The importance of networking and going beyond the job spec: The Guardian Editor for Women in Leadership shows us how opportunities arise from the most unlikely places.F
rom receptionist to editor of the Women in Leadership section at The Guardian, Harriet Minter is a prime example of how perseverance and daring to think differently are the key ingredients to a successful career.
The Women in Leadership section on The Guardian has been at the forefront of the battle to achieve equality since 2013 by exploring what can be done to propel more female leaders to the top. If the Women in Leadership community of over 23,000 subscribers is the Guardian’s benevolent army, Minter, the woman who made it all happen, is its determined General. Read on to find out why she left law school to join a start-up and how she turned the "worst interview anyone has ever done" into a springboard for success.
My parents both came from good middle class families; they ran their own business making hand-painted children’s furniture, even making furniture for Prince Harry and Prince William during their childhood. They were amazing but as they ran their business during a recession, it was tough and we always had money worries. My mother left school at 16 because her father didn’t believe in educating girls. She was adamant that my sister and I had a good education and economic independence so that we would never have to rely on anyone.
I did not intend on being a journalist. By the time I finished school, I was done with education, so I went travelling for a year. Then I realised that I needed a degree, so I studied Politics at Newcastle. I actually loved it; you engaged with interesting ideas and discussed really big questions, but once I graduated, I realised I still wasn’t qualified to do anything.
At this point I was still unsure about what I wanted to do, so I decided to study law. I worked as a receptionist during the day and went to law school in the evening for roughly a year and I absolutely hated it. I thought I had made a huge mistake. When I started law school there was a new website called RollOnFriday [news and gossip website for the legal professions]. Eventually they had a vacancy so I emailed, saying that though I didn’t have any of the relevant experience or qualifications, I did make really good coffee and lived on a houseboat, so I would always have funny stories to tell on a Monday.
How thinking outside the box got her on the career ladder
I then had what both my previous boss and me would happily say was the worst interview anyone has ever done. Given that they were writing about lawyers, the interviewer asked me which law firm I was planning on working for – my mind went blank! Eventually, I thought of FreshFields and gave him a list of things which could have applied to any business to explain why I wanted to work there. I needed something specific so I said they had an office in Newcastle, linking it to my university. The interviewer looked at me and said ‘No they don’t’. He knew because his wife worked there – that was how bad it got. Also, I had put on my CV, that I had written for the university newspaper, which was…not entirely true…
"We don't give girls messages about how they should be wild, get out of their comfort zone and embrace opportunity..."
In the interview, they asked if I could send samples of what I had written for my university newspaper. I had no idea what I was going to do. The next day, I bought a huge A1 sheet of orange paper (their corporate colour) and instead of using my supposed samples, I filled it with additional content that their website would have if I was in charge. In the middle, I put 10 reasons why they should hire me and gave it the title ‘Job Application Part 2’ with brackets reading ‘I know I screwed up but can we start again?’. I couriered it over to their office and didn’t hear anything for two weeks. Eventually, I was hired on the back of that.
How she became an editor at The Guardian
I used to apply for roles at The Guardian all the time. I would never hear anything but out of nowhere, I got an email asking me to come for an interview. I had completely forgotten about it so I dismissed the email as spam. They ended up calling me to make sure I was coming in - I couldn’t even find the original job specification so I had no idea what I had applied for.
The interview went much better than expected. Ironically, I only did the job I was originally hired to do for 3 days before I was told it was changing - they were moving me to run a new section, Professional Networks. My role was launching new sections for two and a half years; every three months, the platform I was in charge of would change. Having had one job for five years, this was very exciting.
How she persuaded The Guardian to form a women’s platform
At that point, I realised any time we wrote about women specifically, the piece would become very popular. The Davies report was happening, every time I was on the Tube, someone was reading ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg or Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Be a Woman’. I remember thinking ‘hang on a minute, where is The Guardian in all of this?' I pitched it to my boss and to convince him, a friend in the events department and I put on an event, to replicate what the site would be. It sold out in 48 hours and he ended up being the only man in a room of 120 women. He said how it was strange, telling me ‘I really wanted to ask a question but because I was the only man in the room, I felt I couldn’t’.
"We don't invest enough time in networking because we don't think it’s part of the job, but it really is."
We launched it, reaching our targets for our first year within two months! It’s grown so much from there and somehow, I’ve become a journalist in the meantime.
Her most important piece of advice to journalists
Learning shorthand and getting your NCTJ qualifications is useful. But I think what’s more useful is being a specialist, having a niche, perhaps because that’s the background I came from. What we don’t teach wannabe journalists these days is that it is as much about being a good marketer as it is being a good writer; what’s important is how you get it seen, how you get people to read your work. That can be really hard because a lot of writers are naturally quite introverted and forcing yourself to be exposed, going out there and asking people to read your content is absolutely horrible.
"95% of your success is not predicated on how much you work but rather how much time you spend on work that is effective."
Sometimes I read the comments on the articles we publish. It becomes interesting…if you write anything about female empowerment, your work is going to get trolled and I have to remind the people writing for us of that a lot.
The importance of embracing your imperfections
When you're in a room of men and women, it will often be the men who will ask the questions after a meeting. I think this lies in what we tell girls about perfection and rejection; we teach them to be sweet and kind and pretty, all these qualities that make us likable and appealing to others, as opposed to what we can be, what we could try to be if we didn't care so much about what people thought about us.
We don’t give girls messages about how they should be wild, get out of their comfort zone and embrace opportunity. That goes deep down and I don’t think it’s something we can change by treating the next generation differently. We’re used to telling girls that rejection is the worst thing that can happen. Marriage used to be the qualifier, but now, we’re measured on our ability to get on the sports team or to get accepted into university. We’re telling girls "you’re not this" and "you’re not that" instead of "give it a go" and "if it doesn’t work, try something else."
The two principles required to achieve both success and work-life balance.
I realised that a lot of the time, 95% of your success is not predicated on how much you work, but rather how much time you spend on work that is effective. When I started at The Guardian, I was working until 11:30pm every night. I didn’t resent it at all, but it took a huge hit on my physical health. When it came time to be promoted, I thought ‘hang-on, I’ve been in the office a lot longer than the person they have promoted, why isn’t it me?’ Actually a lot of it is about the time you're spending doing work that is effective, as well as who knows about it. That is life; if you can master those two things, you will get a lot further than you will if you just spend time working.
"It’s a cliché to say that work is a marathon and not a sprint, but it is. You can’t burn yourself out, you have to look after yourself."
How to make a four day working week a reality
If I’m being totally honest, my working pattern is the following; From Monday until Wednesday, I work really hard. By Thursday I’m quite tired and by Friday, I'm actually quite ineffectual. I suggested the idea of me working Monday to Thursday to my boss, who is an immensely forward thinking woman and she agreed. When we tried it my first thought was ‘I can’t do this, I just have too much work’. So I made myself evaluate my working pattern, making a list of everything I needed to do during the week and prioritised each task.
I had to learn to find the middle ground in my work and home life, which involved learning how to properly care for myself. Delegation in this is key; you need to be spending your time on stuff that is equal to your value. Think to yourself, ‘would I pay myself to do that?’ It’s a cliché to say that work is a marathon and not a sprint, but it is. You can’t burn yourself out, you have to look after yourself. The most successful entrepreneurs, politicians, the people running the world, they are not doing it alone, they have huge teams behind them. You don’t necessarily need a team but you do need a support system - we need to become better at finding that. If you’re earning a good salary, invest that money back in yourself and don’t try to do it all.
How to find a mentor
Asking for a mentor is asking for a huge commitment, especially from someone senior enough to be doing it. It’s more about finding people who inspire you and building a relationship with them. If you see an interesting article you think they should read, send it to them. There are some really amazing people out there, don't be put off if some people don't come back to you; it’s not because you’re not worthy, they just don't have the time.
With sponsors, pursuing suitable projects can be something like organising the office Christmas party. Find someone senior involved in it, email them asking to meet for a coffee and discuss with them what you want to get out of the project and what you can offer in return. Be very clear from the beginning. If you’re picking the right sponsor, they’re probably looking out for their own career as well – take advantage of this and position yourself as their go-to-right-hand person. Put yourself at their disposal, to learn from them as well as to help them.
I think it’s important for women to have female networks. We are finally moving into a world where the New Girls Network is as important as the Old Boys Club. One of my male colleagues is very successful in the business. I asked him once, ‘how do you do it?’ He said to me, ‘I spend 60% of my time on internal networking’. I decided to trial it for a week and I probably got further in my career in that week than I got at any other point. We don't invest enough time in networking because we don't think it’s part of the job, but it really is.
Two definitive solutions to the fear of a ‘bossy’ label
I think women do have to be aware that how they behave is judged more than it is with men. But that’s also because men can sometimes be better at building up their support networks before they get to a position of power. If it turns out no one likes them, they're just going to bring in their own people, whereas women can find themselves catching up.
"Failure is okay; that just means it wasn't the right path. Failure is cutting your options down until you find the right one."
Authenticity is also a big thing for me. Where both sexes fall down is when you are trying to be something you’re not. I almost have more time for leaders who are less likeable, because they’re being honest about their character. Maybe that’s something women have to learn as well - how do we own who we are and project an honest image of ourselves at work, as opposed to chasing a ‘perfect’ image that’s been ingrained in us from a young age?
Her biggest eccentricity
I am a bit of a hippie, I'm really into my yoga. Vinyasa yoga is actually where it started, I thought I wanted to go really hard but it turns out, actually learning to sit still has been harder for me than getting through a power yoga class.
The last book she read
I'm currently reading ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed used to run an agony aunt column - it’s my lifelong dream to have an agony aunt column and I absolutely love her writing.
Everyone should read Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ - whether you agree with it or not, there is something there for everyone. I don't think you should live your life by it but I think it has some really important points. I think the book is about how to succeed as a woman in a man’s world and that’s hugely important. She is the most efficient woman I have ever met, the amount of work she gets done is outstanding. However, we do need a life around and outside of work. We tend to think of that as just our family but we also need some space around that.
Her biggest do’s and don’ts in the office.
Do enjoy what you're doing and if you don't enjoy it, do something else.
Do make time for other people. Make time both because it’s going to be good for your career but also because it enhances our experiences as human beings. We need that human interaction in the office; someone you can talk to when things go wrong.
Most importantly; don't stay where you are undervalued. Don't think ‘I’ve been here for two years, if I have a baby… they'll still know I'm a really good worker’ - no, if they don't value you before you have a baby, they definitely won’t when you come back.
The best advice she’s ever received
Proceed until apprehended - if you have an idea that you love and believe in, just do it in some shape or format. Failure is okay; that just means it wasn't the right path. Failure is cutting your options down until you find the right one.
The one I personally live by is ‘Ships are safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are made for’. The idea that you can sit where you are and be totally safe is not only false, it is not what we’re here to do.
Harriet Minter is Editor for The Guardian Women in Leadership. Watch her TEDTalk, "What Yoga Taught me about Business, Bravery & Bras" online here.