Here’s the latest in our PRECIOUS Success leadership series. We’re asking a range of entrepreneurs, business owners, experts, women and men from a range of industries: ‘What Does Leadership Mean to You?’ Joy Francis, co-founder of Digital Women UK, replies.
I’ve had an eclectic journey where leadership is concerned. While growing up, everyone would say I was a natural leader. I was resistant to the idea and would brush them off. You should be in politics or be a lawyer, they would repeatedly say. Did you fall on your head? I would reply. As a black woman with my personality and opinions, I’d be impeached or disbarred in a heartbeat.
The idea of leadership was uncomfortable to me from my teens to my twenties. I saw myself as someone who wouldn’t compromise when I felt something was unfair and unjust. I felt passionate about media misrepresentation, social justice and was drawn to encouraging people (young and old) to fulfil their potential. Underlying it all was a marginal dislike of being told what to do. How then could I be a leader?
But my actions said different. I ran a Saturday School in Tottenham in my teens. At university I was the student representative on my Politics degree. In my first journalism job, during my six month probation, I was on the picket line with the National Union of Journalists fighting against the publishing company’s attempt to de- recognise the union. I managed to keep my job and be the equality officer during my four years there.
As the first black journalist on my magazine in the early-90s I was often in my editor’s office challenging certain decisions about the absence of people of colour on the cover or the misrepresentation of black people on the cover or the need to look at the experiences of people of colour in more depth. He frowned but listened.
Hovering in the recesses of my mind was the growing desire to be my own boss. I didn’t declare it to my mother as she would have had a meltdown. I went on a month-long road trip to the West Coast of America with my younger sister and two friends and while in Arizona, overlooking the vastness of the Grand Canyon, I made my decision. I was going to hand in my notice on my return.
Everyone thought I was crazy. It felt right. The universe conspired to make it work as news got out that I was leaving and I was offered opportunities left, right and centre. I then said yes to things that were out of my comfort zone. I worked in South Africa, Washington and Albania on media diversity, strategic communications, social enterprise and leadership. I constructively berated politicians, government officials and newspaper editors on gender, race and social inclusion.
One thing I was aware of during this time was how powerful I could be in my authentic self. I went into top flight meetings with my natural hair or braids. But being in the room wasn’t enough. I wanted to co-create sustainable projects that left a legacy. When men were dominating the conversation, or something was said that was ‘off’, I would name it. I’m not one for avoiding the elephant in the room.
It is important to reflect the many variations of womanhood and leadership, especially for the next generation. They need to know they can be leaders and be themselves.
I believe the leader you are is connected to your passion, vision, personal definition of ambition and success, and the risks you are willing to take. I appreciate that even when people disagree with me, or I disagree with them, they think I’m fair. My leadership approach is based on building relationships and collaborating with people. I invest in people, with my time, ideas, advice and even money. Your actions matter.
What advice would I give on leadership? Leave your ego outside the room. Ask for support. Share your concerns – with the right people. Know when you are resisting an idea for the wrong reasons. Be open to the fact that not knowing everything is a strength, not a weakness.
If you aren’t making mistakes then something isn’t right. And while meeting unexpected professional and personal challenges you will (or should) grow and change. This may mean making an awkward u-turn on a well held belief or approach – and even saying sorry. That’s cool.
When people now refer to or introduce me as a leader, or invite me to be part of a leadership initiative, I no longer flinch, resist or bat it away. I smile and say thank you.
Joy Francis is executive director of Words of Colour Productions (@wordsofcolour), a social enterprise and communications agency that develops innovative programmes for writers of colour of all genres, and co-founder of Digital Women UK (@digitalwomenuk), which facilitates female creative practitioners to fully engage with social media.