“How often does anyone really start with a blank sheet of paper? Certainly not at my age, you know? You don’t, you start from where you are… we want to make the effort to rebuild something that we love and we’ve invested in, a business or a relationship, whatever it might be. And that is both more complex and more interesting.”
Sara Tate and Anna Vogt were fascinated by the idea of failure – or rather, what we do AFTER failure – for both personal and professional reasons. It’s a truism to say that we learn from failure: what is REALLY happening in that period of time between failure and success? How do we rebuild – personally and professionally – when we’re knee-deep in rubble?
From their own experiences and from those they spoke to in their podcast The Rebuilders they created a book – which in itself was a process of rebuilding for Sara after a lifetime of avoiding writing because of her dyslexia.
A powerful, inspiring and often moving conversation about life, grief, resilience and hiding from our children.
Sara on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/saraktate/
The Rebuilders podcast: https://the-rebuilders.simplecast.com/
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge September 2022: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-sep-2022
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
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Alison Jones: Here I am with Sara Tate, who is an advertising industry titan. Formerly CEO of TBWA London, she was voted Best Leader in Marketing by Women in Marketing Awards and won Campaign’s Female Frontier Award. She’s an accredited Executive Coach and Brand Consultant. She’s the co-host of The Rebuilder’s podcast.
And she’s the co-author with Anna Vogt of The Rebuilders: Going from setback to comeback in business and beyond.
So welcome to the show, Sara, it’s great to have you here.
Sara Tate: Oh, it’s such a pleasure to be on. Thank you for having me.
Alison Jones: It’s great to see you. It’s always a bit nerve-racking when you have a fellow podcaster on, because you always think they’re going to be criticizing your podcast technique or…
Sara Tate: I always learn some tips and tricks off other people. So no worry, I’ll be scribing down little notes that I can use on my own.
Alison Jones: That’s so, well, you know, there’s always a first time for everything, you might get nothing today, but we’ll see. But let’s talk about Rebuilding, because it’s such a lovely way of framing, you know, there’s a whole kind of area of publishing around failing, isn’t there? You know, how I learned to fail and all that kind of stuff, but it’s a great reframe.
So just tell me where that concept came from.
Sara Tate: So in a nutshell, the concept is, you know, failure happens. That’s lovely, what happens after that? And so it’s focussed a little bit more on the gap between a setback and the comeback, because there’s a period of time in between. We call it a rebuild, it might be a recovery, it might be a transition, there’s lots of different terms for it, but we use the term rebuilding and we also don’t necessarily believe that we should all be obsessed with failures. You know, there’s a lot of things written about we have to learn from failure and we have to pick over the parts of what happened to find the secret of how we should move forward and actually in our book, we kind of go, I don’t necessarily believe that and I’ll give an example later on.
Sometimes failures are just things that happen. You know, sometimes shit literally goes down and there really isn’t anything to learn from it. And in fact, the worst thing that you could do is spend time poring over what happened.
So we don’t fetishize failure, but we do acknowledge that setbacks are everywhere, all the time, big ones, the small ones, you can’t really go through life without facing lots of them in different guises. And we were really interested in understanding what helps people get up and move on after them. And so that is where the concept came from initially, born of a few things that Anna and I had experienced personally and professionally.
Alison Jones: Well, and that’s the phrase, isn’t it, personally and professionally, because that’s one of the things I love about the book and about the podcast, about you generally, in a sense you don’t differentiate those two things because we are people and we have setbacks and we are businesses and we have setbacks and actually the process of rebuilding is astonishingly similar across that whole spectrum.
Sara Tate: It is, I mean for anyone listening, who’s interested in getting a book published. It’s a terrible way to get a book published to combine a personal and a professional audience. Because people say is it for personal, is it like a self-help book, or is it a business book?
Alison Jones: And you say: yes.
Sara Tate: And we say it is a bit of both, but Kogan Page wonderfully saw something in that.
And we were really clear we didn’t want to differentiate the two, in part because sometimes reading books just about business case studies are a bit dull, let’s be honest. And we didn’t really want to do a podcast just asking people about their failed businesses, but also because at its heart, our personal experience is that it’s the same skills. It’s the same tools you draw upon. It’s the same wells of resilience that you learn to fill and learn to find.
And the reason it came about in some ways was because I had experienced some personal setbacks, primarily around difficult pregnancy and child loss and things. And Anna had similarly had lots of things that happened in her life, including she had rebuilt her career.
She used to be a professional swimmer and she didn’t make the Olympic team many years ago and she decided, okay, that’s it, I’m not doing that anymore. I’m going to do something else. And then we met to rebuild a business, so we were put together as a pair with another of our wonderful colleagues, Andy.
And we went in to turn around a business, which was TBWA. And I was quite raw off the back of a lot of stuff that had happened personally. And I was coming back from a mat leave and I don’t know what I was thinking at the time. So my first CEO role and we were very naive going into it in a way. And the things that we drew on were not, oh, what did I do in my previous CEO role when I built a business, because you know what, I hadn’t had one.
It was a lot of the things which happened to me in the previous three years, which were kind of quite personal. And so the things that we used to keep us going and to deal with uncertainty and people who were feeling vulnerable, and obstacles that we hadn’t come across before and all those good things that come in rebuilding, we were just looking inside us and saying, what was there that we could use?
And some of it, was it personal? Was it professional? It was a bit of a mix of both. And then after two years of a really successful business turnaround, COVID came and suddenly, I mean everything hit the fan all over the shop and there was suddenly the line between personal and professional, I think for the first time in my working life, you know, in the most significant way, suddenly the wall was pulled down between the two.
You know, we were literally trying to be professional sitting in our homes with our kids and dogs, et cetera. And so that really reinforced it for us. And again, the things that our colleagues were experiencing, they weren’t professional challenges or personal challenges. They were just challenges and the types of resources that we were bringing to them to try and resolve and solve some things were just things that we knew, they were neither personal nor professional. So that really cemented it for us.
We don’t believe that there’s a different… we have different sets of skills and resources within us, we’re just one person. And do you know what, a difficult conversation with your boss is a bit like a difficult conversation with your husband. I’m sorry, it is. And getting over redundancy, does teach you some things about getting over grief. So yes, there are a lot of similarities.
Alison Jones: It’s really fascinating, isn’t it? Because I’m particularly captured by that idea that when you are in a new role for the first time, and there’s some anxiety around, I’ve never done this before, I don’t know what you’re supposed to do; reminding yourself that actually you have lots of life experience, which is absolutely valid in that context, it’s quite empowering.
Sara Tate: I hope so and also I think particularly for, you know, my lived experience is obviously as a sort of cis-straight woman and so I had experience, friends who’d been out the workplace for a long time. There may women who’ve had career breaks or they’ve been on maternity or they’ve had long periods of time looking after children and then come back into the workplace.
Many of them and I felt it when I came back from mat leave, you just think, oh, I’m so out the loop, I haven’t done this, I don’t have the skills. But I think we all recognize hopefully that the types of things you learn when say bringing up a family or caring for an elderly relative, or you know, dealing with difficult financial times at home, they are a hundred percent skills that you can bring into the workplace and trying to… you know, if we can help people recognize those things, then that will mean a lot.
Alison Jones: I remember going back after having my second child and realizing that time management, oh my goodness, you know, I thought I knew about time management at work, but I was a million times more productive.
Sara Tate: Yes, exactly and one of the… I interviewed two women for the book who have very unusual jobs. It was one of the most serious interviews I did. They are quite young, early thirties, one of them is a female funeral director. She took over a family business and the other one is an end of life doula. So she deals primarily with helping people with end of life care and with their own mindset and families support around end of life, often for young people with terminal illness.
So like two really important and meaningful roles and they work together a lot to raise awareness of, an acceptance of, and just raise the conversation around having a good death.
Alison Jones: The last great taboo.
Sara Tate: It’s quite a heavy topic. They have a wonderful book if anyone’s interested called We All Know How It Ends which is a wonderful read
Alison Jones: Great title.
Sara Tate: Yes, and they have a Twitter site called Life, Death, Whatever. And I sort of pop along and I’m trying to find themes of well, isn’t divorce a bit like this, and isn’t, you know, like I said, having an argument with your boss a bit like having an argument with your husband, and then I’m sort of dealing with two people who really really know their stuff in this regard, actually Anna Lyons, who is the death Doula, she agreed with my hare-brained concept.
And she had this wonderful quote where she said, we can grieve many things. We can grieve the loss of many things. Of course, bereavement is one of the biggest losses we will experience, but she said we can also grieve the loss of many other things. We can grieve the loss of identity. We can grieve the loss of friends. We can grieve the loss of plans that that didn’t happen. You know, of dreams, of ideas that we had, about people we would be and careers that we would have. And particularly during the pandemic, I think lots of people felt that, there was a huge loss, people, you know, had ideas for what they would be doing with their time and their careers and those things fell away.
And she said, yes, those are, they’re little mini griefs…
Alison Jones: Hmm…
Sara Tate: …actually learning to experience them as mini griefs helps us eventually deal with the big grief.
Alison Jones: Absolutely and I guess that adapting and overcoming those is good rehearsal for rebuilding a life after loss as well, isn’t it.
Sara Tate: Exactly. So, so…
Alison Jones: I just want to talk about the podcast actually. So I’m glad you brought that specific example and they’re so enriching these conversations aren’t they? They do make you sort of see things in a different way.
You almost get to see life through somebody else’s glasses for a little while, which is really a gift. But how did the podcast fit alongside the concept of The Rebuilders? Did it come first? Did it help you write the book? You know, just tell me where it, how it fit.
Sara Tate: It came first and the book was born out of it. So in the first, as the pandemic hit in the UK and we went into the first lockdown, I find it hard to understand why we decided to do it at the time, but Anna and I decided to start a podcast. And I think we wanted some time, we both had two children. Mine were four and five at the time, hers were one or two and six, I think.
And I think we just like speaking, having an excuse to talk on the phone upstairs in the quiet with each other. So we hatched this plan to start a podcast because it was just something else that we hadn’t done and it wasn’t work.
It wasn’t, you know, running a business going through a hard time and it wasn’t homeschooling and dealing with other things. We just got to shut ourselves in our bedrooms and talk to each other on the computer. And so we started interviewing people and we quite liked the idea of learning how to use the platforms and doing our own social media. And it was just a bit of pottering about really.
Alison Jones: project.
Sara Tate: And it was a lockdown project. Yes. And we often did it late, very late at night, just set off and tinkered away. And having rebuilt the business and then we were rebuilding again, you know, because of the pandemic, we just came across that topic. We just came up with it and we wanted to talk to some people.
And I think we took great succour in talking to people who had come out the other side of quite large things. The first person I talked to was Jason Gonsalves who relaunched The Face magazine, the wonderful cultural magazine, The Face magazine. So he rebuilt that magazine brand, but he also was going through difficult times with that business. It’s a culture mag. There’s no culture happening. Everyone’s stuck in their homes. And he also was very candid talking about, pretty much nothing fazed this guy, because he got divorced very young and he learned so much from that. And so we did a couple of interviews and they were just real balm for our souls I think, in terms of just talking to people.
And came away thinking, come on, we can do this, you know? And so we just then did more and more. So we did 10 interviews to begin with and we released one a week, I think. And then we finished that series and then people said, what are you going to do with it?
And we were like, oh, I don’t know and then Anna came up with the idea of writing a book. Because we had these wonderful stories and we are both strategists. I was a strategist originally. So she’s enormously interested in understanding people and trends and how people behave and cultural trends.
And so like good strategists we then went back and did another however many interviews. And so the concept was born out of the podcast and that actually gave us our first few chapters, I think. started to notice commonalities between what on the surface looked like very different things, very different stories, overcoming alcoholism, going to jail, recovering from… Charlie Webster, the BBC sports reporter had suffered child abuse as a child and then later in life had a brain injury. And it was only after that and that period of forced rest after her brain injury that she dealt with, that everything came back to hit her. And so there were very different stories on the surface, but the themes that came out had a lot in common and we thought, you know what? We want to package these up and talk to some more people and flesh them out a bit more.
Alison Jones: And I want to dive into the themes and I want to dive into the writing. So I’m a bit conflicted at the moment and I’m going be greedy and do both, but just tell us what most startled you in terms of the… or what surprised you most in terms of the themes that came out, those commonalities that you identified?
Sara Tate: So I go with what sticks with me most. And when people talk to me and I’ve done a few talks, always for me the same chapters come up in a way. Interestingly, for Anna, the things that come up for Anna are often focused around pace and recovery time. And I think because she’s a former athlete, and the things that come up for me are the ability to deal with uncertainty and to deal with not knowing what’s coming. I probably gravitate towards them because I hate that. I hate not knowing what’s coming, but what we, this concept…
Alison Jones: This is a difficult time for you, right?
Sara Tate: Yes.
Alison Jones: We live in an uncertain world.
Sara Tate: So this idea of there being a gap between… We thought there was a setback and then, people off you go, you are rebuilding.
And of course that’s not the case. We realized there’s this gap, a transition point. And the grieving, if you, exactly as we talked to Anna Lyons or we talked to a lady who is a, Charlotte Friedman, who is a divorce counsellor, but was a divorce barrister. And divorce barristers just deal with the end, but she moved to be a counsellor because after the end, what next? What happens? A huge period of not knowing.
And that came up a lot. The idea that people who make it out the other side somehow get used to long periods of deep uncertainty. So not knowing it’s okay to not know. And not only do they realize that it’s okay to not know, I’m not going to say they become okay with it, everyone’s obviously quite conflicted, but they make some peace with it. Is they actually start to see that period of time as the period of time where the solution emerges. And that was then borne out by lots of research that we did. So there’s a lots of work by a guy called William Bridges who wrote a book called Transitions.
He was a psychotherapist and this concept of a messy middle period where there’s an ending and before there’s a beginning, there’s a whole lot of who knows what. And not only can you not skip over it, but it’s actually really important to go through it, to get to the beginning.
Alison Jones: It’s very hard for our storytelling brains, isn’t it? Because we like beginnings and ends and the messy middle is hard for us to process. We’re desperately trying to make sense of it, yes.
Sara Tate: It’s also very hard for business brains, because as a, you know, as a communication strategist, I was always taught, where are we now, where do we want to go, and how do we get there is the basic premise of strategy, but it becomes a little bit more, where are we now? Somewhere we didn’t really plan to be. Where do we want to go? I don’t know but I don’t want to be here. do we get there? I don’t know, let’s muddle along.
And of course that’s the opposite of what feels like strategy, but you are right, we live in difficult times. I mean, we live in what, in business terms, we’d call a VUCA climate, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Four words which make any good business person feel a little bit sick.
But we do, that is the environment that we live in, from a macroeconomic perspective down to how most people are experiencing it day to day. So that was a big theme. This ability to sort of sit with uncertainty.
Alison Jones: So interesting. Brilliant. Thank you really, really interesting.
And it makes me realize as well, actually, that the reality of what you’re talking about, because as a business community perhaps we focus so much on starting up, but actually for most of us, most of the time, it’s not starting from scratch.
It’s about starting where you are and then either rebuilding or building something different out of the rubble
Sara Tate: Yes that’s right. And I think that was the other reason we locked onto this initially was, you know, we are in a fast moving industry, communications, which is obsessed with new technology and startups, and everything’s fresh and shiny. You know, we do kind of fetishize new things generally in society, but the truth is when we went into TBWA it wasn’t a new business and it’s more complex for that, if you are looking at a business which it had it not been its best for a long period of time.
And we just all thought, how often does anyone really start with a blank sheet of paper? Certainly not at my age, you know? You don’t, you start from where you are. You know, how often do you really go, right that’s it, I’m walking away. I’m going off to get a pint of milk and I’m never coming back.
Alison Jones: How often do we think about it? How often do we do it?
Sara Tate: Often we want to make the effort to rebuild something that we love and we’ve invested in, be it a business or a relationship, whatever it might be. And that is both more complex and more interesting we felt.
Alison Jones: Yes, wonderful.
And now I am going to ask you about the writing because I remember talking to you at a book launch, it was Diana Marsland, Julie Nerney Own Your Day. And you were talking about writing the book and then you made a particular face, which I have seen before, but it, wasn’t
Sara Tate: I’m probably making it now.
Alison Jones: It wasn’t a face of sort of, YES, I’m writing a book. It was a face of [sob] I’m writing a book sort of face, and I laughed because it was funny, but because I recognized it. Tell us about the journey.
Sara Tate: So let’s start with bits I liked, let’s be positive. journey. Let’s start… I love the freedom of diving into a topic, whichever direction I want to take it in and having run a business of 250 people and having, you know, worked to service clients and be connected to so many other things, just being really selfish and going I want to interview this person and dive into this and go down all the rabbit holes was a wonderful, wonderful gift.
And I love to talk to people, you said at the start to interview people and see things through their eyes is an amazing gift. And I love that. So I still do the podcast. I’m still interviewing new people, even though the book is done, because I just adore it.
However, I don’t like writing because I’m dyslexic. And that then became a sort of a bit of a meta narrative, because my dyslexia became a case study in the book in the end.
Alison Jones: It’s all material, isn’t it?
Sara Tate: Because as I was going through, as I said at the start, so I’m not a great believer that all failures have learnings in them and everything’s a silver lining because I just think it’s rubbish.
And I feel like, and I also don’t think all setbacks are failures, some are just stuff that happens. And dyslexia is one of those things. I would not count my dyslexia as a failure. In fact, I’ve just discovered that my daughter’s dyslexic and I do not think, oh, she’s failed. It just is, it’s just a thing.
However, the way I experienced my dyslexia diagnosis was comedically, and not comedically, I got into Oxford University to do English, there’s a lot of reading and writing in English. And in the first term I wrote an essay on failure, I kid you not, on failure in Conrad or something. And I spelled failure with two i’s or maybe one i. I still don’t know how it is spelled.
And anyway, I handed it in and I spelled it wrong like a zillion times. The tutor just looked at me and said, I think you might be dyslexic. I was like, I think you’ll find there’s a mistake because I’m at university studying English. And so what happened was I started failing at my degree very badly. And I struggled very badly.
And so I processed what was an event, a setback, as a personal failure. I thought I’m useless. I’m bad at this. I’m failing at this. I’ll fail as an adult. I will struggle with this. And, I do what we often we do with failures, which we mark them up as an important learning and the learning I took was I failed. I can’t do this.
And actually that’s not the learning at all, you know, that’s just not how dyslexia works. And so I then took that into my adult career and I avoided writing like the plague. I wrote that failure into my narrative and I just would say to everyone I’m dyslexic, I can’t write anything. Don’t get me to write anything.
And so I missed writing lots of stuff. I didn’t win the awards for papers that I didn’t write. I didn’t get published articles that I didn’t write. I didn’t get recognized for thought pieces that I didn’t write because I said, I can’t write, I can’t write, I’m dyslexic. I can’t write.
And then I met Anna and she just went, nah, bullshit, excuse my French, because she’d sort of seen me write and I was working alongside her and she said your writing’s fine. And that was a real, that was the lesson for me, is that it wasn’t a big failure. It was just a thing that I found quite hard to do.
And the irony was because I’d avoided doing it for the last 25 years. I probably had definitely hadn’t got any better. But actually I have written half a book and there was quite a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth and no, I didn’t love it. But no, I wasn’t awful. It definitely took me longer than Anna and I had to spend more time on it and it didn’t come as easily to me, but my writing was not a write off completely, which is what I had told myself it was, you know, 25 years before.
Alison Jones: That’s so hard to hear in a way, but it’s…. I mean the things that you haven’t written that the world will never know, that’s heartbreaking, but how wonderful that you met Anna and here we are talking about the book wot you wrote, it’s amazing, isn’t it?
And actually I’m going to tailor this slightly, if you don’t mind. I always ask my guests about a tip for a first time business book author. Would you speak specifically to that? If there’s somebody listening who has avoided writing, you know, they may be dyslexic or there may be some other issue, but what practical tip perhaps would you give them?
Sara Tate: I would say, just focus on the concept. People say to me, how do you, you know, I’m writing a business book and I’ve got to get it finished before I submit it. I’m like, don’t write a whole book. Don’t bother writing a whole book. I would say, write one sentence, one paragraph, and one chapter. The concept is much more. If you’ve got the concept, you can deal with the writing later. That’s the execution of the concept.
You could be a beautiful writer and just write a book that doesn’t have a strong enough concept to stick with people. So I would say, and this worked for me, I had no problem coming up with a concept, because it was the writing that was hard.
So I would say, think of your one sentence, what’s your one sentence angle on the book, you know, in movies they talk about the elevator pitch, you know, what’s your one sentence. So for us, it is how do you rebuild after a setback? And then what’s your paragraph. So, you know, unpack that a little bit. What types of things might you cover? Are you doing research? Are you interviewing people? You know, what’s the content for it and then have a crack at a chapter, but it doesn’t, it almost doesn’t matter at that stage about the quality of the writing. You can get someone to look over it for you, if you need to. It’s more about what’s your structure, what types of things are you going to have in there?
Is it going to be lighthearted? Is it first person? Is it very dense with data? You know, what types of things will you research in order to put in there? So one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter. Don’t feel you need to go away and write 60,000 words.
Alison Jones: Please don’t do that.
Sara Tate: Takes ages. So just focus on the concept and if it helps, talk it through with people.
So I sense-make by talking much more than writing. So, you know, just bore your friends with what your concept is until you’ve got that elevator pitch really sharp.
Alison Jones: That’s fabulous advice. And when authors come to me and they said, oh, I’m, I’ve got this idea, but I’m worried about writing the book. I’m like, do you know what? As a publisher we’ve got that angle covered, we can help people write a good book. We’ve got the style and, you know, all that kind of stuff covered. And even the structure we can help with. What you as the author bring is the concept and the credibility. And I think remembering that if you have any concerns about writing is really helpful.
Sara Tate: Yes, definitely.
Alison Jones: And is there a book that you would recommend for people to read? It doesn’t have to be a business book. It can’t be The Rebuilders.
Sara Tate: There is a book. I did think about this before and I recommend it all the time. So I’m just going to still go with it because it’s so useful. So the book is by Michael Bungay Stanier and it’s called The Coaching Habit. And the reason I recommend it is because it doesn’t really matter what job you’re in or what you do with your life. It’s really helpful.
It sets up really basic, in a really basic sense, what coaching is and he describes it as, he’s like if you don’t like the idea of coaching, do you like the idea of doing a lot less and getting other people to do more stuff, then this is for you, like, okay. You know…
Alison Jones: …oh, if you put that way….
Sara Tate: …exactly. So he said, you know, so it is very, very simple. It sets out the concept of coaching and it gives six questions. So each chapter presents a brilliant coaching question that you can use. And then the chapter goes into using it, why it’s good, different examples of using it, but six really easy takeaways, and you can use it with your kids, you can use it on your husband, you can use it on your friends, you can use it on your colleagues, on your boss. Pretty much every time you come up against something that you don’t know, you can use it.
And given what we were just saying, it’s quite a VUCA climate, I come up against something I don’t know about every 15 seconds. So it’s really, really useful and it’s really easy to digest.
Alison Jones: And it’s a brilliant example of exactly what we were talking about right at the beginning, of that there is no line between the personal and professional. Coaching is one of those things that absolutely, it’s just a state of mind isn’t it? It’s a way of looking the world.
Sara Tate: It’s a way of looking at the world.
Alison Jones: Great recommendation. Thank you. And Sara, if people want to find out more about you, more about the book, more about the podcast, where should they go?
Sara Tate: So I am on LinkedIn, Sara Tate, and I post most of my podcast episodes up there. So that’s a good place to find everything and find out a little bit more about what I do. You can search for The Rebuilder’s Podcast anywhere you listen to a podcast. We’re towards the end of series two. So there’s lots of back episodes for you to listen to.
And I am on Twitter much more often than I should be, I’m @saraktate on Twitter. So people can find most of my ramblings on there.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. Well, absolute joy to talk to you today. It’s really, really good when you talk to somebody and they’re sort of in the throes of writing the book and then you interview them on the podcast and there’s the book looking beautiful. It’s a lovely feeling.
Sara Tate: Ah, thank you.