02. Harriet Minter: Risk-taking, career change and women’s leadership

Sue Stockdale, co-founder of Access to Inspiration talks to Harriet Minter about risk-taking, career change, and the hot topics in women’s leadership today. Harriet is a journalist, TEDx speaker and is former editor of The Guardian, Women in Leadership section. She writes a monthly column in Psychologies magazine and is a regular speaker on women’s rights, organisational change and workplace diversity. Harriet’s LinkedIn profile



Harriet Minter transcription

Sue : [00:00:00] Today with me on the podcast I have Harriet Minter. She’s a journalist, broadcaster and speaker specializing in women’s leadership and empowerment and was formerly the Guardian women in leadership editor. She currently presents badass women’s hour on talk radio with Emma Sexton and Natalie Campbell and writes a column for Psychologies magazine. Welcome Harriet.

Harriet: [00:00:29] Hello. Thank you for having me.

Sue : [00:00:30] Harriet, you’re known for founding the Guardian women in leadership section, which was extremely popular. How did that come about?

Harriet: [00:00:37] So I was working at the Guardian and my remit was basically to create new sections on the website. So to kind of come up with a topic, think about what the audience for that topic was, and basically try and grow the website readership.

And I’ve been doing that for a little while and I sort of run out of things to launch. I noticed that all around me, everyone was [00:01:00] talking about women and work. So there was this big government report into the number of women on boards. I used to get on the tube and people would be reading Lean In and it just seemed to be lots of chat about it, but nobody was really kind of taking it seriously.

I also knew that when it came to women’s media, the way we cater for women in the media is that we write about their relationships and their appearance. But when I go out for dinner with my girlfriends, we would talk about our jobs. So I thought that was a missed opportunity. And I went to my boss and he was not convinced.

And to be honest, he wasn’t that sure. And then. I sort of chatted to lots of people about it. And eventually I got talking to a woman who leads our events team and she said, Oh my God, I’ve always wanted to run an event on this. But every time I suggest it, it just gets knocked back. Why don’t we team up and run an event together?

And then if it’s a success, we’ll have some proof that there’s a market for it. And if it’s not, we’ll just sort of deny that we ever did it. So we did, we sold [00:02:00] the event out, had 120 people and my boss came to it. And he was the only man in the room. And afterwards I sort of said to him, you know, what did you think?

Did you enjoy it? And he was really did enjoy it. But it was quite strange because I wanted to ask a question, but as the only man in the room, I felt like I couldn’t what it’s like to be a woman. And within that minute he had the experience I  think pretty much every woman has had of at some point being the only person of your kind, in this case, gender only woman in the room.

And it is really weird when that’s the case. You do speak less. You do ask a few questions. I mean, do you hesitate before speaking up? You do get spoken over and that’s I think a common experience for women, but it wasn’t a common experience for men. He’d never had it. And it took him kind of experiencing that to say, ah, okay, there’s something here. This could be interesting. When he had that experience then we’ve got it up and running and it was launched think about six weeks [00:03:00] later.

Sue : [00:03:00] It’s interesting when people experience things for themselves.

Harriet: [00:03:04] I find that that was really like a really big lesson for me, which is you can’t tell people stuff. You have to make them feel it.

Sue : [00:03:12] I know today Harriet you are doing coaching, you’re a consultant, a journalist, a radio show host, and a TEDx speaker. Which one of those things do you enjoy the most, and how do you balance your time with that portfolio of activities?

Harriet: [00:03:24] Ooh, great question. So the thing I enjoy the most absolutely, definitely is public speaking.

I love it. I am a frustrated actress at heart. If I, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would quit my work, and I would just go to drama school and I’d like spend my life trying probably failing to be an actress. So I think being up on stage, having an audience and then really like, and this sounds very manipulative and awful, but the joy of public speaking is being able to control and move that audience’s emotions and feelings.

And then for you as a public speaker to be able to adapt to what’s happening with that audience and say, okay, [00:04:00] well this is the direction they are in now. They want more of this or less that. So that’s, I find lovely. That’s like, it combines a kind of performance with a bit of danger. So I really enjoy that.

And then the rest of it, I’m really lucky. Like everything gives me something different. I would say that I’m definitely a generalist rather than a specialist. So if I do anything for too long, I get a bit bored. Oh, I’m kind of balancing time. I think it is. I basically just know when sounds best to me, but when I start to see the money decrease in a certain area, I haven’t spent enough time in that area and will say sometimes.

You can get to a point where you feel a bit like, Oh, I’m a bit done with this, and unexcited by it, and then something comes along, which really reinvigorates it again for you. So I had a moment a few months ago where I was sort of, Oh God, I didn’t have very many coaching clients. And the ones I’ve got love them dearly, but I’ve had them for a long time since there are no big dramas for them. They’re kind of they’re set on their own. They’re what they’re doing. And then after. Absolutely. I [00:05:00] got kind of two new clients I really loved and thought was so fascinating. Interesting. So I think I’m quite lucky that it balances itself, but I think that’s also because I keep a little bit of an eye on where’s the money and how am I feeling about each of these sessions.

Sue : [00:05:13] I’m picking up on that idea about how you feel about things. Harriet. My sense is that you like a little bit of danger or evading or risk in what you do.

Harriet: [00:05:25] There’s a reason that I don’t go to casinos. I would lose all my money. I like that to be, it’s not even so much that I like a bit of risk. It’s that it energizes me and when everything is very set and stable, then I feel like there’s not enough energy around it. I wish I could be somebody that was just naturally motivated, but I’m not. I need that to be a little bit of fear to boost the motivation.

Sue : [00:05:51] So thinking about some of our listeners who may be in a job that is fairly stable, and certain, and they want a little bit of risk or [00:06:00] excitement or something different in their lives. What would you say to them to encourage them to metaphorically step out their comfort zone?

Harriet: [00:06:08] I would say, I guess kind of the example you were saying, like if you won the lottery tomorrow, what would you do? And then look at where that is leading you a little bit. So. If you’re saying, if I won, actually tomorrow, I would quit my job by yacht in The Bahamas rate. Maybe don’t do that, but you could think, okay, well actually what I really want is to spend more time sailing. Then how can you bring that into your life a little bit? Can you set yourself up for a challenge? Is there something you can go and work on a project side project you can go and work on that allows you to do that?

Look at kind of what’s the stuff that. If money and time were no object, what would your heart and soul go and play out in the area? And then the other thing I would say is keep it small so you can have a really big, big, big dream. And that’s great, but they get quite scary quite quickly. So [00:07:00] have the big dream and then see what’s one small thing that I could do towards this?

So if you, I don’t know why I want to say the narrative, but I, if you want to go and sail around the world, like a small steps that is, go join a sailing club. That’s what I’m saying is when the idea feels really, really big, then I think it’s then easiest for us to get stuck in inaction because it feels like we can’t possibly make an idea that big happen.

Sue : [00:07:24] So it sounds like sensible advice there to take small steps and iterative steps?

Harriet: [00:07:28] Yeah. And you know, also too small and iterative, but also with a little bit of fear. So somebody described it to me. As you know, when we think about comfort, same, there’s the center of the comfort zone, which is completely safe, potentially know what you’re doing. There’s just very calm still waters. Then there’s the kind of edge of the comfort zone where. You’re still in your comfort zone, but it feels like any second you could be out of it. There’s a little bit of risk involved and then there’s the land of fear and terror and we don’t want to end up in the land of fear and terror, but we definitely want to be on the [00:08:00] edge of the comfort zone.

Sue : [00:08:01] Yeah, that makes complete sense. And I suppose with helping people to be inspired to take those steps, and this podcast is all about helping people access inspiration. I’m curious to know what inspires you?

Harriet: [00:08:16] What inspires me? Having said I’m journalist, I’m always really inspired by people who have serious depth and knowledge and passion for their subject.

So when you see somebody in, they’re really passionate about what they do and they’re. That’s making a difference to their lives and to other people’s lives. I find that hugely inspiring. I think for me, inspiration is more of a feeling than an act. And I really can feel it. Like I can feel it like physical all the way out from my toes all the way up and through my body.

And I get that when people are doing stuff that I would love to do, but I feel like I’m not good enough or I’m too scared, or I’m not gonna be able to make it work. And then somebody comes along and you’re like, Oh, well they’re doing it, [00:09:00] and that just a human being. We’re all just human beings and none of us have special, amazing talents. Like, you know, we’re just human making our way through the world. So if they’re doing it, then does that mean I could do it too?

Sue : [00:09:11] So it relates to me from what I’m hearing there, back to your spheres of comfort zone, that if something seems too difficult and achievable, it’s in that fear and terror zone. But when you can relate to the person and see that you could be that person, it seems to then have an attraction. To draw you towards it.

Harriet: [00:09:29] And it also feel like it’s not when something’s too efemoral. When you know somebody, like I’ve spoken with people who are amazing, they’re like, I want to change 1 billion women’s lives. And I’m like, well, that’s incredible, but where do you even start with that? And how are you even going to know that you’ve changed a billion women’s lives. And yeah. Then I see them, and they might be running a coaching program, which teaches women to become coaches, to teach other women, to become coaches and so on and so forth, and so they’ve worked out how they’re going to do it, and then I’m like, Oh, okay. I see. [00:10:00] Right. That I can get excited about. And so for me, there’s something about, I’m sometimes not great at taking the kind of big idea into the visual action steps, but when I can see what that looks like, then I get really excited.

Sue : [00:10:13] One might  imagine that your ability to coach and help others to do that is how you might add value to their lives.

Harriet: [00:10:20] Yeah, so I mean, I think just the law of life is that everything is easier in other people’s lives, other people’s problems are always much, much easier than your own. And this for me is why I think having a coach is really kind of life changing if you can access one because suddenly the stuff that you think is impossible to solve will to them be quite straightforward. And that’s not because you know that geniuses, it’s simply because other people’s problems that easier than our own. And we are so stuck in the story of our own problems and what they mean and how difficult they are and how it’s never going to change that we can’t see the wood for the trees or maybe the trees for the word in [00:11:00] that way, in that example. But having somebody outside of it. Allows us to do that. And so for me, being able to do that for other people is a joy. You know? It’s how lovely to be able to sit there with someone and be like, okay, what do you think? You’ve got this thing that can never change, but actually, could we do this one little thing that might change it. Let’s get going.

Sue : [00:11:20] They always say the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.

Harriet: [00:11:23] Yeah, exactly.

Sue : [00:11:24] So a thought about women’s leadership today. Harriet, you’re clearly in the middle of understanding what topics are in that space. What do you see are the things that are being talked about an important for women’s leadership today.

Harriet: [00:11:41] So I think there’s definitely a move away from just thinking of it as women’s, leadership and thinking of it .as Intersectional leadership. So when we talk about intersectionality, we’re talking about my experience as a middle class white woman is different from somebody else’s experience as a working class white women or as a middle class black woman, or as [00:12:00] a middle class white woman with a disability.

Yeah. It’s actually looking at women and men and not too much in this group. So we all have different experiences and understanding of the world and how did they play into our leadership. So I think that’s really key. I think there’s a really interesting discussion around kind of women leaving the workplace because we just have not practiced that.

So while the numbers of women getting into leadership roles might be slightly bigger than it was before, actually the number of women available to go into those roles hasn’t grown. And that’s a big problem, right? So why do women leave? And it’s not. It’s unfortunate that it happens around the same time women have babies, but it’s actually not really driven by the babies. It’s driven by life expectations, desires. I have a belief that it’s driven by the fact that it’s kind of socially acceptable for women to say, I’m leaving the big corporate world. I’m going to do my own thing, or I’m going to stay at home for a bit, or I’m going to go and retrain in a way that it’s not socially acceptable for men to do that.

And it’s driven by the fact that [00:13:00] our workplace doesn’t really work and support women and families in a way that makes it sustainable. So I think that’s stuff that is still up for discussion. And then the other thing that I see being talked about lots, which I think is really interesting, is women’s health.

And so actually how we talk about things like menopause at work, how we talk about things like gynecological issues at work, how we understand that women’s bodies. Biologically have different stages. For me, there was a really interesting thing a few years ago around kind of ageism in the workplace and how I think the cutoff for men is 50 after 50 you become very aware of ageism in the workplace, but for women it’s 45 but let’s be honest, I would argue that it’s much, much earlier.

I remember kind of looking around my workplace and only seeing one woman who was over the age of 40. And I think a lot of that has to do with how we treat women pre and post menopause, and actually when we open up that discussion and be [00:14:00] like, it’s not this kind of scary thing where women have to disappear off into a hut and stay there and never come out again, then I think we have a better understanding of life stages and what people at different life stages bring to the workplace.

Sue : [00:14:11] There seems to be a theme from what you’re seeing here. Harriet  is it about understanding difference and not making assumptions that we’re all the same?

Harriet: [00:14:17] Yeah. Definitely, definitely, definitely that. What I think the kind of women’s leadership movement has done is it has allowed us to have a discussion about individuality, and I think.

When we look at the kind of female leadership, people can get quite eye-rolling about it and being like, Oh, it’s just for you. Certain types of women, or it’s just women taking jobs even though they’re not as qualified as men and actually it’s saying no because of this. You get to say as a man, you get say actually, I want to stay at home with my kids. That happens because women started talking about why it was they weren’t being given the top jobs as a black woman, and you get to say, hang on, I get paid less than all of my white colleagues. It started a conversation and that conversation has a lot [00:15:00] further to go, but it wouldn’t have happened if a lot of them hadn’t stood up and said, hang on. I’m really annoyed that I am as good, if not better than my male colleagues, and I’m not getting the jobs now. So there’s a domino effect to start in the conversation.

Sue : [00:15:14] So finally Harriet. What top tips would you have for anyone listening that wants to take a step into the unknown, either in their career or in their life?

Harriet: [00:15:24] I would say the fact that you’re even thinking that you want to do that is a sign that you should. Yeah. If the hunger is there, follow the hunger. I think it is about looking at, spend some time really looking at why you feel you can’t. So what is the stuff that you have now that is currently feels too scary to give up?

So when I left my job as a full time journalist at the guardian, it took me a year to do that. It took me a year to say, okay. It’s done here. I can go. And that was because it gave me stuff, you know, it gave me prestige, it gave me a salary, gave me [00:16:00] a great job title to talk about dinner parties or stuff.

And it was kind of acknowledging what it gave me and being like, okay, well how can I find that elsewhere? So really do, if you have a hunger to go, it’s doesn’t mean that everything about your current role is bad, you know? It’s just still giving you things. You just need to acknowledge those and think about how else you’re going to have those needs fulfilled. And then I would say, think about what’s possible if you did this, if you took a step into the unknown, what could be possible and don’t limit that thinking. Don’t say, okay, well it won’t happen for me, or it wouldn’t work like that, or I couldn’t do it, or it would be different. Or just if anything was possible, what could be possible.

Sue : [00:16:38] So thank you, Harriet it seems that the practical advice is about small steps. Keep taking small steps towards your big dreams.

Harriet: [00:16:45] Yeah. Definitely.

Sue : [00:16:48] thanks for your time today. It’s been great to talk to you.