-year career working at Director level in a number of tech companies and also has a NED portfolio. Her passions include transformation, ethical leadership, inclusion in its widest sense and wellbeing. Here she shares the impact of her two Windsor Leadership programmes and the ways they have defined her leadership since 2011.
Shaping my Leadership
“People, don’t you understand, the child needs a helping hand, or he will grow to be an angry young man some day?”.
Lyrics from Elvis Presley, although his song, “In the Ghetto” that contains these words was actually written by country singer and song writer Mac Davis. But it was Elvis who spoke those words to me and they always stick with me. In fact, a review of my LinkedIn profile will reveal it is regularly quoted.
It makes perfect sense to me. If we don’t take care of our young people who have fewer advantages than most, how can we expect them to grow up to contribute to society? On a similar theme, Desmond Tutu said “there comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in”.
It is somewhat ironic that I am quoting a religious leader. I don’t follow any religion. In fact, when I turned up at Windsor Castle for the first day of my week-long Emerging Strategic Leaders Programme at Windsor Leadership back in 2011, one of the first people I saw was a clergyman. On sight, I felt the terror I had been supressing build into panic. It was confirmed. This was not a place I belonged. There was a vicar on the programme and I thought I would have nothing in common with them. It is only fortuitous that the Wing Commander who was to become one of my inner circle of trusted advisers wasn’t in uniform, or I would definitely have turned and run!
Instead, I stepped over the threshold, still keenly avoiding the vicar, and joined a programme that I have often stated in public was a life-defining five days for me.
Tackling imposter syndrome
One of the reasons that I feel the words from In the Ghetto message so deeply is that I come from the Geordie version of that Ghetto. I was born and brought up in Newcastle’s west end, a very deprived inner city area. There were riots during my teenage years. I was fortunate to have hard working and caring parents, but many of my peers did not.
Unemployment, poverty, teen pregnancy and drug abuse were the norms. I survived the local comprehensive school, in the early 80s but I can’t say I was educated. If you were capable, it wasn’t very safe to highlight it, and in any event, I had no idea that I had capability.
The Kids from Fame did inspire me long before Elvis’ words “Fame costs and right here is where you start payin’. In sweat”. The message was that you could follow your dreams and be successful. My dream, barely articulated to anyone, was to be a journalist. “You need O Levels to do that” someone at school said. Well, I wasn’t likely to get them, whatever they were. When it came to careers advice, I had two choices – secretary or hairdresser. Choosing the lesser of two evils, I soon found myself working at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle and it was magical.
The transforming power of being believed in
A consultant cardiologist, now Professor Phil Adams, was unfortunate to have me assigned as his secretary. He could often find me slumped over an electric typewriter but somehow, he saw something in me and he gave me the opportunity to do more. I became his team’s research assistant, undertook data searches, interviewed patients and eventually was published as an author in a medical journal with the team.
That was extraordinary and I have Phil Adams to thank. I was ashamed of the publication though. My name had no qualifications after it like the others did. I had learned by now what a University was and I had taken some night classes and gained an A Level in Law, and a marriage along the way!
Breaking through traditional routes
I applied to three universities to study law, Newcastle, Durham and Northumbria. Law was similar to the sort of work I had been doing, but didn’t involve science, because there was no way I could possibly get a science qualification, right? Predictably, only Northumbria gave me a hearing and four years later I had a law degree, an interest in the law relating to technology and a Legal Practice Certificate from Northumbria University to my name (and a divorce). I had absolutely no clue that I needed a business network, connections to get me into a law firm and that my non-traditional route would be detrimental.
I didn’t get into a law firm. I did go into an international technology company and found my way into procurement and then into Commercial Management. BT sponsored my Master of Science degree at the University of Manchester and I have spent over 20 years in Legal & Commercial teams in tech companies.
During the MSc, I was introduced to Servant Leadership and it resonated. It wasn’t relevant to me directly obviously, I was never going to be a leader, but it seemed that leaders should behave that way to get the best results.
Discovering meaning and purpose
It was during my time at Airwave Solutions, a company that provided secure communications for the fire service, police and ambulance that I found meaning as well as business in my work.
The feeling that I was giving something back for the amazing opportunities I had been given. It was as Head of Commercial at Airwave that I was identified, by way of assessment, as a candidate for their Emerging Strategic Leaders Programme and joined their Operating Committee and as part of that, I applied to Windsor Leadership and was successful in being offered a place. Development feedback was that I needed confidence and gravitas.
So, there I was, 2011, in Windsor Castle, “mingling” with all of these accomplished individuals. On the first day I noticed how they ‘fitted’ the surroundings and all seemed better than me in every way. There was the old imposter syndrome returning again!
Talking, Sharing and Developing Trust
Soon, we were formed into a circle and the plan for the week was outlined. We would hear about the career journeys of some very prominent people from business, the third sector, the military and the clergy, not to mention staff of the Royal Household. I could only relate to the business people and then only to a limited extent. We would be required to talk about our own leadership journeys and our biggest leadership challenges.
As each one of us told of our experiences in turn, our facilitators made it clear that there was to be no ducking the issues, no sanitising of the decision-making process. This was a real examination of what happened and what could have gone better, and it showed those of us participating how to ask direct, challenging questions of each other, with kindly intent.
And that was basically it. It was about talking, sharing and developing trust. Some of the experiences had been truly life and death situations. At dinner one evening, I had a long conversation with the vicar. He was funny and warm and, well, very human. We learned that week that our leadership challenges were much the same, irrespective of our sector and that the essence of leadership is to take care of those in your charge and beyond.
Servant leadership, authenticity and values
I left Windsor a different person, on the inside. I was validated. I wasn’t injected with confidence and gravitas. I probably still don’t have them. I was given access to my mandate. A mandate that I can use my leadership to benefit people. I realised that I could use Servant Leadership (although it wasn’t mentioned during the course) as my way of leading and that inspiring my team members, motivating them, ensuring they had what they needed to do the job and that they were properly compensated and sponsored. That was my way to be an authentic and successful leader and to use my corporate leadership to engage in true (rather than lip serviced) corporate social responsibility. I am able to do Elvis’ bidding and give the child a helping hand. I couldn’t work in an organisation that doesn’t actively support this, with values similar to my own, and I have been able to get involved in some amazing initiatives to promote education and rehabilitation, alongside my corporate activities.
A powerful network over ten years on….
I was also given a network in my Windsor Leadership cohort. A true and broad community that I can call upon to discuss issues and to be challenged and provoked and for whom I can do the same. We are still in touch and still trusting in each other like we do in very few other people, over a decade later.
I will always be grateful to Windsor Leadership for opening my eyes and my heart and helping me find the way for me to lead and to Elvis for showing me the way.
“Take a look at you and me, are we too blind to see? Do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?”
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