‘I came to writing really late. I was told I couldn’t write… I had no first degree. I came to learning at 40 plus with an idea that I couldn’t write, but I still loved learning. So it’s been a total joy. It’s like, wow, you can do that too, you can learn in another way. Writing… gets more and more joyous.’
Dr Lucy Ryan started writing Lunchtime Learning for Leaders mid-pandemic, in response to the frantic cries for help from leaders grappling with the huge issues facing them but with little time for traditional training. It wasn’t intended to be a book, and the way in which she went on to shape those articles into a coherent whole is a masterclass in writing and editing.
We talk about imposter syndrome (her gremlin is called Bob, how about yours?), overwhelm, curiosity and writing in service of the reader – and it’s a joy from start to finish.
Mindspring site: https://mindspring.uk.com/
Lucy’s site: https://www.lucyryan.co.uk/
Lucy on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lucyryanmindspring/
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2022: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Dr. Lucy Ryan, which is an absolute treat. She has a well-earned reputation as a wise, vibrant leadership coach and a voice that leaders take seriously. With a Master’s in Positive Psychology and a PhD in Leadership, she’s developed over 10,000 global leaders, blending psychology with practical, accessible guidance.
And in her book, Lunchtime Learning for Leaders, Lucy draws on her extensive 20-year experience of training and coaching leaders to provide them with clear guidance, illuminating models and self-reflection to help them navigate the pressured, modern world of leadership. Welcome to the show, Lucy.
Lucy Ryan: Thank you so much. I’ve been excited.
Alison Jones: Oh, it’s so good to have you here. Well, let’s start off with the whole leadership thing, cause pressured, modern world of leadership… You’re not wrong, are you? I mean it’s never easy on top, but my goodness has it got harder over the last couple of years.
Lucy Ryan: It definitely has. I mean you can just see the whole pressure cooker is rising and rising. And I think just at the time when people thought, well, I don’t have to commute anymore when the pandemic started. I don’t have to commute. I’ve bought two hours back in the day. What you then saw, there was some scientific studies that came out quite soon, that leaders were working more, an extra two to three hours a day, that hasn’t ceased.
Alison Jones: When in a sense they had more than two or three hours extra work to do, didn’t they? Because suddenly they weren’t just doing the operational lead. I mean, it was never just the operational leading, but they’re basically transforming an organization on the fly. So it has been extraordinary.
Lucy Ryan: And I think it was more than that as well. Not only were they transforming everything and you had, you know, change patterns that had been in the plans, for you know 2050, accelerated in a month, but also they were managing people’s deep, personal resilience. And they were having very different conversations and personal conversations and keeping a team going when they were also managing their own families as well. Masses.
Alison Jones: So, how do you write into that? How do you, I’m going to write a book for leaders because they’ve got so much time in their day for reading books right now, you know, what was your thought process? Because clearly there’s stuff they need to hear, but they’ve hardly got any bandwidth.
Lucy Ryan: No and I think that’s really important. What happened is that just as the pandemic started and our training business just collapsed overnight and it then restored virtually, but there was a good three months where the world went quiet for us, but clients were ringing me saying, well, what do we do? Help me, how do I get my own resilience better? How do I manage my team remotely? How do I get the team’s resilience okay? What do I do?
So I started to write short burst articles because the other request was, please make it easily practical. Please make it really accessible, Lucy. Please get rid of any academic jargon, just give us something we can grab hold of, give me five easy tips today.
It was all that. So I started to write this and I wrote a whole series. I wrote about 10 or 11, just short burst articles. And then went oh, there’s something in this. And I then just started to create what might this look like as a book. Because I think the thing is, is that leaders can’t grab hold often of a 400-page book now, which is why they grab hold of podcasts, Ted talks.
So I wanted something really accessible. How do I synthesize 20 years of learning and leadership training and coaching into something deeply accessible? And if I’ve done that, I’m a very happy woman.
Alison Jones: What was the process like as you were doing it? Because I’m just remembering that famous, was it Charles Lamb, you know, ‘I’m sorry, this letter is so long, I hadn’t the time to make it shorter.’
It takes a huge amount of more work actually to write something that’s very helpful and short. So what was that process like for you? Just distilling it down, you know, what is the thing that’s going to help them here?
Lucy Ryan: I kept, I mean we might talk about the planning process in a moment, but I kept one question at the heart of every single page of planning for a chapter. I wrote one question of what do they really want to know? And I wrote it at the top of every page and half the time I find I’m writing because I think this concept’s really interesting, really sexy, really clever.
And then I look at that question, what do they really want to know?
And strip it out and take it down to about five things that I think someone would really want to know. So they’d pick up that chapter and go, oh yes, okay. I get that.
Alison Jones: And that must have clarified your thinking. How do you think that’s going to shape how you train in the future?
Lucy Ryan: That’s a really good question. I think it, it does the same process in training as it does in a way in writing. You know, I have a terrible habit of putting a lot into any training course, the same into any piece of writing. I tend to stuff it full with all this interesting stuff, because there’s so much that I like.
Alison Jones: So much you could say.
Lucy Ryan: So much you can say, and you just take one topic and it’s like, oh my God, there’s 20 great books about this. Here, let me tell you everything I know.
And in a way, it’s just getting me out of the picture and putting the reader central and forward in it. What was interesting, you know, it’s really nothing about you, Lucy, it’s only about… which is a bit humbling, but there we go.
Alison Jones: But it’s so interesting because you’re right. It’s an act of humility in a sense, putting the reader there, but it’s also an act of supreme self-confidence, isn’t it? Because I think sometimes one of the reasons that we stuff our presentations, our books, so full of content is that we feel somehow that the simple stuff isn’t enough, that it’s really important for us to be comprehensive and original and add this and, you know, so there’s lots of things going on there.
There’s a lack of discipline, sure. But there’s also a feeling of imposter syndrome or just feeling that you need to impress perhaps, so that when you take that out, it’s really, and you talk about…
Lucy Ryan: Well…
Alison Jones: Well, I was going to ask you about the imposter syndrome and stuff, but yes do carry on with your point.
Lucy Ryan: I was going to say it’s a bit like I always used to be slightly sniffy about small-bite learning. With the sense that what you need is a five-day immersion. I would do these kind of long, two-, three-day leadership immersions for someone to send me an email afterwards saying, you know what? This one point you made was so transformative and you think, oh God, I could have done that in a lunch time.
Alison Jones: Hence the title of course, Lunchtime Learning.
Lucy Ryan: Hence the title, but sorry, you were going to talk about imposter syndrome.
Alison Jones: Well, before we do that, actually we will talk about imposter syndrome, but I think it’s also, you know, we’re not saying ditch the immersive three-day courses, are we? Because there’s….
Lucy Ryan: Never. I think deep dives into learning are beautiful and really important. I think that people also learn in different ways and recognizing that not everyone can do deep dive into a whole book, a two-day course, and that their brains are like just maxed out, so they can often only take a small piece of learning that they can often only cope with that.
I don’t say that’s good and often when you go away for about two, three days, you learn to relax and gain enough space in your brain to take on more learning. So it’s definitely not do away with one it’s an ‘and’.
Alison Jones: Yes, these are complementary.
Lucy Ryan: Yes, yes.
Alison Jones: And the point that I’m hanging onto like a terrier about imposter syndrome, because you deal with it so beautifully in the book, but it also, it was just so charming to be introduced to Bob. Bob is your gremlin. And I wondered if you could just tell us a little bit about Bob and how Bob coped with this whole thing.
Lucy Ryan: Oh, Bob, well, so yes, Bob. I give a name to my gremlin and actually in my courtyard at home I have a stone gremlin who kind of sits like this really grumpy way and that’s Bob. So he has taken stone form – and I think it’s really useful by the way to name a gremlin, to name those voices in your head, because then you separate it: No, it’s not me. It’s Bob. So it’s not your whole identity. It’s just something else that’s informing you.
Now Bob got a thorough workout when I was doing my PhD. So he had a glorious four years of really having, he had a joyous romp across my mind, put it like that.
Alison Jones: Unconstrained, unfettered.
Lucy Ryan: Unconstrained, unfettered, how I wasn’t worthy, how I wasn’t up to it, how I didn’t even have a first degree, how I was too old for this. You know, you name it, Bob found little inroads into my mind.
And particularly when I had to write deep academic chapters that I didn’t even understand. Bob found a way to corrupt it. So I felt that by the time I came to write this book, I’d found ways to control the gremlin much better.
I’d found ways to thank Bob, calm him down, like literally: it’s alright Bob. I’ve got this. Thanks very much. It’s a bit spooky how much I speak to him and I learned to laugh, you know, every time he kind of talks, it’s like, you again you know, go have some breakfast, Bob, and leave me alone. I’m okay here.
And I think experience of writing, you know, the more you do, it’s obvious isn’t it. But the more you do, the better you get, and, you know you’ve faced that before. So you get through it this time and, okay, so you’ve done five drafts and they’re all rubbish. Dump it. Start again. You’ve done that before. So I think in terms of writing, Bob’s got quieter, but each time I do something new, like publicizing myself, he flares up again.
But I’m better with it. I’m better at managing it.
Alison Jones: I think that separating out is such a great tip because it just, as you say, it gives you the space.
It makes you realize that you are not Bob, there are other bits that are actually quite looking forward to this, quite enjoying it and you know, yes.
Lucy Ryan: Absolutely and I always think imposter syndrome is often labelled as a women’s thing. You know, everyone has it. We’ve all got those voices that go, Are you sure? Can you do this? Are you worthy? Should you? Does anyone want to hear your voice? And particularly when you actually commit something to writing and then it’s out there for people to read? Oof.
Alison Jones: And one of the things that you did, I mean kind of inadvertently, because you didn’t quite plan it this way, but it worked beautifully, it was that you, as you say, you put the stuff out as articles, you were writing on LinkedIn, weren’t you? Then you put them into a book. So did you find, I’m putting words into your mouth now, but did you find that helpful?
That kind of sense that, I’m just writing this as an article, and then it’s already there, and when you come to write the book, it’s a different process?
Lucy Ryan: Yes, I think thinking of it like that really helped, of this is just a, you know, I say just, a 3000-word article, that used to freak me out when people would go just 3000 words, but once I’d done a 100,000-word PhD, it was like, yes, just 3000 words. Okay. I can do that.
But if I thought about it just as an article, I’m just popping this onto LinkedIn. I’m doing a blog and all I’m doing is a hundred blogs, then that breaking it down into small chunks was unbelievably helpful.
Alison Jones: And how did that work in terms of planning the whole? Because the danger with that of course is you end up with kind of unrelated pieces. Which many people would just pull into a book and publish, but I know you don’t approach it like that. So tell me how you kind of navigated between article scale and book scale.
Lucy Ryan: Two things really. Well. Your course started it.
Alison Jones: The proposal challenge?
Lucy Ryan: The proposal challenge, because what it taught me was to write a really good template. And once I’d done the whole, so I’ve done a series of articles, then I sat back and looked at, well, what might be a flow and what might be a whole shape of this.
Alison Jones: So the table of contents.
Lucy Ryan: Yes, and once I’d done that and dug into that, it was there. The template was there. So I’d done the articles, but then I put those all aside because most of them were related to virtual working. And then I looked for the whole.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me a bit more about that.
Lucy Ryan: Well, it was about finding, I’m a great person for finding flow in writing. And I’m not very good at just shoving something down in writing. I have to know where one idea will link to the next, which will link to the next. And I can see I’m drawing. I’ve just noticed I’m drawing this as a circle.
Alison Jones: Do you know, I was going to say, if you are listening to this podcast, do go over to YouTube and watch it, because Lucy is talking half with her mouth, but half with her hands, so watch.
Lucy Ryan: So I literally plan both the whole book and every chapter as a story. And I’ve got every mind map here of every chapter. So it starts with a beginning, a middle and an end. And each thought has a link to the next, to the next, to the next. And then I go, well, how will I support that? What metaphor or what case study or what science will support it?
And I follow the circle round. So the book had the whole, that I had on a piece of flip-chart paper, the whole, which is what will the 16 chapters look like. And then each one had its own circle.
Alison Jones: Beautiful. I kind of want to see that plan now, but…
Lucy Ryan: I wish I had that original. I wish I had that original circle. I really do. But look, I found one here, but all it is is a mess
Alison Jones: Yes, but it makes complete sense to you, doesn’t it? I love that.
Lucy Ryan: Complete sense to me. So every single chapter had its own circle. And if there’s not a flow, if there’s not a link and a flow, it went out.
It’s like, that’s you again Lucy. That’s you being, thinking you’re smart.
Alison Jones: And it’s so interesting because we talk a lot on the WriteBrained course about visual thinking and about the importance of writing that goes beyond just linear writing onto a page. And that’s such a beautiful example. I mean, Lucy actually held it up. So again, if you’re watching the video, you’ll have seen that, of how yes, you use the words, but you show them in relation to each other; you can do that so beautifully on page with sort of boxes, arrows, you don’t have to be Picasso. You can just show relationships.
Lucy Ryan: I’m a box and arrow girl.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Lucy Ryan: And I’m not visual in terms of drawing. But I am in terms of, if it doesn’t fit in the circle, it doesn’t fit in.
Alison Jones: Yes. And I think what’s interesting about that is as a reader, I mean, yes, you don’t see the scruffy kind of drawing that you did at the beginning, but what you do get as a reader is that sense of structure and organization, and that builds a sense of trust, which enables you to learn. So I think it really does make a difference almost at the subconscious level if you’re reading a book that has been properly planned out, rather than something that’s just an amalgamation of content. That’s really interesting.
Lucy Ryan: Yes
Alison Jones: Talk about writing and what it does for you, Lucy. Because we’ve been very much reader focused, which is absolutely right. But you know, for you as a coach, as a leader yourself, what part does writing play in that?
I’ve been fascinated by how you’ve referenced the normalization of writing and becoming visible, you know, once you’ve written your PhD thesis, it puts everything else into perspective. But just today, not as an academic but as a professional, what’s its role in your life?
Lucy Ryan: Positive psychology informs everything I do. And I did my Master’s in it 12, 13 years ago. And I’m always proposing working with your strengths and love of learning is my number one strength. Curiosity is my number two. Creativity is my number three. So, I don’t know a way to put this, but it fulfils me at the deepest possible level. That if I’m not learning, I’m not functioning well.
And I came to writing really late. I was told I couldn’t write and I was not educated in my, I didn’t really leave with any A levels, or very low. I had no first degree. So I came to learning at kind of 40 plus with an idea that I couldn’t write, but I still loved learning.
So it’s been a total joy. It’s like, wow, you can do that too. You know, you can learn in another way. I find journaling and free writing very hard. I’ve tried it, I’ve done courses. I’ve done your Writebrained. And I still find that tricky because I judge it, I judge myself. But I find writing to a purpose, if you like, gets more and more joyous.
So it fulfils me at a really deep level.
Alison Jones: That’s wonderful. And I can just see how Bob would have absolutely had a field day when you were…
Lucy Ryan: Oh I know!
Alison Jones: Curiosity-driven writing is a great antidote to fear, isn’t it? Because you’re just finding out, you’re just learning. Yes, and I love the way that you know yourself and you used that strength to enable you to get to something that you wanted to achieve.
Lucy Ryan: Yes, I mean, after I did my Masters, I promised my husband because you know, I had the two kids at home, full-time business, doing the Masters, I promised him I wouldn’t do any more learning. He just laughed and went: Yes, right!
Alison Jones: Oh, he knows you better than you know yourself.
Lucy Ryan: Yes. I go, I promise you that’s it, no more great big writing project. And he laughs again and goes, mmm hmmm.
Alison Jones: That’s done. A contract to write a book, darling?
Lucy Ryan: I think we both accept now there will always be some big writing project because I’ve learned that that’s me.
Alison Jones: And big writing projects are such great containers for great learning projects, aren’t they?
Lucy Ryan: Yes, but what I’ve also learned is it doesn’t have to be big. It can just be a series of small writing projects and maybe, or maybe not, they become something else.
Alison Jones: Yes.
Lucy Ryan: I think we put so much pressure on ourselves with a book, it’s going to be beautiful and huge. And I’m going to go away to a Greek island for a month and write it. And I’ve never yet done it, but, you know, time will tell.
Alison Jones: Yes, one day, one day, we’ll be in that beach hut writing the great British novel of the 21st century. It’s going to happen. I’m going to ask you, Lucy, a question I always ask people on the show. If somebody is listening and they’re inspired by, you know, your approach and what you’ve been doing, what would be your one best tip for them starting out as a writer, as a business writer?
Lucy Ryan: Well, my first would be – and I’m cheeky and will give you two, obviously.
Alison Jones: I’m not going to complain.
Lucy Ryan: It would be break down the elephant, instead of thinking, oh my God, I’ve got a whole book to write. Break it right down into really small bite size chunks.
Alison Jones: Elephant appetizers.
Lucy Ryan: Exactly. Just literally break the whole thing down so that it’s like, oh, I could do that. could write a hundred words on that. Cool. Write a hundred words on that, and then maybe write another hundred words. So take the great big stuff out of this and make it tiny.
My second tip, I know you want one, is to find a friend. So I had at least three and always have a writing buddy. And so we will go on Monday, let’s write for two hours, nothing else. Turn everything else off and just write for two hours anything. And a writing buddy is invaluable.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. Really, really good tips. Thank you.
And do you have, I mean, obviously everybody should read Lunchtime Learning for Leaders, understood, obviously, and they genuinely should, but is there a book that you would recommend for people listening? What book has really stood out for you?
Lucy Ryan: There’s an author that always stands out that I recommend. I always think that female leadership authors come far too down the line. When people talk about leadership authors, they usually talk about male authors and there are some fabulous female leadership authors. So my favourite is Herminia Ibarra and her book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, I gift to most of my coaching clients because I think it’s a smart, useful, accessible. I can’t think of any leader who wouldn’t get something from it. She also wrote another really interesting book called Working Identity for any person who is looking to shift career, particularly mid-career, who’s looking to shift. She wrote Working Identity, and I also send that to a lot of people when they’re going I want something new, but I don’t know what.
Alison Jones: I don’t know that one.
Lucy Ryan: Oh, I love Working Identity, I also love the structure of it as well.
Alison Jones: Yes
Lucy Ryan: So she is my go-to recommendation.
Alison Jones: Yes, she is just, I heard her speak once, she’s phenomenal. Yes, thank you. What a great recommendation. And Lucy, if people want to find out more about you, more about the work that you do, and of course more about the book as well, where should they go?
Lucy Ryan: I’ve got two websites, which is my corporate one is mindspring.uk.com and my personal one books, coaching is lucyryan.co.uk. And you can find me on Instagram and LinkedIn.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I will put those links, obviously, up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, where you’ll also find the transcript of this conversation, which would be a good one to read back over, I put it to you.
Thank you so much, Lucy. It’s just great to talk to you today and thoughtful discussion on writing.
Lucy Ryan: It’s been great. Thank you, thank you so much.