‘By the way, do you have a strategy for you? Because if you don’t, you should.’
That throwaway line in a top-level strategic meeting was a game-changer for Kathryn Bishop. As a high-flying professional and academic, she had an astonishing array of strategic models at her disposal for evaluating options and making decisions. Why not draw on those tools when it came to planning her own life?
Navigating shifting and competing priorities is especially difficult for women, so she decided write the book she couldn’t find when she needed it herself: a guide to help women apply powerful strategic thinking to help them make optimum decisions at key transition points in their own lives.
But how do you marry cerebral boardroom models with the emotional realities of life as we live it? As someone who used bullet points in her love letters, Kathryn knew she had some work to do to achieve a conversational tone, and she found a rich and fascinating way to achieve it.
Kathryn’s site: https://kathryn-bishop.com/
Kathryn on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathryn-bishop-1471184/
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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Kathryn Bishop, who is an associate fellow of Said Business School, where she directs and teachers on leadership programs for professional service firms and other multinational companies. She has over 35 years’ experience working with organizations undergoing major change in both the public and the private sector, and with the individuals leading those changes. Kathryn was appointed as the first chairman of the Welsh revenue authority in April, 2017. She served as a civil service commissioner from 2012 to 2017, as one of 11 commissioners in the UK with responsibility for regulating all appointments into the civil service.
She’s also held a number of non-executive directorships within government, including the UK Border Agency, part of the Home Office, the UK Intellectual Property Office, and at the Welsh assembly government.
And when she realized that she couldn’t find the book that she needed to help her navigate her own career, she wrote it. She’s spent the last 10 years developing and testing the material with both men and women from all over the world. She’s poured everything she’s learned about how to make your own map and navigating through your working life, into her new book, Make Your Own Map: career success strategy for women, which is out on the 3 February from Kogan Page.
So welcome to the show, Kathryn, it’s amazing to have you here. And I’m going to start just by asking you about that core idea of borrowing the corporate strategy process and applying it to ourselves as individuals. I can just imagine a real a-ha moment there. What made you realize the significance of that?
Kathryn Bishop: Well, it was about 10 years ago and I was in a lecture theater of a business school in Oxford, working with a very able strategy colleague of mine and the board of a global business. And we were thinking hard about strategic options for the business, really focusing on markets and data.
And suddenly he turned to the group and said, ‘By the way, do you have a strategy for you? Because if you don’t, you should.’ It is a cliche to say it, but for me, that was a real light bulb moment. I thought, ah, there are tried and tested processes to help me answer the questions I have about my working life, about what to do next, about what to say yes to and what to say no to.
And ever since then, I’ve been exploring and testing the parallels between corporate strategy, frameworks, ideas, tools and individual working lives.
Alison Jones: It is the ultimate sort of meshing of business books and self-development isn’t it?
Kathryn Bishop: Yes, precisely
Alison Jones: I love that. And what is it about women particularly, why is navigating career success so challenging, particularly for women? Because I know you’ve worked with men and women, but you have chosen to write this book specifically for women. Tell me a bit about that.
Kathryn Bishop: Yes it was a deliberate choice. So the material in the book does absolutely work for both men and women. I know that because I’ve tested it in classrooms, in various parts of the world, but I’m particularly interested in women’s working lives. Because we play so many active roles in life, at work, at home, outside work and in the community, as partner and parent and carer and community leader.
Sometimes the ability to find rewarding and remunerated work that works with all those roles is really quite demanding. And that’s a navigation skill, finding the right place in the employment market to use your own skills and abilities to best effect. And of course, that’s exactly the same kind of navigation challenge that organizations face when they look for the right markets, for the things that they want to sell.
So it seemed logical to be able to use corporate strategy tools for that purpose. But my experiences, my experience and the experience of those I’ve worked with, is that women do need to be particularly good at this navigation skill, if we can. Because our lives go through different phases, we have these multiple roles to accommodate, but we also go through different stages where at different times, perhaps the requirement to care for a family will be dominant, whereas at another time there really is the opportunity to focus on work and progress accordingly.
So you’ll find yourself at transition points fairly regularly with the need to literally to make your own map.
Alison Jones: Yes, it reminds me too, I don’t know if you’ve read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez. She talks about how transport policy has been largely designed by men and largely predicated on men’s journeys, which are quite simple because they go from home to work and back again. And the whole complexity of a woman’s journey through the day, which doesn’t tend to be to an urban centre and back, but actually, you know, with caring responsibilities and to school and to shops, and that’s kind of cut out because it’s just too hard, it’s too complex.
So you end up with this data gap, really, and systems that aren’t fit for purpose for half the population. And it strikes me that so much of the career literature and possibly self-development literature has been written with that fairly single-minded, simplistic view of career. Whereas what you’re doing here is really expanding it to say, well, we have to see in context, it’s holistic.
Kathryn Bishop: Yes, I completely agree. So the models in the book focus on working lives, our working lives, but not exclusively because our working lives are part of the whole of our life. In fact I’m not very keen on the phrase work-life balance because for many of us work is a part of life and quite a potentially important and interesting part of life too.
So I tend to prefer to talk about work-home balance. Of course, that is a phrase which has developed a new meaning in the last year, as we all know,
Alison Jones: Yes, it has rather, hasn’t it. Even that separation has now completely eroded
Kathryn Bishop: Yes. Are we working from home or living at work.
Alison Jones: And does it really matter actually, it’s just about accommodating it all and surviving at the end of the day, isn’t it? It’s work/home/school… It’s who knows anymore.
And I want to talk to you Kathryn about the process of bringing all this together, because you know, as we’ve alluded to you are drawing on so many years of experience in the corporate world and drawing all those models together. But also lived experience. Also having worked with so many women and men over the courses that you’ve done, it’s a huge amount of stuff, isn’t it, to bring together. And I know that you wrestled with what to leave out, what to bring in, how to link it together.
Just talk us a little bit through that process.
Kathryn Bishop: Well like many authors, I actually have written this book twice. The first time over a number of years, I was really focused on the content and explaining the complexities of some of the strategic models and how they might be really revelatory if applied to your own life. I was very much focused on the material and explaining it.
The second time I wrote it, I was much more focused on the reader. Who is this person reading it? What does she want? What kind of book would be most useful for her. When is she likely to be reading it? How much time has she got to read it? And that refocusing was really helpful for me. It helped me structure tightly the material, signaling you don’t have to read this bit, if you’re interested in the background research here it is, but you can skip this bit.
I found it really helpful to visualize the reader that second time through, and that was the thing that propelled me to finish it.
Alison Jones: It’s such a fundamental shift that, isn’t it. Because as you say, when you start, you start from where you are and what you know, and you put together structures that make complete sense to you as the master of the material. But suddenly flipping that over and thinking, well, what if I knew nothing about this? Where would I start? And how do I build on and make sense of each thing?
How did you decide who to write for?
Kathryn Bishop: I built, well, I think there were two answers to that question. I built a picture in my mind of the kind of woman who would, I hope, find this book useful, where she was in her career, what kind of pressure she was experiencing, what kind of person she was, how many other similar books did she read?
And then in the course of assembling the examples with which the book is studied, that broadened out my view and I started to think about right, this person in the example about whom I’m writing, how are they going to find this book useful? And, that combination was very helpful.
Alison Jones: It’s so interesting that you’ve worked with so many women in the classroom, and I know you do the leadership program for women at Oxford. How did your understanding of them shift as you were writing the book? Because I know in a sense it’s the same material, but when in the book you have to deliver it without being able to listen, without the face-to-face interaction.
So what shifted in your understanding of how you communicate, when you can’t listen back?
Kathryn Bishop: Indeed. Well, the first thing I did, I think, was realize that many of the women I spoke to were in very different places. They might all have been together in the same classroom, have decided to invest in their own development, but the things they were experiencing were at different stages of their life.
When I added to that, the conversations I’d had with women outside work, at weddings, in cafes, at craft afternoons, whatever it might be, that enriched the sense of the different situations that women might be facing and forced me to ensure that what I was offering really would be helpful to someone struggling in their first job in their twenties, as well as somebody in their fifties thinking right. Well, what now? That was helpful.
Alison Jones: Yes. Do you think it will change how you are in the classroom now or change what you teach or how you teach?
Kathryn Bishop: Oh, yes, I think so. I think there are probably three things that have struck me.
The first is that the process of writing the whole book, the second time from start to finish, has obviously made my ideas clearer, but has underlined to me the sequence and connectivity between them.
In programsme or workshops, I don’t always have time to teach them all. There are nine separate models in the book but the sequence and connectivity has been much clearer.
As I’ve said, I’ve really thought about the different circumstances in which these ideas might be useful. And then finally, sometimes writing a book with some sections that could be described as how to, how to do this.
In the exercise sections, I do set out some simple steps for how to go through this exercise, if that’s what you want to do. That can sometimes come across as a bit prescriptive, but the thing is these strategy models are tools for thinking, they’re what academics call heuristics, they’re frameworks to help you think about the question you’re asking yourself and to generate some answers.
So it’s quite important in my teaching to underline the fact that these are not rigid structures, that you have to follow the rules in, you can tailor them to your own circumstances. And I’m going to emphasize that a lot more in my teaching.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. And actually you pick up something interesting there as well on the way that you write.
So there are different kinds of writing in the book, aren’t there? There’s the description of models and so on. There’s the argument you build around why it matters that you apply this stuff to your life. There are the stories you bring in of the women themselves, and then you’ve got the exercises with, as you say, that more prescriptive, instructional stuff.
How did you go about writing all that? Were there bits that you found easier than others, or did you sit down and do all the exercises and then all the stories? I’m just always interested in how people bring together the different parts of the writing.
Kathryn Bishop: So the book is quite tightly structured, including as you’ve said, explanation, examples and exercises. But as I wrote it I was very conscious that not everybody likes every bit of that. Some people like explanations, some people love examples, some people loathe them. Some people would like to just glance at the exercises and go, yeah, okay. I get the idea. Some people will actually want to do them step by step. Some people want to understand what the research is underlying each of the chapters I’m putting forward. Some people would like to know that it’s there but don’t want to read it.
So I structured it very tightly to make it easy for a busy woman who is really looking for answers to her questions, to get the best out of it quickly.
The answer to your question. How did I write it? Is that the second time through I wrote it mostly sequentially. Starting with the explanation of the idea and then the exercise. I would then add examples in. In some cases, where the exercise is slightly more complicated. I’ve actually included an example of someone who has done the exercise and you can see the worksheet that she has prepared. And again, that’s just in the attempt to make it easy for the reader to get the information and insight that she needs.
Alison Jones: And did you discover anything about yourself as a writer in the process? What works for you when you write and what really didn’t?
Kathryn Bishop: University degrees in English literature and academic writing or indeed business writing is something I’m very familiar with. I sometimes say that it was so deeply ingrained in my style of writing that when my husband and I were courting many years ago, I used to write love letters to him with bullet points in.
Alison Jones: Brilliant.
Kathryn Bishop: So what I learned when I was writing the book was that I was visualizing so strongly the person I was trying to talk to, that I would in some cases abandon the grammatical rules that I had regarded as absolutely essential for much of the rest of my life. I have sentences that begin with ‘and ‘ because I’m trying to illustrate that the point I’m making is strongly linked to the one I’ve just made. And I want to make it easy for the reader to see that. Every time I wrote a sentence beginning with ‘and’ I did flinch a little bit.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I have made peace with that actually. Because it is quite effective, you know, using those conjunctions, it keeps the sentences shorter, which I think is important. And it’s more conversational, it’s amazing how often people do begin sentences with ‘and’ isn’t it. So it does feel more like you’re speaking to somebody. But yes, that’s hilarious about the bullet points in the love letters, by the way, I will treasure that, thank you.
Kathryn, if there’s somebody who’s listening and that’s resonating with them but they are perhaps behind you, their book hasn’t just arrived with them, what would you say to them? What would be your best tip from what you’ve discovered?
Kathryn Bishop: Well, I think it is about this visualizing the reader. You might even go so far as to write yourself a little pen portrait of the one or two or three ideal readers. What are they wrestling with? Where do they live? What kind of people are they? In doing that almost as a piece of free writing I think you generate a much clearer picture of who you’re trying to talk to. Sure, you’re writing, but you’re also trying to talk to them. That for me was very helpful.
Alison Jones: Tell me a little bit more about the free writing bit. How did you go about linking that with identifying your reader?
Kathryn Bishop: I do my best free writing first thing in the morning when I’ve just woken up. I’ve probably had a couple of mouthfuls of tea and I literally pick up my pen and I literally just move it along the page to describe this person who I’m trying to help and reach in what I’m writing.
Have they just got up? What are they feeling? What’s their biggest problem in the day ahead? Do they love their work? Do they hate it? Is it the same every day for them?
I really just poured out a whole random collection of details trying to build the picture in my mind of a reader, not the only reader, but a reader who would find this useful.
Alison Jones: I love the way that you have married, really quite… I was going to say cold but that’s not the word I mean, but you know the, sort of the strategic models, which are all cerebral, they’re so intellectual and rarefied and abstract and so on, and you just bring it into rooted in empathy and it’s so interesting how you have brought that kind of corporate experience, but also a real creative, empathetic intelligence about the reader together.
I don’t know if you were aware of doing that at the time.
Kathryn Bishop: Oh, I try to do that in my teaching. I work very hard, even if I’m standing in a business school lecture theater, where people are expecting business school content, to try to bring it into this individual context. And I, thought that I would find that quite difficult in writing and I did and I had to work at that.
Alison Jones: And when you say you wrote it twice, did you find the tone changing between the two as you did more of that imaginative engagement with the reader?
Kathryn Bishop: Absolutely. It definitely changed, became much more conversational, much more I like to think much more vivid.
Alison Jones: So that tip about just imagining the reader deeply and even doing it in that really free-flowing way, I think that’s such a powerful tip because it works at so many levels. It works. And the way that you structure the thing, because you’re actually saying, well, where are they starting from rather than what do I know?
What do they know? And what do they not know they don’t know and all that kind of stuff, but it also is going to completely change the experience of reading it because it’s going to feel like somebody is actually writing to you, rather than at you.
Kathryn Bishop: That’s exactly what I was hoping for. And we will see whether I’ve achieved it when readers react.
Alison Jones: Well, I’ve seen the book and I think you have. I was really impressed with the way you bring those things together. I really enjoyed it.
And have tried out some of the exercises as well, because you put them in a very accessible way. So yes, great thank you.
Well that’s good to hear.
Yes, and I don’t say that lightly. I always ask people, Kathryn for a business book recommendation. So apart from yours, obviously, would you like to recommend to us a business book that you think would be helpful for listeners?
Kathryn Bishop: Would you allow me to recommend two because they sort of make it…
Alison Jones: oh, people do this all the time. Yes. Go ahead.
Kathryn Bishop: Okay. So see what you think.
So the first one is a book called The Hundred Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. And I like that because it sets out that the scope of the navigation challenge that increasingly we’re going to have to face as we work longer and later in life. Not just because we have to perhaps financially, but actually also, because we want to for all the social and psychological benefits that that can bring.
I also like this book because it’s written collaboratively between a Professor of Management Practice with a psychology background and an Economist. And I like the collaboration and the necessity of bringing together different perspectives. So I recommend that one.
If I move to the other end of the scale though, literally moving from a hundred years to 59 seconds. The other one that I actually come back to regularly is a book called 59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot by Professor Richard Wiseman. And I really like the micro quality of that, it’s an exciting, intoxicating promise. In 59 seconds I can think of something useful to do that will help me make a shift in my working life. So they do sort of make a pair those two, A Hundred Years and 59 Seconds.
Alison Jones: Love that. So depending on where you’re feeling on the sort of macro scale of life, there’s something there for you. Yes. Love it. And they’re both great books actually. It’s a long time since I read Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds. I’m going to go back and read that because I remember enjoying it at the time, but I have to say, I don’t remember it terribly well.
So yes, thank you. Great recommendations. And Kathryn, if people want to find out more about you, more about the book, where should they go?
Kathryn Bishop: So I’m on LinkedIn, like everybody. And I’m just in the process of finishing my website, which will certainly by the end of the month, by the end of February, contain some downloadable worksheets. So that if you are somebody who wants to do the exercises in the book and it would help you to have a downloaded printed version of the worksheet, that’s where to go to get them. It’s kathryn-bishop.com.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. And the spelling of Kathryn is with a K and an A and a T H R Y N. So I will put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com. And hopefully by the time the show goes live, those resources will be there because the book and I’m sure those resources are, as I say, really, really worth taking a look at if you feel that you’re approaching one of those transition points that you talk about.
Thank you so much today for your time, Kathryn, it’s been really, really fascinating.