Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your background/career path?
I started out as a technical writer for an occupational health and clinical research institute, having studied English at Salford Uni. This took me into agency life, where I worked as a writer, information architect and project manager. I have been around user-centred design projects for a while, so usability and accessibility were a natural progression and area to focus on when I started Sigma in 2007.
Tell me about your agency. What is it you do and what prompted you to start up your own?
We are part of a larger Swedish organisation, Sigma AB, and an IT Consulting group who work globally across 12 offices. They asked me to set up a new company so they could expand into the UK, which I did from a standing start. They have been very supportive but also quite trusting. We feel very fortunate to have been left to craft our own services, messaging, hire good people and target the kind of clients and sectors we want to work in. We have a focus on digital inclusion and social impact, so we do a lot of research, co-design, prototyping and usability testing with the intended audience of our clients. It’s very people-focused and very rewarding.
What do you think are the most important issues for developing your company culture?
I really try to encourage openness and regular communication. As the team has grown, there has been a tendency to formed silos around functional teams or skillsets and I have been keen to keep everything open and collaborative. This has been a challenge as we opened a second office in Cambridge last year. Although the relationships are solid, logistically it can still be hard to share the workload, knowledge and responsibility across two remote locations.
I think we are in a good place as we always had a number of permanent home-workers but when a new team joins an established group in a separate location, it takes a bit of focus to keep everything joined up. I favour regular, informal conversations over structured meetings but some prefer a more formal approach. Its really important to at least be mindful of everyone’s preferences and dislikes.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a women in business?
Work / life balance has been hard since I have a very young family. We share the care well but it has made a definite impact on my life and ability to be places or do things in the last couple of years. I think the familiar issues of being talked over, not listened to or having my ideas claimed by others are there from time to time. That said, I do have an amazing team, who generally mean well, so I have learned to tackle those things as they arise, often with sarcasm or gentle admonishing.
The Wow Company’s recent survey of 471 agency owners across the UK has the figures as Female 27% – Male 73%. Can you share your thoughts on this?
It’s both a shame and it’s harmful to business. Beyond leadership, diversity and inclusion are important because they offer a richness of experience that I believe boost the capabilities of any team. In user experience, we are advocates of understanding context, behaviours, situations etc, so it staggers me that we wouldn’t seek to have representation from as many walks of life in our own organisations.
That extends beyond gender, as we should also understand lived experience across class, educational background, culture, age, religion, ability…. We do that in our work when designing products and services but seem incapable of building diverse teams for ourselves. It will take time, affirmative action and a shift in attitudes to even things out. We were seeing progress but I’m sensing a bit of backlash on the equality front a result of the current political climate, sadly.
Do you have a mentor, or are you a member of an agency owner community?
I don’t. I share a lot with colleagues and agency peers but have only dipped into coaching. I tried Neuro Linguistic Programming once and thoroughly hated it! I volunteer for Diversity Role Models and that has had a huge impact on my life, in terms of living more openly and being authentic.
Do you feel as a female agency founder, they offer the level of support you need? Do you need additional support that isn’t currently available?
I’m aware my situation is a little odd as I have friendly bosses in Sweden who are quite hands off so I haven’t had a traditional management structure above me for many years. Support tends to come from those I work alongside in the team therefore and they might feel a bit weird if I get too needy!
What other female founders inspire you?
There are some great team leaders I see working across the private and public sector, who I have connected with at events or over Twitter in the last couple of years. It’s inspiring to see they are influencing digital product and service design.
I met Lauren Currie through our Camp Digital event and was really keen to get behind the UpFront initiative she started. I recently met Viv Slack, who co-founded Street Support, a network of community groups, charities, business and policy makers seeking to tackle homelessness in Manchester. Along with Janet Hughes, one of the founders of the Homeless Hack movement, I’m just really impressed when I see someone decide to make a difference on a problem we can all see, through determination and passion. I also know some great people in the charity sector, who have been instrumental in changing attitudes, for example Suran Dickson, who started Diversity Role Models.
Also the excellent Molly Watt, a usability and accessibility consultant, specialising in assistive technology and design for those with sensory impairment. We have been really happy to support and work alongside her recently.
What do you think makes a great agency?
I think any team that shows it really cares about the work and the impact it has is more likely to leave a lasting impression. I also think honesty and a willingness to speak up when things aren’t working, where misunderstanding has crept in or where a change of approach is needed is vital in any business relationship. The market is choppy, so trust, rapport and honesty are vital.
What would be your one piece of advice to future female leaders?
Be confident in your ideas, be open to feedback and be comfortable in saying no when it really matters.