Skills Series - Marvyn Harrison
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Introduction to Marvyn Harrison
Marvin Harrison is an inspirational leader who is able to deliver business goals and vision using sound strategy, communication, and people management. Respected as a credible source of knowledge of community strategy, Marvin is able to drive culture, change, and deliver tangible results across business, projects and campaigns.
His leadership experience as the founder and driving force behind Dope Black CIC, an educational and healing platform designed to improve the outcomes of black people has seen him become the voice of the black community across the UK, the US and African continent. Marvin is dedicating his future to supporting businesses and organisations in their evolution to becoming more representative of the diverse cities they operate in, and the dynamic consumers they serve.
What do skills mean to you? How you define a skill?
I think skill is something that you work at. Talent is that natural element. And then the skill is the part that you work out to perfect.
My skill is based on an attribute that I have, but it's not necessarily something I would have been present to all the time. Over the last, maybe 15 years, I've honed my strategic viewpoint to be able to add value to different businesses and organisations.
That’s pretty much what it is - that talent that you work at. Then it becomes a skill.
What is that skill for you?
When I dug deeper into this, for me, it's about pattern recognition and, and visual mapping. I think that those two things I've always had in me. In school you'd get those tests about visual test like spotting the inconsistency. I could always spot those things.
I realised there's something about my observations that allow me to see the world in a different way and bring large amounts of information into one understanding. I had to practice it and hone it.
I had a marketing degree and originally I thought I was a creative, but it's not necessarily, I'm a creative per se. I think it's just my ability to interpret the things that are around me. I've honed that over a very long period of time.
How conscious were you at that young age that you had the skill of pattern recognition?
I never even saw it as a positive. I was just very aware and present to the idea that I was different and that I saw things differently. I didn't really understand how to use it and employ it up until my mid twenties. Even when I was working, I didn't really understand what it was.
I did different types of marketing and didn’t realise that actually my gift is the strategic overview. Being able to take data and turn it into a plan and a strategy for a business. That was something that came a lot later after many other ways of working that didn't work.
In many ways it's fortunate, but it does take a while to be able to accept your gift. And turning it into something that can be commoditised.
Was there a moment where you realised the link between pattern recognition and the position where you needed that skill of strategy?
I only really discovered it near the end. I looked back at my career and what I had done. Where in my career was I strong and adding significant value and where in my career I wasn't adding value.
Where I wasn’t succeeding was because I didn’t have the ability to have an overview. I didn't have the data points that I needed to make the right decisions. I realised that I needed to stop being in different types of marketing.
I was working in CRM in the beginning and e-commerce. My first job was at news international. It's now called News UK. I was working for Fabulous Magazine and my job was to monetise the website. And in many ways there are things in there that I did enjoy. I enjoy the numbers and making revenue, but my actual gift wasn't present in that job.
I kept on falling down at jobs that I thought were great - that I could do. And then as soon as I became a strategist, it all made sense. My passion came out. I felt like I came into my power. My career has accelerated ever since.
How intentional was the process of realising your skill?
I would attach the curiosity to everything as well. Always being curious. I've never accepted what's being presented as fact. Why does that work that way?
I wasn't very good at school. My way of picking up information is through audio. When I hear something I can interpret it in a particular way. When I read it, it doesn't always land in the same way.
I realised that those differences made sure that I listened more than I spoke, and I also listened more than I read.
It did take a very long time. I think the catalyst ended up being there was one point where I was getting fired often. There was probably an 18 month period, where I just couldn't keep a job and I was going in and I didn't even have faith that I was actually going to keep it.
I wasn't happy. And even though with every job I was seeing an increase in money, when I started looking at the money and I stopped looking at the job and my career really stagnated quite heavily.
I started thinking about what's going to make me happy. That happened in 2013. Only seven years ago. Ever since then I feel like I'm myself at work. I don't bring a character or an act. And that frees me up to really enjoy my job and add the value and my own perspective.
How do you accept a gift if you don't recognise its value at any given time?
For me it was failure. That’s what really drove it home for me. I was tired of failing. And I think also when you're failing or at a particular low point in your life, you look for answers in a different way.
You're just open to information. You're like, I've done everything that they told me to do. And I've worked in all the companies that they said that you should want to work in, and I don't enjoy it. At the point of it not working for maybe the 7th or 8th time, I was open to what it could be.
I think that the ability to accept the pattern in your life that keeps reoccurring is important.
For me coming up and being analytical and curious, I think that kept coming up. When I wasn't being able to do that, I felt like I wasn't fulfilling my potential. I just accepted it rather than see myself as different.
Turning that into a career is the most amazing thing I've ever been able to do. Not everybody is able to do it, mainly because they resist the natural urges. We're told to work for particular companies, or that we need to be a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant, but we never get told to access the thing that brings us joy.
Because of that, you end up numbing that feeling because it's not what you're told you're supposed to be doing. I used to love drama. I loved it.
I remember drama being weaponised against me because they realised I liked it so much. Being told, if you don't do this, you're not gonna be able to go to drama class. I remember being kept out of class and instantly losing love for it in that moment.
I think the main thing is not being able to access that particular part, you then adjust and create a different version of yourself until one of them actually works. I think you end up with a version of yourself that isn't actually who you are. It's just who you think you need to be to survive, to grow. And I think that's where the problem lies.
How brave do you need to be to pursue something that genuinely makes you happy?
We are all brave. I think it's brave to sit there and be suppressed. I'm going to call it gumption. There's a lot of gumption to sit there unhappy and repeating the same things. I can't do it. I fundamentally cannot be unhappy.
The second I'm feeling unhappiness, getting too comfortable around me I have to reject and recreate something. It just doesn't resonate with me. People would have different buttons that need to be pushed. Some people need to be secure. That's greater than anything else. They need to have a job and know they're going to be paid every month and it's not for everybody.
I think sometimes we make this optimum human being who can work in a career and perform at a high level. But it's not for everybody. I think business ownership isn't for everybody and working isn't for everybody. I think you’ve just got to understand yourself.
Are there skills and things that you've learned through setting up Dope Black Dads that have had a direct impact on your career trajectory?
For me it’s the redesign of masculinity. I think the way I parent and who I am in my job and who I am in life is connected to how I perceive and interact with myself as a man.
The reason why men become toxic is because there's no way to show any of a complex emotion. You're forced to be hard even when you don't want to be. I think anybody that’s ever been to therapy can start to get the idea that if you don't have releases and you're not able to access all parts of your personality, then it does trap you into a particular path.
I think Dope Black and Beloved are so me. Anyone that knows me, it's very complex. I have a complex relationship with myself and with the people around me.
Our intentions and our values are really, really clear and we're happy to be held to account on those values. I think that's what I've learned more of and I’ve applied that to my business.
Can you tell us more about your leadership style?
This is maybe my third or fourth authentic attempt to lead. I learn something every single time.
It’s closely connected to who I am as a person and how comfortable I am with myself and how comfortable I am making decisions or how comfortable I am not being liked or being popular or agreed with. A lot of those things used to drive my behaviour in leadership historically.
I think now there's a lot more clarity because my values are really clear and I think I live them every day and I'm really present to what they are.
It's become a lot easier, but maybe eight, nine years ago, when I first led a business I had a marketing consultancy. I just liked the job. I didn't really want to lead. I just like the job. And then I realized that it could scale. I thought I'm going to scale this business because I can, and people that are asking for our services, so we'll hire some people, but then I became a business lead that I didn't want to be.
I wanted to do the strategy. I wanted to be on the campaigns. I want it to be on the ground doing the work. And so, it didn't work for me then. But now, and I think it's deeply connected to spending more time answering questions about myself. I think I'm way more prepared.
I definitely have realised that it's a lot more isolating. I think there is a duty and obligation to challenge how organisations have historically been run and I don't think people would really have done that. I think that the cultural destruction of leadership still needs to happen.
We still become an act. We still pretend that we don't feel things and we are very disconnected and we don't share information. My organisation is full of heart. The other day my business partner led a meditation for my team. That’s the kind of business I want to join. I want to join zoom calls like this. I want to be around people who are being mindful.
We sometimes have meetings that aren't even about work. I appreciate people find that stuff very difficult because it's like, everything must be driven towards efficiency and capitalism, but sometimes people just have stuff going on.
We have a community group about the black community. This has been a very challenging year for everybody. And so, if I just come in and say we’ve got to do this, we've got to push that, and go harder etc. It becomes too much.
You need to connect with people.
I was a consultant in the middle of the protests for Black Lives Matter and there was a complete disconnection from the fact that black people were fighting for their lives at this moment. I’d come in and be asked how was your weekend?
Well, Saturday I did a speech to Black Lives Matter UK, about 25,000 people were tuned in. And then Saturday afternoon, I thought I should go to the protest but felt bad because COVID is so important. And then I cried on Sunday because of the guilt, and then me and my wife….
There’s a lack of emotional intelligence to be aware that my life and my work is all interconnected. I'm one person all the time. I don't switch on and off.
What are the skills that you're trying to learn now? What are you trying to get better at?
My big question now is how do I stay high performing over a long period of time? And especially when I'm challenged by something. That for me is the Holy grail. Being that consistent person all the time, but an authentic, consistent person. I don't wanna turn into a bot.
Making sure I have a perspective. Making sure I have mentors who can challenge me go through things with me so that I'm continually upskilling myself and getting better.
With up-skilling yourself, is that something that you are formally developing (courses and studying), or informally developing (networking and meeting people etc.)?
My learning style has always been whenever I'm stuck, I research it to understand it. The good thing that you can learn a lot of random things when you're challenged by particular things. It’s like strategy.
If I don't know something and I dive into that topic. I've been doing a lot of contracts recently and really studying and understanding how contracts are structured and what the language means. Would I take a law course, probably not. I don't want to acquire knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I want it so I'm able to execute the things that I want to execute.
How much knowledge do you try to acquire for a particular thing before you find an expert to take that thing on?
Experts are fundamental. I can do pretty much most functions within a business to a credible level. I've done bookkeeping accounting for myself over a long period of time. But now I do demark from what my gift is that I pay people to do that stuff for me.
If you have a budget to do these things, it's a lot easier to focus on the business. But when it's not, many people who are starting out or have small businesses have to take on five, six roles and that's what really ends up making your business challenges, because you're trying to be all of those things while leading and having vision, having perspective, making sure that the revenues even come in on time.
What's the most challenging experience that you've had when it comes to trying to develop a skill?
I think the challenge is having the perspective and not trying to do stuff at all costs. You’ve got to be able to know the best paths and patterns for how businesses are run successfully.
How do you strike a balance with the ambition to get things over the line versus having to be patient with developing skills that you need?
There are some traditional industries that have a way of developing, nurturing talent, and they won't accelerate the process for anybody.
I think everybody's been slightly stopped by a line manager at some point with the mindset it took me this long. You can't do it in less. People get frustrated or often leave their job because a boss may deny some development. I think you've got to know what's real and what's not. Are you actually ready? And if you are ready, then you shouldn't be blocking you or they should hear you.
I would say if you're somebody who just needs it now and you think you're ready and you're being held back. Then just recreate that business and disrupt it on your own using the internet. It depends on the industry.
I do think more people in this generation are, I would say entitled, but I say that in a good way. If you feel you have connected to a right to have something because of how you see the world and how much you are probably more proficiently in tune with a digital-first approach then go create it for yourself.
Don't sit there and wait for people to give you permission and then get angry at home.
What if someone wants to just kill it in a career as an employee? How do you then navigate that?
I think this is where partners became really important. Choosing your partners is really wise. And I think the good thing about the internet, you can find your kin and your likeness and your tribe really, really quickly. Have a conversation and then we enroll each other in the stuff that you’re doing.
We've got a situation where millions of people aren't studying or thinking about skills. This relates to even non-formal online study and not just further education. What are your thoughts on what we can do to encourage more individuals to have a more positive attitude towards the importance of lifelong learning?
You have to create the person that you actually are going to be.
You've got to be open to how we approach things. I don't think education is linear. I think you use it as a tool and specific times when you need something to add value to what it is that you're doing. It's not be-all and end-all.
I do think the value of having an education and baking it into what it is that you're doing can still be important, but it depends on your personality. Do you have the personality to do that? Is that who you actually are? Because without it, you will constantly get stuck in trying to learn more rather than do more.
How do you make sure you're always learning new skills at the rate that you want to?
I think the rate is important. I think if you say to yourself I'm going to be these three things in every scenario in my life.I think it then dictates what you do. I think it's easier to measure that.
I think about my marketing background. I went back and did a course on data because data was getting so big and scalable as I needed to know how to visualise it. I had to interpret it. And what biases to ignore and all those types of things. I think that was a really powerful, additional tool to my skill set. But I've actually realised that spirituality probably serves me more than actually learning.
I'm passionate about learning, but I think the bit I needed to learn was based on who I actually am.
How do you make that decision on time and learning investment?
Asking yourself, is it your master skill or is it something that adds to the skill you already have? That's when you consider what level of investment. Also, what level of uplifts is it going to give you?
What tools and platforms do you recommend using?
Most of mine have been with Middlesex university. I've done some short courses with them on a few occasions. I've used Skillshare and Udemy. I've used quite a lot of them. To be honest, if I'm actually trying to be accredited, that's completely different. If I just want to know something, that's also completely different.
What would be your advice to an individual who is in their early stage of career and wanting to access better career opportunities? Where do they start from a practical perspective?
I use Ikigai which is a Japanese philosophy. It identifies your purpose. What you're good at, what you get paid for. What does the world need? I fill in all of these elements and it pushes you into an idea what your purpose actually is.
It brings in all your skill sets together, which I think is fundamentally important. I started that when I was doing my mentoring. I take people through it and push them to create it. It also gives you a decision tree and a framework for what not to do as well as what to do.