When I was six, my parents took me out of my junior school and sent me to another one further away from home. I never really fitted in at that new school, I remember standing on the edge of the playground watching everyone else. I soon found a new position for myself as the observer. In class, rather than pay attention to what was on the blackboard, I would sketch pictures of the teachers and my classmates.
In my first full time job I felt like the outsider again. Not only was the world of television production new to me, but I was working with people who had very different backgrounds. I didn’t understand the cultural references they made in conversation, I’d never seen women walk around the office in stockinged feet before, and on my first day they laughed when I made their requested camomile tea with milk.
I soon got the hang of it however and over the next ten years I carved out a successful career as an insider. I led teams, I knew how everything worked, what everyone did. When I hit a roadblock at the end of the millennium — with too much on my plate, I’d become ill - I quit my job as managing director to become an independent consultant.
My roadblock forced to me to shift position. It forced me to stand on the edges again, away from the centre. Before, I used to be at the heart of things, the one standing on stage presenting to the company, the loudest one at meetings, a leader of teams. After, as an independent consultant, I wasn’t part of an organisation anymore, I didn’t belong anywhere, I had no office to go to.
At first working for myself, by myself was hard. In 2000 there was no WiFi. People didn’t work out of coffee shops, we didn’t have co-working spaces, there was no social media.
But over the years I learned to get comfortable with standing on the edges. I quickly discovered it’s a great position to get clarity and vision. It’s the perfect place for the storyteller to stand.
When I started writing for the Financial Times, my editor said he hired me because I lived in a different world. He confessed he wasn’t sure exactly what I did, but he could see from following me on Twitter that I went to interesting places and met fascinating people. He thought those experiences would be interesting to FT readers. If I had been a journalist, he’d never have hired me.
As I’ve built my consultancy business I have drawn on my strengths as the outsider. Today, that’s why people hire me. Whether it’s helping a business capture its proposition, telling stories for a brand or helping people with a work or career dilemma, I bring a fresh pair of eyes and experiences from other worlds. Clients like what they’ve labelled my “smart external perspective.” I see things differently.
For the past ten years I’ve lived in Leigh-on-sea, a town on the Thames estuary, just under an hour from London. I like that distance from the capital, being on the edges. Living here aids my outsider point-of-view. I find the train journey helps my work: in the morning heading into town I plan the day ahead, on the journey home I reflect on the day’s meetings (and allow some daydreaming out of the window). As the train approaches my station I can see the big estuary skies and giant container ships that power up the Thames.
Rachel Lichtenstein, author of a new book “Estuary: Out from London to the Sea” (and a fellow Leigh-on-Sea resident) has described the estuary as an ‘edgeland’, a place of transition — one of arrivals and departures — a gateway that connects the UK to the rest of the world. From John Constable to Wilko Johnson, this landscape has long been a source of inspiration for writers, artists and thinkers. It seems like the perfect place for an outsider to stand.
If you need an outsider to: i) tell your business or brand story; ii) figure out and capture the essence of your business; iii) guide you through your career or work life, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org