‘We wanted to create a monster global sisterhood of amazing women who have each other’s backs.’
Old Boys’ Networks have been the invisible scaffolding on which high-flying men have build their careers for centuries. Debbie Wosskow and Anna Jones – high-flyers themselves as both executives and entrepreneurs – decided it was time that women had an equivalent space and support network. The result was AllBright, a women’s support and success network, and the first women-only private members’ club in London.
But to reach as many women as possible with their empowering message they did the only sensible thing: they wrote a book. In this conversation they reveal how their writing collaboration reflected their core values – mutual respect, optimism, humour, and gin.
Debbie on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DebbieWossk
Anna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MrsAnnaKJones
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
This Book Means Business – the mentorship programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club Summer Reading List 2019: https://alisonjones.com/the-extraordinary-business-book-club-summer-reading-list-2019/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to Extraordinary Business Book Club and it’s very nice to be here today with Debbie Wosskow and Anna Jones. So Debbie is the former CEO of Love Home Swap, a subscription-based home exchange business, which she sold for about 53 million apparently in 2017. She’s a member of the Mayor of London’s Business Advisory Board. She sits on the board of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And in 2016 she was awarded an OBE for her services to business. She won the Evening Standard’s Business Award for Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018 and was shortlisted for CAMs Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2017.
And Anna Jones is a business woman and an entrepreneur. She served as CEO of Hearst Magazines UK until April 2017 where she transformed the business, growing audiences digitally and expanding the events, licencing and brand services. Anna joined the board of the Creative Industries Federation in 2015 and from May 2017 to April 2018 she served on the board of Telecom Italia. And together they founded AllBright, a networking club for women in 2017. And together they have written Believe Build Become: How to Supercharge Your Career. So welcome both to the Extraordinary Business Book Club.
Debbie Wosskow: Thank you.
Anna Jones: Thank you.
Debbie Wosskow: Thank you for having us.
Alison Jones: Oh, it’s terrific. It’s always wonderful. You know, one of the things that’s extraordinary about the Extraordinary Business Book Club is the gender balance. So when I get two amazing business women on talking about the book that they’ve written, it just makes my heart sing. It’s brilliant. And then we’re going to talk about that actually because it’s obviously so relevant to what you do. Just tell me what it was that you wanted to achieve with this book.
Debbie Wosskow: I think the background for us is that AllBright is the business that we set up two years ago and our backgrounds prior to that, as you explained, have been building successful careers, Anna as an executive and my own career as a scrappy entrepreneur. And AllBright was founded because we wanted to help other women to do the same thing and to create a monster global sisterhood of amazing women who have each other’s backs.
Alison Jones: That’s a great phrase, isn’t it? A monster global sisterhood.
Debbie Wosskow: Yes. And so what AllBright is now is clubs for women, we have two in London, we’re sitting in one of them at the moment. We’re opening in Los Angeles next month and then New York at the end of the year. So we think physical space is really important, but alongside that, for the global sisterhood, is how do you build skills? How do you build network? How do you build confidence, resilience? And the things that women need to smash that glass ceiling to launch the business that they always wanted to launch. So AllBright, as well as the physical space, it has a very thriving global digital community who are there to connect with one another, to read about how to do things, to go through practical exercises. But then the next question for us was how do we take that to any woman, every woman, who wants to cover off so many of these critical topics around drive, motivation, confidence, negotiation. And so for that reason, and because we’re a bit crazy, we wrote a book.
Alison Jones: You don’t have to be crazy to write a book, but it does help. Yes, I know that now. And I do want to come on to the book obviously, because that’s very much what we’re about, but I’m just fascinated as well by that ambition of the sisterhood. I know so many men get where they are through those informal or formal old boy networks. Is it a response to that and how is it different, if so? Why is it that we need a separate women’s network?
Anna Jones: So I think you’re absolutely right, the old boys network has been in existence for centuries. And what we observed was I guess both Debbie and I were kind of outliers in our previous lives as CEOs in the media and the tech sector and we’re very practical people. And so what we do is sort of look at a problem and think, well how would we actually fix this? And our observations were that we knew so many amazing women who wanted to become leaders in their corporate lives or perhaps starting to scale their own businesses, but they weren’t doing so. And when we sort of started to dig into why, one of the important reasons was there’s obviously the issue of confidence and we’ll come onto that when we talk about the book. But it was also about network, the fact that they hadn’t seen other women, they didn’t know how other women were doing it and tackling it.
And you know, both of us went many times in really rather dreadful networking situations where you turn up to a huge conference hall and kind of have lots of people standing in circles with warm wine and a curled up sandwich, and you know we-
Alison Jones: Yes, we’ve all been there.
Anna Jones: Exactly, and everyone sort of dreads them. And what we observed when we started bringing networks of women together was how the vibe was very different. And the feedback that we had was it was so rare to be in a space and a place with mainly women and talking openly about the challenges of work and talking openly about what they wanted to achieve and their aspirations for their career. So what we really wanted to do is think about somewhere where that could happen every single day, which is why we opened our first club a year and a half ago in Bloomsbury.
Alison Jones: It is fascinating, isn’t it, that the science shows that women behave very differently and much more confidently in an all female place like that. I guess one of the challenges is making that visible beyond that safe space. How do you address that?
Anna Jones: Well, I think one of the important things is really when you come from a club like the AllBright, you are hearing from extremely interesting and inspiring speakers. So every day we have events here, you know, we had Dame Stephanie Shirley here on Monday night, we had Melissa Hemsley here yesterday morning, we had Viv Groskop here last night. And so there’s lots of interesting and disparate speakers that people can become inspired by.
But there’s also the important thing is what we like to think of as organised serendipity, and that is when you come into our spaces, you might be having a cup of tea next to somebody who you’ve never met before and strike up a conversation, start talking about your work, your industry and some of the challenges that you may face, or some of the positive things that are happening in your space. And what we have seen is through that sort of serendipitous moment, women in our community are starting to build network in new ways, so people who are working in the property industry are networking with women in the creative industries, and they are forming alliances, they’re talking about how they tackle different things. Some people are starting businesses together. People are becoming firm friends here. People are getting their businesses funded. So it’s all happening in a very sort of natural way. But we just realised that there needed to be a space where women could do that on their own terms whenever they felt like it.
Debbie Wosskow: And I think additionally, it’s a really important part of the way that we think about AllBright and the monster global sisterhood. And we cover this off in the book is: what about men? Because that’s something that we get asked a lot. And we feel that it’s totally consistent to have spaces, to have content, to have information that helps to skill up without being anti-men and so men are very welcome in our buildings. There’s a certain frisson that comes for other new members to sign a man in…
Anna Jones: Which they enjoy too.
Debbie Wosskow: …which they enjoy too. And so I think that that’s the other way of answering your question about, to paraphrase, on how does it work in the real world. The answer is that yes, we think it’s about ensuring that women are kick-ass in their daily lives, but by welcoming men in on women’s terms, there’s a real path that we witness every day.
Alison Jones: Yes, it sounds brilliant. I think we all just want to be there now, it sounds fantastic. And I love too that that you represent, and you obviously embrace, that dual aspect of women in business, women building their own businesses but also women leading in major Fortune 500 kind of businesses. Do you find that the differences are less than we might think? This is a very leading question, I just realised as I’ve said it, but I’m just interested in: is it clear when you meet somebody whether they are an entrepreneur or whether they are a leader in a high powered company? Or is it actually much more straightforward and simple than you’d think in terms of just what you have to do when you step up into the door each day?
Anna Jones: Well, I mean we don’t think that careers are linear and in a way you can look at Debbie and I and say, yes, Debbie has been an entrepreneur most of her life, but she has also … her first job was working for someone else and she’s on numerous boards, et cetera. And I have been in the corporate world most of my career and more recently an entrepreneur. And so really the point of AllBright was that mashup of mine and Debbie’s world entrepreneur meets executive.
And what we discovered was that there were huge similarities between the challenges that we faced. And in fact, that’s how Debbie and I bonded to start with. Because what we used to do is we used to meet for breakfast, meet for a cocktail and sort of just talk about our lives because we were both CEOs, and much as that’s fantastic, it can be quite lonely. So what we did was we found ourselves kind of workshopping some of the challenges that we were facing in our day-to-day careers. And really I suppose ultimately thinking and digging into those questions and looking at that in more clarity led us to write our book because what we wanted to do was get down on paper the key challenges that we faced and that also we see our members in our community face and write up pragmatic solutions for how you can get over them.
Debbie Wosskow: For AllBright, and for Anna and I, it’s all about the diversity of the community because that’s that’s where we think the magic is, to build on Anna’s point about all the serendipity. And actually, when you get a group of women who do very different things together in a room, or indeed, which was the thinking behind the book, the reader in digesting the same materials, the power comes in the diversity of the response and the connections that are made when executives meet entrepreneurs meet doctors meet politicians meet, you know, and and and. So all of this for us is about how do we take what we see happening in the buildings every day to people who live anywhere and are doing anything but just want to engage around feeling better, more successful, more focused, more successful in their careers, whatever that means to them.
So very differently with the book, we thought about how to write it and how to cover off what have been different experiences for both of us, even though now we live in each other’s pockets, it seemed right to write alternate chapters that covered things off in slightly different ways. So that genuinely there’s something in this book, in Believe Build Become, for any woman who is thinking about her career.
Alison Jones: Which is really interesting. There’s two points here I want to pick up, firstly the helping thing because I’m guessing that the name AllBright is a nod to Madeline Albright, whom you quote in the book with that wonderful phrase, “There’s a special place in hell for a woman who doesn’t help other women in the workplace.” Is that right?
Debbie Wosskow: That’s right, Yes. That was our project name for what has become the business of AllBright.
Alison Jones: And it’s such a great word actually to summon up what you … Yes.
Debbie Wosskow: It’s such a great word, absolutely. And to be honest, we like it even more because it’s got two L’s in it and everything we do is about being a platform to celebrate women. So AllBright felt very appropriate.
Alison Jones: Yes, no, it’s wonderful. How handy that she happened to have such a resonant name. And then the other piece is about the collaboration and about that complementarity that you’re talking about in the way that when you have the back of someone, you can achieve so much more together and you can be more because you’re being supported. I love that. So tell me how that played out as you wrote together.
Debbie Wosskow: The book is a genuine manifestation of us and how we are, without sounding too cheesy. All of our best work is done together. I think in the introduction of the book we talk about that. We talk about how AllBright is in its essence our collaboration, our different experiences, personalities, skill sets. So the way that we wrote the book was kind of the way we do everything, which is in tandem, at pace, with focus and dividing and conquering, that’s our mantra and that’s what we say to each other every day. How does Anna do X when I do Y? I think that’s the only way in which we’ve grown a big global business without such huge pace. And for me is hugely liberating and much more fun than running a business on your own, which is what I’d have done prior to my random chance encounter with Anna, which changed my life and led to setting up AllBright and everything that has happened and will happen over the years to come.
So we collaborated and we took ourselves to our quiet corners and we marked each other’s homework and we read each other’s chapters and it was a very natural iterative process. That’s us. That’s how we work. That’s who we are.
Anna Jones: It was quite an organic process really because a lot of these topics and subjects we’ve been talking about together for a number of years. So the actual planning part of the book was that was really quite rapid. We thought about it in setting up the business. We thought about it in launching the AllBright academy. So we knew that there were some universal issues that we had faced and that also our members and our friends and our network generally had faced. And so it felt quite natural to start getting it down on paper and start thinking about the structure. And I think people were quite surprised by how fast we wrote the book, but I suppose it had been in our heads and it had been in the planning for a number of years.
Debbie Wosskow: And in a way the book writes itself because of the contact that we have with our kick-ass global sisterhood every day. We know what the topics are that are front of mind for them, the concerns that hold them back. And that really gave the means of writing a book, which we wanted to write something that is as we are, very thematical.
So there are loads of fabulous theoretical business books out there, like Built to Last and Lean Startup and all the rest of it. But I thought what we wanted to do was to do our version of this that at the end required you to focus on you because what we know about women was women about women’s daily lives is that women tend not to spend any time focusing on themselves. And actually the first chapter of the book, which is on Project You, and that’s a real, a practical exercise that we do through the AllBright Academy in the clubs just to get you to think about who you are, what gives you energy, what drives you. And women are often terrible at that. So in a way, the topics drive and motivation, confidence, entrepreneurial mindset, jargon busting, so much of the language that can seem intimidating from the outside and can put women off. We know that these are really critical topics, both cover and offer practical solutions too because that’s what we’ve heard from our members and from our students on the AllBright academy every day.
Alison Jones: And it was fascinating obviously as you’re living this, you’re talking to these people every day and that obviously helps you write the book quickly. When you say quickly, just how quick was it?
Anna Jones: Well, we started having conversations with our publisher last summer and we said to them that we really, really want to get this written and published, printed, by the time we open the Mayfair site, which was a month ago, so the beginning of May. And honestly at first they just thought we were completely mad and they just said it can’t really be done. No you have to bear in mind obviously I’ve worked in the magazine business for a very long time…
Alison Jones: You have different timescales, don’t you?
Anna Jones: Why not? It’s just write it and then you print it. And I think we weren’t perhaps aware that there’s obviously a big machine behind book publishing, which is quite different to magazines. But I think that they thought it was amusing actually and they sort of said to us, “Well if you can get it done by the end of the year,” so the end of last year, within six months, “We can get it.”
But they sort of thought we wouldn’t do it, I think.
Alison Jones: They called your bluff.
Anna Jones: Yes, “Good luck with that.” But we are used to doing everything at pace and so we were just very, very structured about it. And as I said, we had thought about what we wanted to be in the book. Obviously thinking about the title was another thing and thinking about pulling the case studies together took a long time. But again, because we have got this network, our business, and because we’ve thought quite a lot about the sorts of people that we’d want to feature as well as telling our own stories, it didn’t take us that long.
And to Debbie’s point, we do a lot of work together, so what we did was we just sort of sat, forced ourselves, if you like, to sit in a room, and really think about those stories, narratives and bringing to life our own experience because we’re asked very often about there’s loads of amazing inspiring speakers here at the club every day, but we’re often asked about our own voice and our own experiences and I think we haven’t perhaps spent the time actually explaining our own career trajectory in any detail. So really it was quite interesting for us to be introspective for a while because we don’t tend to be, we tend to sort of rush at everything and look at the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. And actually looking back was quite an interesting process.
Debbie Wosskow: We have to drink our own Kool-Aid if you like. So we had to force ourselves to do Project You for us because I think and hope what shines through the book and what we had to really hold up a mirror and think about was, well what does motivate us and why are we driven in this way and what has made us who we are that is practically transferrable to any woman who reads this book? So when Anna talks about introspection, that doesn’t come naturally to either of us particularly because we like getting stuff done. But actually the book was like therapy in that sense because we really had to think, we had to look back over 20 years and think, “Well, why have I had this completely bonkers career and what can I take from that that is of meaning that can be learned?”
Because that’s another big theme of the book is we believe all of this can be learned. We believe all of this can be practised. Again, we talk about that at the beginning of the book, all of our best off-the-cuff remarks are well rehearsed and we mark each other’s homework for everything from dresses to delivery and it’s about finding your version of that. That theme of learning, of sisterhood, of practice, we hope means that women will feel, because again this often characteristic of women that they think, “Well, I wasn’t born like that or it doesn’t come naturally.” And our point throughout this is you can learn it, you can work at it, you can practise, you can look to yourself, you could understand yourself better. It’s in you.
Anna Jones: And also just talking to many of the amazing women that we’ve featured in the book that people look up to and they’re very interested in. But actually what they wanted to do and what we wanted to do with them was to demystify a lot of the seemingly easy journeys that they’ve had. And I think it comes back to this point on practical pragmatic solutions and it is really magazine-like in its structure in the sense that at the end of each chapter you’ve got a sort of workbook effectively to write down what you’re going to do. So specifically looking at the, I don’t know, drive and motivation chapter, there’s a recap and then it’s what do you want to achieve, what are you going to do in the next six weeks? And we encourage the readers to actually write it down and use it effectively as their own notebook and their own sort of manifesto for how they’re going to change their own lives.
Alison Jones: Yes. Interestingly, I was reading the ebook and there’s a little kind of disclaimer bit at the start of the ebook where it says, “When we say write it down, you’re going to have to get your own pad and pencil.” It doesn’t quite say that, but basically what it says. Because this is a book to be used, isn’t it? So yes. Brilliant. So I always ask people what their best tip is for first-time authors, I’m actually going to tweak it slightly for you. I going to say what’s your best tip for first time collaborators? If you’re writing a book with somebody. So I can take you in turn. Anna, what would your best tip be for somebody who wants to collaborate writing about with someone else?
Anna Jones: Well ideally I think you need to have a similar temperament because if one of you thinks that a couple of years is fast to write a book and another one thinks it’s six months, that’s going to be a problem. So I think temperamentally you have to be matched. And then I think you have to just think about, to my earlier point, about the structure around it. So what is the time commitment and make sure that you stick to that and you work together collaboratively in that way.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Of course you’re not going to tell me about any arguments, any discordant moments, are you? I’ll maybe have to get you separately for those.
Anna Jones: We don’t do that.
Alison Jones: You don’t do that.
Anna Jones: We don’t. We don’t fall out.
Debbie Wosskow: People find that a bit boring. We often get asked do we really like each other as much as it seems and the honest answer is yes. When we do work travel, we share a room, on occasion we have had to share a bed with a row of pillows down the middle. So we just didn’t do that, I think that we have respect for one another and one another’s view points. And in fact it’s a really key message to our team as we’re growing this really enormous global team, fascinating global team culturally, because we’re 95% women at the moment, that what the other one of us says goes. It’s not just a point about writing books, but it’s a point about life and partnerships I think is that give or take and it is that absolutely united front and it is, as we said earlier, and it’s one of our mantras is divide and conquer.
You can’t do everything together all the time. And that would also be my point on how we got the book done. What we’re good at doing with the book is what we’re good at doing in life, which is to say, here’s the long list, I’ll take this, you take that. And then someone’s always in our working life doing the first draft. But the way that we work is very collaborative. So Anna my chapter and saying, “Yes, what about this or what about that?” And we’re super open to that with one another because that doesn’t yank our chain, we just know from how we worked together now for three years, that’s how we get our best work done. Our best work is always a collaboration and we hope that’s what the book is.
Anna Jones: Yes. And we talk a lot in the book actually about having a loving critic and I think that’s what we are to each other. We’re used to feeding back to each other, to your earlier point, on everything from sort of, “Hm, not sure green suits you,” to “Actually you haven’t been totally, can you add a bit more on that particular anecdote because when we first chatted about it, I’m sure you said it was … ” And then obviously you have to go back and sort of really pick that memory in more detail.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. I love the idea of you two going, “Yes, well…” I mean what comes out is the trust you have between you, the joy you have in each other’s company and the respect you have for each other, but also the lack of ego, which is just so refreshing.
Debbie Wosskow: Thank you. I think neither of us have that. Again, I suppose that’s something, if part of the book is about demystifying how you get there and who you are, I hope what comes through, and what generally does come through when people get time with us, is that we’re both nice and don’t have some monstrous ego. And we could never operate with each other, it’s a really interesting journey to partner with someone who’s had a very successful career who you 100% respect. It just makes it much easier to get stuff done. And so that is who we are and how we are with one another and genuinely that’s what gets us through because I hope this comes through the book. What we also wanted to show is it isn’t all plain sailing and we have days of absolute disasters.
I think the thing that we have in common, which is hugely helpful, is quite a short memory. So we always wake up feeling wildly optimistic the next morning, no matter how bad the day was before, we have that in common. But also nothing is so bad that we can’t have a gin and tonic at the end of the day and laugh about it. And some of the situations that we’ve been, and they’re so comedic, when people talk about what it is that makes a business partnership work, yes it’s mutual respect, I think I would also say it’s different skillsets. There’s lots of stuff that we don’t double up on, but it’s also a shared sense of humour and that’s what we have. We’ve both got quite dark senses of humour, we’re generally in tears with laughter about something ludicrous during the course of the day. And writing the book was a similar experience.
Alison Jones: I love that.
Debbie Wosskow: Remind me when of this when I suggest a sequel and Anna threatens to murder me, but it was actually a lot of fun.
Alison Jones: So basically this book is brought to you by mutual respect, optimism, humour, and gin.
Debbie Wosskow: Yes, you’re quite right.
Alison Jones: There’s the recipe right there. And I always ask people as well to recommend a book, I mean obviously everybody should go and read your book, but what other book would you recommend that people listening to the podcast should read? Ideally, this is a book, but it doesn’t have to be.
Anna Jones: It’s quite tricky really from a business point of view. I guess when we have a number of members and friends of ours who’ve written great books over the last couple of years. Sarah Wood’s written a book called Stepping Up, which is about leadership. Farrah Storr’s written Discomfort Zone, which is about quite clearly putting yourself out of your comfort zone to grow as a person. Both of them are great books. And then I think for me personally, I quite like business books because I did a business degree so I’ve sort of avoided business books for a number of years because I had to go deep into Drucker and Paynes and goodness knows what. And so I quite like the sort of the Gladwell and the kind of Levitt Dubner kind of approach to unpicking business but bringing it to the mainstream. So I think it’s always interesting to look at those books that take facts and numbers and stats and sort of spin them in a much more interesting or surprising way.
Alison Jones: So are you going to give us a particular title that you’ve enjoyed recently?
Debbie Wosskow: I think for me, Angela Duckworth’s book on grit, and we give her due credit in the book, but that really is one of our mantras and we talk a lot about the three Gs. When people ask us what does it take, and it takes graft because it’s just really, really, really hard work. You’ve got to enjoy it, enjoy the hard work. It takes grace because grace under pressure is one of the hardest things. We don’t always get that right. It can be difficult and frustrating doing what we do, but grit is the key thing. Both of us are mums and it’s the thing that we bang on to our children about with them rolling their eyes, which is the grit and resilience and all of that, Angela’s book was so fascinating because I’m a geek and so I loved the fact that grit outsmarts genius every single time in terms-
Alison Jones: No, I’m nodding curiously, I couldn’t agree more.
Debbie Wosskow: Yes. It’s a theme for us throughout the book and throughout everything that we do at AllBright, which is it can be learned, grit and tenacity and resilience can be learned. Don’t think you need to be a genius because those aren’t the people who actually knock it out the park. And that’s what we’re here to help with.
Alison Jones: And clearly you two shouldn’t stop writing books together. So I may suggest, after Believe Build Become, you have Graft Grace Grit? It’s the follow-up, it’s waiting to happen. Fantastic. Thank you so much. And if people want to find out more about you, more about Believe Build Become, where should they go? And more about AllBright, of course.
Debbie Wosskow: They should go to the AllBrightCollective.Com. Obviously the book’s for sale in all good bookshops and on Amazon. But check us out, join up to the academy, it’s free. Come and visit us in the clubs if you are in London or travelling around the world, but be part of the AllBright family because it really is for any woman who wants to supercharge her career.
Alison Jones: Wonderful. Thank you. Anna, do you want to add anything there?
Anna Jones: No, I think Debs has covered it. Come and meet us and you’ll see all the kind of the breadth of all the things that we do, because we’re very excited about our imminent opening in LA. So Yes, it’s Brits take on America next.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And a whole new range of cocktails to try out. Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been wonderful talking to you.
Anna Jones: Thank you.
Debbie Wosskow: Thank you.