This interview is part of a new series where leaders in influential positions share their leadership journey – how they got to where they are today. I believe we all have a lot to learn from our stories of where we started, our successes and struggles, and important lessons learned on the way.
This interview is with Penelope. She is the Founder & Director of Stimulus, a company that is committed to stimulating change and growth in individuals and organisations. She is passionate about empowering women, especially women from Black & Ethnic Minority backgrounds.
She has 17 years of experience in the Private and Social sectors working with organisations like Accenture IT Infrastructure Outsourcing, ADT Fire & Security UK&I and Lancashire Women. She is Chair of the Board of Trustees at Humraaz, a Clore Social Leadership fellow, an Animas accredited Transformational Coach and a member of The Chartered Quality Institute. You can find Penelope on LinkedIn here.
Share your backstory and how you got where you are today. Can you share one or two events (positive or negative) in life that shaped who you are as a person and leader?
I come from a working-class Anglo Indian family who lived paycheck to paycheck. I had a chaotic childhood with limited choices. Being a woman, living in India with no adult male in the family was challenging and restrictive. Despite our circumstances, my mother always had what felt like fanciful aspirations for me. I think this actually helped me dream a little bit bigger.
I experienced various kinds of abuse, which I learnt to cope with and compartmentalise from a young age. Surviving all of that made me believe that I had a greater destiny and purpose to fulfil. Why else would I have survived? This was crucial in helping me push past obstacles and to keep moving forward.
I started off training as a nurse, then worked in a call centre and then moved to an IT company, developed a passion and a career in quality management.
In my late 20s, I was certified in Six Sigma Green Belt, ISO 20k Internal Auditor and ITIL v2. Prior to this I only had a nursing diploma. These certifications opened doors for me and I worked hard at being a specialist in my area of work. Soon I was designing the quality function and managing a team that later grew to the Asia Pacific region.
The biggest lesson I learnt was that through education and hard work one can positively change one’s circumstances. It meant I was financially independent and that changed my life manifold. More importantly, I was respected and valued for the knowledge and experience I had.
What do you like about the work you do? What do you find most challenging?
I love that I am able to use my experiences, my journey to inspire other ordinary women like me. I am a nobody from nowhere, that’s how I always describe myself. I have no connections, no contacts, no family money, no paths paved for me to follow. In fact, my ancestors were kept anonymous i.e. no public records because of the stigma of being mixed race.
When I work with people, especially everyday women like me, irrespective of their circumstances I see in them the future person they want to be and I want to help them get there.
What are you passionate about? (or what dreams keep you up at night?)
It’s taken me a lot of trial and error to get to where I am. While I cannot change people’s destiny, I am passionate about being the person that stimulates their desire to achieve their dreams, to utilise the resources they already possess. Sometimes all they need is a champion in their corner so that they don’t have to face it alone.
I have a strong sense of fairness and cannot abide by anything that shifts power in favour of one person, one group to another. On occasion, this has been to the detriment of professional opportunities and relationships but I certainly sleep better knowing I’m being true to what I believe in.
How do you manage pressure and overwhelm?
I believe in designing and planning in detail, setting realistic timescales and expectations. I believe in working smart rather than being a slave to the 9-5. Working when I need to and giving myself permission to have planned and unplanned downtime by listening to what my mind and body is telling me.
Here’s what I know –
- By sharing and delegating work, giving other team members the opportunity to try new work and to upskill helps share the workload while developing a team that is cross-skilled and collaborative.
- I have learnt to not agree to deadlines imposed upon me, rather negotiate and arrive at a mutually agreeable timescale.
- Having the right tools is key to managing your work.
- When working on large and complex projects I chunk work using the Pomodoro technique, a time management system.
- Communicating with all stakeholders is crucial.
- Doing a simple grounding exercise at my desk helps calm my mind, as does a quick walk.
- It’s important to remain pragmatic when approaching work, when it becomes emotive it will become overwhelming.
- Developing a growth mindset has changed how I approach everything. For there is no failure, only learning opportunities.
None of this is easy, but I know this – the more you practice it, the easier it gets.
Who has had the most influence on your leadership? Share a story to illustrate your point.
My coach has had the most influence on my leadership. As I said early I believed I was destined for greater things, but I have no idea about the how, what, when, etc.
As part of a leadership programme I was on, I was offered 4 coaching sessions. The first time I spoke to my coach, it felt like the conversation I was waiting to have my whole life. She just accepted me for who I was. When she asked me what I was committed to and why. I was able to articulate what I’ve been thinking about for so long into a coherent commitment statement.
During that first conversation, I was excited, shy, embarrassed, passionate and hopeful. Every time I sounded doubtful and said, “No one will listen to me”, “I am a nobody”, “I have nothing to contribute” and all those limiting beliefs that surfaced, she asked me for the evidence that made these statements true. I did not have any.
One of the quality principles is evidence-based decision making, while I applied it at work, I now needed to apply it to my life. That was a turning point in believing in myself. As a coach and trainer, when my clients express limiting beliefs, I ask them this simple question, “What’s the evidence?”.
What are your goals or aspirations for this year?
I am committed to running my residential retreat “Still I Rise” at least once a year. I want to continue developing my company Stimulus because I believe in what I have to offer and even more so that my success will continue to be of inspiration to women like me. And the women it inspires, I want to be able to support them on their journeys. There are very few relatable role models for women who come from nothing, who work hard in silence, who are constantly overcoming many barriers and have to fight for their dreams to see the light of day, should they dare to dream.