Back cover

As an undergraduate studying English Literature I fell in love with women on the edge: Bronte’s Cathy Earnshaw, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.  “The Trick is to Keep Breathing”? Yes, it is Janice.  I devoured the thinking of Jacques Derrida and Lacan, Roland Barthes, Toril Moi and Helene Cixous.  My dissertation was titled “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”.  

Naturally, I then became an accountant. 

Victoria Ferrier spent nearly two decades in big, corporate jobs becoming an award-winning financial communications specialist and featuring on the front-page of the Financial Times. Along the way she nearly died giving birth to her first child, unravelled (discretely) following her mother’s overdose and held her hand as she died from cancer. Although, it took many years, reporting into leaders driven by fearful egos, in charge of businesses that had the soul KPI-d out of them, before she had the courage to follow her talent and re-connect to that literature-loving girl. A girl who was nowhere to be found in the highly functioning, red-soled, swishy-blo-dried, story of herself she presented to the world.

Passionate about creating business cultures where people and values are at the heart of the value-creation narrative, not numbers, today she helps people in business re-connect to their own genius.

Connecting to your own genius is your wisdom, your intelligence, to what makes you feel alive, to what brings your meaning to life. It’s your “battery” - the source of your energy and your optimism. That which will power the effort required to keep showing up for work that matters.

Be Your Own Story is a book about leading yourself, leading your people and leading your business. It’s a guide to creating vital, human, inspiring businesses. It’s a guide to being fully alive at work.

Front matter

Alive

Son, she said
Have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy
Was nothin' but a 

While you were sittin'
Home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dyin'
Sorry you didn't see him
But I'm glad we talked

Oh I, oh, I'm still alive
Hey, hey, I, oh, I'm still alive
Hey I, oh, I'm still alive, yeah oh

While she walks slowly
Across a young man's room
She said I'm ready, for you
I can't remember anything
To this very day
'Cept the look, the look
Oh, you know where

Now I can't see, I just stare
I, I, I'm still alive
Yeah, yeah I, oh, I'm still alive
Yeah, yeah I, oh, I'm still alive
Yeah, yeah I, oh, I'm still alive, yeah

Is something wrong?
She said
Of course there is
You're still alive
She said
Oh do I deserve to be?
Is that the question? 
And if so, if so
Who answers?
Who answers?

 

Pearl Jam, Alive. Songwriters: Stone C. Gossard / Eddie Jerome Vedder

Alive lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

In 1990, guitarist Stone Gossard was with the rock band Mother Love Bone, who were at the forefront of Seattle’s burgeoning music scene. He wrote the music for a song he called Dollar Short, which the band’s front man, Andrew Wood sang. After Wood died of a heroine overdose, Gossard and his bandmate Jeff Ament started playing with guitarist Mike McCready in the hope of starting a new band. Jack Irons, a friend of Gossard's who played drums in The Red Hot Chili Peppers, was approached about joining, but he had another commitment. He thought Eddie Vedder might be a good fit as the singer, so he gave Eddie the demo tape.

Vedder, who was working as a security guard for a petroleum company in San Diego, wrote lyrics to Dollar Short, about a boy who finds out the man he calls father is actually his stepfather, and that his real father is dead. He later revealed that the song was "a work of fiction based on reality," and the chorus of "I'm still alive" was what he considered his curse: his own struggle to deal with the strained relationship with his stepfather and the fact that his real father was dead.

In an episode of VH1's Storytellers, Vedder explained that the interpretation of the song had changed, as fans would react to the chorus by jumping around and celebrating: “They heard "I'm still alive" as a positive thing, an affirmation of life” said Vedder. "When they changed the meaning of those words, they lifted the curse”.

Be Your Own Story is a guide to being fully alive at work. That might mean lifting the curse by changing the meaning of the words.


 

 

Preface

You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine what it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. - Toni Morrison

More than ever, the world needs people in business to be their own stories.

Our society rewards bankers who steal, businessmen who lie, sportsmen who cheat and politicians who steal, lie and cheat. We face a crisis of leadership and it’s man-made.

Feeling powerless, it is natural to look outside of ourselves; to political leaders, someone, anyone, that will take the lead to sort out this mess. But, when good people, powerful people, fail to generate the political capital to make a difference, it’s time to recognise that we must connect to ourselves, to our own power.  We are the ones we have been waiting for.

We are failing to equip people to lead the kind of change the world needs.  Some, too gentle for the gladiatorial sport that is business today, are ground down by the seeming stupidity and ignorance of those who don’t seem to understand that their actions are unsustainable. Unable to continue on their leadership path, they invest their energy in their families, communities and pursuits worthy and deserving of their vitality and talents.

Others battle through the labyrinth, slaying many dragons along the way, only to discover that despite their seniority, their voice will never drown out those “intellectually incoherent” voices intent on maintaining the paradigm of short-termism and shareholder value that is about value extraction not value creation.

It’s hard to make a difference and sustaining ourselves in such a world is challenging.  For those of us who wish to create a different world, to do things differently, to lead from the heart, we must expect to be lonely: it’s lonely to get to the future first.  How, therefore do we develop the resilience required to make an impact?

In her book Perseverance, organisational consultant Margaret Wheatley, suggests that patience and compassion are the only ways.  We must avoid the trap of judging those who steal, lie, cheat and extract. Rather, we must re-define our task and challenge ourselves to become gentle guides to the world as we see it, not fierce advocates for our view of reality. We must not flee, but become warriors for the human spirit.

I suggest, we cultivate the patience and compassion required to persevere in our leadership task by first connecting to ourselves. To our own genius - our wisdom and intelligence, to what makes us feel alive, to what brings our meaning to life.  This is our “battery” – the source of our energy and our optimism. That which will power the effort required to keep showing up for work that matters, and to lead for change, one day at a time.

This is a call to ask you not to wait until a “cement shaking” experience jolts you out of comfort and complacency. It is a call to consider that security is not the point of our existence.  It is a call to ask that you to be fully alive: to find the courage to choose to live and lead consciously, intentionally and by your highest calling, now.

To be your own story, starting today.

"Be your own story” is inspired by the commencement address given by Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison to the graduates of Wellesley College, Massachusetts (an “uncompromisingly intellectual” women’s college).

Chapter 1: Naturally, I became an accountant.

Everyone has a talent. What is rare, is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads – Erica Jong

It’s 2003. I’m pregnant with my first child and my IT project manager husband is made redundant.

I was working in London for a global consumer goods company at the time, loving my job doing really interesting work in M&A and strategy, travelling all over the world.  Upon returning to work from maternity leave, we decided that I’d be the breadwinner whilst he'd be, what was at that time a rare thing - an at-home dad - and fulfil his dream of studying for a degree in History of Art.  With hindsight I feel grateful for these circumstances: they prevented me experiencing working mum guilt or having to make choices regarding part time or flexible work - I just ploughed on with a career I loved. 

I became more senior, my husband returned to his career in IT when our youngest started school and the trade-offs started to became less palatable. The hours got longer and I hated the short-term focus of the work – it felt like there was no time to breathe or think. The corporate world began to feel confining and I knew I wasn’t contributing fully.  But doing something more purposeful, more aligned with who I am, was just a pipe-dream; maybe something I’d do in my 50s.  Anyway I only had one way to measure success and that was by how high I could climb the ladder (which I measured on an Excel spreadsheet). 

In 2011 I reached a career milestone when I left London to return to Scotland to head up the Investor Relations and Communications function of a company newly-promoted into the FTSE100.  Two pivotal things happened that year – firstly I found the 7 Habits workbook I’d completed in 2002.  Doing Franklin Covey's ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People” had a big impact on me: it inspired me to consider more consciously how I wanted to live my life.  Reading that workbook years later gave me a real jolt – how little of the principles I’d truly assimilated into my life.  The dreams I’d written of were about who I was relative to others – wife / daughter / friend / potential mother.  I was nowhere to be found.

Then my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer and with her in London, me in Scotland and work very full-on, I felt like I was failing her and my dad by not being there.  Circumstances transpired to allow me to leave that company with a package, which was very stressful, but a friend’s advice “see things as happening for you and not to you” became my mantra.  I spent time with my mum before she died and had some space to start thinking about who I was and what I was all about. 

In 2013 I joined a UK retailer as finance director, working for an ex-colleague from the global consumer goods company, and this was when I started to be more assertive about staking a claim for me in my career; I negotiated 11 weeks holiday a year and worked two days a week from home, three in the office a few hundred miles away, allowing me more flexibility to manage family life. I also intended to invest more time in myself and potential re-training, although I was vague about what that might be. 

That year, I led the department's thinking on our purpose and designed a three-day leadership programme for the top fifty, bringing in two experts in transformational change.  I loved everything about doing this. I'd found my thing -  creating the conditions for people to connect to what makes them feel truly alive in their work. The three of us started kicking around some ideas for a business together.  Shortly after, my boss moved on, the function was restructured and I knew the universe was asking me: “if not now when?!” 

So, I invested in re-training and became certified with Nancy Kline in Time to Think, a technique based on “listening to ignite the human mind”.  I’m an NLP practitioner (and a H-for-humanistic NLP practitioner) and I’m certified to deliver a tool that takes a company’s values and measures the level of “cultural entropy” in an organisation.  I found David Drake's Narrative Coaching, and pulled all of my experience together into an approach to helping people in business consider the fundamentals of what makes them come alive in their work.  I call this Be Your Own Story.

Ok, this story is bullshit. It's what I call the "CV" version. What's the real story?

It’s 2003. I’m in intensive care as a result of complications after the birth of my first child.

At thirty-five weeks I was hospitalised with pre-eclampsia. At thirty-seven weeks I was induced.  Warrior that I was, I rejected pain-relief. Forceps. Just a little episiotomy. Wow. Who knew I would make a boy-baby?  Placenta. Piece of cake. That's not right. I feel like someone's taking an axe to me. Mmmm. Doors flying just like on ER. Mmmmmm. You look like George Clooney.  Are you George Clooney?

Later we were told I had lived thanks to the quick actions of a doctor who had seen an inverted uterus once in her native Pakistan.  I had also lived thanks to the fact that, having had no pain relief, my screaming caught the attention of the medical staff. Luckily, I was also very fit, having ran the Berlin marathon the year before.  The surgeon put my uterus back. Manually. The anaesthetist was cute, but no George Clooney.

Six-days: we shopped in Baby Gap.

Six-weeks: sobbing with exhaustion, we went to the GP (I took just one of the anti-depressants she prescribed, throwing the rest in the bin.)

I called the cavalcade; my parents stayed for two weeks.

Seven-weeks: gave up breast-feeding, saving a fortune on Lansinoh and cabbages. The baby stopped looking like a vampire.

Ten-weeks: mastitis gone, I created an excel spreadsheet to assess the pluses and minuses of the assignments I'd been offered. Plant finance manager, global Beautycare or back into the UK business? 

Six-months: back where I belonged.  Leaning in, but now living life (and distributing advice) with the irritating joyfulness of someone who’d had a wake up call.

In 2007, a psychologist tasked with assessing me for a job described my empathy as “off the scale”.   As a result she had to do more to test my robustness, which she discovered was also very high.  Robust, yes, I was a fucking warrior, but empathic? That meant thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate didn't it?

Anyway, what did she know? I already knew myself deeply.  I was the product of a global company that relentlessly developed its people – I was an ENTP (borderline J), I knew my Herrmann Whole Brain profile, my Signature profile, my Gallup strengths, my PRISM colours. I followed habits one to seven, ran leadership programmes and new hire colleges and Learning & Development for the UK. I threw myself into the bi-annual appraisal process, gleefully harvesting every opportunity for personal growth.

In 2008 my husband phoned to tell me my mother had taken an overdose. 

That this was the catalyst for the wheels to properly come off my life was a surprise. That day I’d walked calmly out the office, caught a taxi to the hospital and tracked down my dad working in Ethiopia.  Landing in London the next morning, he scooped up my broken mother and I fled back to the Mayfair office where I was busy doing important work. 

That I might have unravelled at some point should not really have come as any surprise.  As an undergraduate studying English Literature I fell in love with women on the edge: Bronte’s Cathy Earnshaw, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.  “The Trick is to Keep Breathing”? Yes, it is Janice.  I devoured the thinking of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Toril Moi and Helene Cixous.  My dissertation was titled “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”.  

Naturally, I then became an accountant. 

French psychoanalytic feminist theory wasn’t taught at the state school I attended in the 1980s. “Forries” was no place for an aspiring post-structuralist existentialist feminist, as clearly that would have made her a snob and / or a lesbian.

I chose instead to be a truant.  School was tedious, often dangerous and I spent hours outside the classroom in corridors or washing dishes in the staff room for serious transgressions such as not paying attention or giggling with Sarah. The only class I enjoyed was maths because it was taken by a teacher who sang David Bowie songs.  And he’d played football with my dad at university – there was a photo of the team framed behind his desk. Bob was cool.

However, I went right off him the day I told him I’d been absent the previous week because my mother had been sectioned under the mental health act following a diagnosis of acute paranoid psychosis. His face told me that the subject of my mother’s unravellment was not one I should speak of again.

And so I didn’t.

Of course, I unraveled discretely, making sure almost no-one noticed. Nevertheless it was a very painful time for me; I began to question everything; I felt too much, and not enough; I felt painfully self-conscious; there was an endless conversation in my head; I felt anxious and had panic attacks. I stayed out late and drank too much.  My marriage was on a shaky nail. And as I unravelled, I worried that genetics meant there was only one way this would end for me.

I read Victoria Coren's book For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker, a very honest, funny and moving book charting her journey from playing poker as a teenager with her brother Giles, to making history by becoming the first woman ever to win a European Poker Tour main event in 2006.

However just a year earlier, she had lain on the bed of her Vegas hotel for a long time musing that “the thought of waking up tomorrow, and the next, makes me feel tired and sad”.  Having been diagnosed as clinically depressed, she was heartbroken following the end of a love affair. To top it all she’d just gambled (and lost) all three of her emergency envelopes of cash and her increased overdraft. She wonders if it is possible to rub herself out and start again. I was not alone.

Bat-shit bonkers as I felt on the inside, the story I presented to the world was a highly-functioning, red-soled, and swishy-blo-dried one.  In 2010, I was on the front page of The Financial Times, courtesy of an innovation I'd created related to how equity analysts' forecasted earnings contributed to a company's consensus earnings estimate. Handy timing too, as the article appeared the day I was interviewed to head up the Investor Relations and Communications function at a company newly promoted into the FTSE100.

In 2012, I left the FTSE100 company, exhausted, but with a compromise agreement in hand, allowing me a bit of breathing space to spend time with my mum, who was terminally ill with cancer.  In 2013 I joined a UK retailer as finance director. In 2014 I left the UK retailer, exhausted, but with six-months gardening leave and, discerning a pattern, with an idea to work with two experts in transformational change to pursue my thing.

I hired a coach, Cynthia Morris of Original Impulse to "become creative" (aka someone who could design a logo).  It was Cynthia who said writing would be a key way I would bring my work to the world - I'd "forgotten" I'd studied English Literature at university.  Not forgotten of course, it was on my CV, but after years of writing jargon-riddled business gobbledegook, I'd become disconnected from what I'd loved about my undergraduate studies: writing for the sheer joy of discovering what I know.

And so began the long, slow process of re-connecting to that literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist girl.  I read and read and read and read….and then connecting the dots as I went, I read some more.  Returning to my undergraduate days, I read and made notes and wrote them all up, until I felt I’d sufficiently answered the question: “Victoria Ferrier: What the f**k?”.

 

 

Chapter 2: we are not nouns, we are verbs

I didn’t always know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. A woman in charge of my life and independent - Diane von Furstenberg

What response do you give to the question “what do you do”? Philosopher Alain de Botton argues that our answer is critical; it will determine whether we are warmly welcomed or conclusively abandoned by the peanuts, at the party of life. “In so far as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centred around the worship of professional success”, states Botton in Religion for Atheists

For the first few years after leaving the corporate world I answered the “what do you do?” question variously. More often than not it was met with a long, rambling response; I used to be [insert job title] then I was [insert more impressive job title] at [insert global company, a household name]. I then fumbled to put the words “coach”, “consultant” and “leadership development” into some kind of sentence, occasionally adding “writer” with an apologetic clearance of my throat.

The real answer was that I was burnt-out and, having been living away most of the week, totally disconnected from my family and my home. In retrospect, I wanted to try just being for a while, but, having only just weened myself off the Excel spreadsheet I’d used to plot my career (roles, promotions, anticipated remuneration) I had no place within me to hold the concept of “just being”. Busy, busy, busy, doing, doing, doing.

And I wasn’t ready to be abandoned by peanuts: “those that who have opted to spend their lives looking after children, writing poetry or nurturing orchards will be left in no doubt that they have run contrary to the dominant mores of the powerful and deserve to be marginalised accordingly” says Botton. Of course I was going to the wrong parties - I needed to go to ones where people would support me, champion my ideas and regenerate me with a “good for you!”.

It all starts at school. Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson (his TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity has been watched 57 million times) puts it best when he says that the current system of education was designed, conceived and structured for a different age. It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and in the industrial circumstances of the industrial revolution. So education was driven by an economic imperative of the time, but running right through it was an intellectual model of the mind, an Enlightenment view of intelligence that states real intelligence is the capacity for a certain type of deductive reasoning and the knowledge of the Classics originally - what we think of as academic ability. So this set up a duality: there are two type of people: academic and non-academic; smart people and non-smart people; non-creative and creative.

Sir Ken’s view is that most people have not benefited from this model. Today the education system is modelled on the interests of industrialisation and in the image of it: schools are organised around factory lines, ringing bells, separate facilities, specialisation of subjects. We still educate children by batches, by age group (their date of manufacture). It’s a production line mentality, with standardised testing driving conformity. Drive for professional success, lest run the risk of being abandoned by the peanuts at the party of life, is an idea instilled in children from the moment they start school.

But work is changing. Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business school. In her book THE SHIFT she explores the impact the speed of change in the nature of work is having on our lives. On the one hand, the negatives Gratton presents are clear: technology driven fragmentation, isolation – a future where a new global underclass has emerged. But, on the other, a future might emerge which is more empathetic, more balanced, where billions collaborate to co-create solutions to the world’s problems and one in which “micro-entrepreneurs” thrive as they craft creative lives.

Micro-entrepreneurs have made their passion their work and in 2025 there will be hundreds of millions of them. These like-minded people, gather around an idea and it is they, not the large corporations that shape the direction of the market (and they will be twice as likely to be passionate about their work as those in corporations).

Gratton suggests the shifts in the nature of work presents an opportunity to write a “personal career script that can bring you fulfillment and meaning”. If we can harness our resources – intellectual, social and emotional – we will create a working life which “resonates with our values and is aligned to our beliefs”.

If we’re to create this life, and avoid living one of isolation, we’re going to need three groups; a small group of trusted people, who have some of the same expertise in common, who like and support you – what Gratton calls a posse; a group of people, very different from yourself, on the outer reaches of your network, which you’ll likely know only virtually – the big ideas crowd and finally the regenerative community are real people, with whom you meet frequently, have a laugh, share meals and stories, relax and be yourself.

The physical place we live in is going to be critical to creating this regenerative community. When where we live is not dictated by where we work, we will have greater choice about where we choose to find our regenerative community. Aside from being exciting, having open space and creative stimulation, what will be critical about this community, is that it allows you to be yourself, to express yourself openly and to cultivate your individuality. Funnily enough, worshipping professional success isn’t one of the features of such a community.

Oscar Wilde said “if you want to be a grocer, or a general, or a politician, or a judge, you will invariably become it: that is your punishment. There is a truth to that, said Stephen Fry: “we are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can become imprisoned if you think if yourself as a noun.”

This book is not about answering the question “what do I do”, although there is a chapter on strengths and putting them into action. It is not a book about the Monk who Sold his Ferrari (or the accountant who gave it all up to become a literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist). It’s about synthesising all of who we are - putting the accountant into the literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist and the literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist into the accountant.

Oscar Wilde also said “be yourself, everyone else is taken”. In the process of becoming yourself you will write a new career script to express that person in what you do, such that your work life resonates with your deepest values. You will become your own story.

For people who want to be fully alive at work, this is exciting.