I’m very fortunate to have encountered green lights in my life as far back as I can remember. When you’ve grown up in an open space, you gravitate to other open spaces. And if you don’t find them, you make them. My parents prized the capacity for wayfinding and instilled it into me: When you feel in over your head, don’t panic. Get to work. And so with the determination of a teacher’s kid and the worker-bee grit of “the North” of England you do just that. You graft. You invite your helping hands. You drink tea. Get back at it. Fail. Flop. Dust yourself down. Try something different. You stay the course. More tea. You don’t stop until you’ve got something you can point to.
All the future architects I’ve known have come up like this, one way or another. Creating — often fighting for — the open space to play, try, fail and learn as well as we possibly can. Swirling discontent tempered with hope-filled dreams and perseverance that fuels a different way of imagining. I feel at home among them.
My Grandad was one of the UK’s first graphic designers. A future architect indeed. His house was a place of creation and play, a bonanza of craft materials. He was a gifted potter as well, and every now and then he’d let my brother and I on the wheel. What a mess! My pot looked like you’d imagine, as made by an eight-year-old. I was thrilled. But I was upset when my Grandad told me my pot had to dry, then be put into the kiln, then glazed. Picked up the next time we would visit a few months later. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just leave with my pot, fill it up with cereal or marbles right then and there. I had to wait. Good things take a mess, and then time, heat and air to cure.
I remain excellent at making a creative mess. Thankfully, now I’m also a little more patient. I have an eye on the landing pad, know where the brakes are and have a well-worn manual of what to do when the proverbial clay hits the fan. I’m good, too, at gathering people together — that comes from my Grandad’s wife, my Nana, the consummate entertainer and host. Every gathering was an epic display of spirit. Throughout my life, I’ve cultivated a brilliant mess of people, a map that now stretches across industries and continents. I draw huge amounts of delight in feeding and watering others, planning the details of how they will feel, what they will savor. And then the best part — connecting new dots and seeing the sparks fly. I try to bring camaraderie and encouragement into every room no matter the challenge. With kinship, kindness and the freedom to wander, people get unstuck and ideas can bloom.
I wandered as soon as I could. Encouraged by a childhood filled with camping adventures and an early obsession with foreign supermarkets, I left suburban Manchester for an Israeli kibbutz, spending six months separating the good olives from the bad. Literally. And then on to Egypt and then to France. New forms, rituals. I was entirely out of my element. There was risk, sweat and shock. The lesson of that year stayed with me: you’ve got to put work into your adventure and adventure into your work.
Then, a degree in psychology and management. What I studied is what I do: understanding where new ideas come from and how organizations act on them. I moved to London and worked at The Daily Telegraph in the new-fangled “e-media” department. I shifted to working in ad agencies, moved to Canada and found my way into leadership. Supporting interdisciplinary teams to shape brands, products and experiences. Creating the open space for others to cross the streams of their own disciplines, question assumptions and realize that the capacity for creation starts by listening to the needs of others.
My mentors gave me often-terrifying, high-stakes carte blanche. This was a time of vast unknowing and the unexpected — mergers, acquisitions, team turnover, the digital boom and bust — and meant I was put in charge of shaping departments and vast-reaching strategies for juggernaut global brands. Well-known leaders turned to me and said, “Okay. So, this is happening. What should we do?” More questions than orders. Rarely easy answers. A path to sink or swim. It was a pressure-cooker, but what a gift. In the frenzy, I was exposed to genuinely purpose-led global corporations that fiercely fostered cultures rooted in meaning, access and respect. These were organizations where the inside matched the outside, the outputs were all the better because of it.
I’m grateful for it all — the flashes of brilliance, the battle scars and the cautionary tales.
This experience has taught me that brilliance need not be happenstance. Nor today can it be.
Our greatest organizations — countries, the richest and most powerful ones — are beginning to collapse . People’s lives flail while their leaders turn a blind eye. Groups, tribes and teams turn on each other because no one has taught them there’s a better way. A burning question of human organization is now at the heart of our future prosperity: How can we radically rethink the way we live, work and play together?
I put the question front and center as I made my first leap into entrepreneurship. Having spent the previous 15 years uplifting organizations from the outside, I’ve set my sights on the internal engine that generates the seeds, designs and plans for that to happen: people. The truly causal agents in the quest for a beautiful future.
I now design experiences and spaces filled with green lights for others. Where those motivated by trust, humility, equality and belonging are entrusted as the authors of change, not just instruments of it. Where the systems of bias and indignity can start to be safely unpicked, and responsibility is actually embodied and enacted daily.
Why am I a future architect? Because this century desperately demands a new breed of leader.
Given an open space — unconstrained — we all have an innate capacity to imagine things differently. Mention “strong leadership” today and you’ll likely be met with a resigned sigh or an agitated eye-roll. Articles and lectures are polished and published in binders, real and virtual, that feel substantial but ultimately gather dust. In my vision for a more beautiful future, organizations are the compass, no longer the cause, to navigate out of our deeply troubled times. At the helm, leaders are the guides willing to go beyond inspiration and put in the long, hard slog to transform their cultures and the systems that shape them. This is my mission: to open up space, to do the work. No binders necessary.
It’s time to put the kettle on.