Skills Series - Natalie Campbell
Introduction to Natalie Campbell
Natalie is an award-winning social entrepreneur and broadcaster. She is the CEO of Belu water. The UK’s most ethical water brand. Prior to this, Natalie led on insight and innovation for the Royal Foundation and co-founded A Very Good Company, a global social innovation agency that works with brands such as Virgin Media, Marks & Spencer, Channel4. She worked on embedding purpose and sustainability practices. As a non-executive director, she chaired the Nominet Trust and National Council for Voluntary Youth Services.
She was on the board of UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs for 10 years. In addition to her role with London Economic Action Partnership (LEAP), she was a civil service commissioner, board member of the Big Lottery Fund and the Old Park and Park Role Development Corporation.
What do skills mean to you? How would you define a skill?
So for me, a skill is a thing that you can almost do on autopilot. Without having to think about it. It's the muscle memory that kicks in. So riding a bike is a skill. Driving a car is a skill. Cooking your favourite meal is a skill.
And so as that translates to the workplace, it's all of the things that intrinsically make you uniquely you. Because everyone has a totally different pool of skills that enable them to do well.
There are learnt skills that we learned through the education system. There are skills that you learn through street smarts. There are skills that you learn through your family dynamic. The ones I hold dear and have got me through are definitely the ones that I learned whilst I was in the education system. I was a bit of a geek. I've got two master's degrees. I've been on multiple fellowships. I'm always soaking in so much learning.
Where did you discover that that was the best place [education system] for you to develop your skills?
I loved school. Well, I loved my favourite lessons at school I should say. The thing that twitched me was. The idea of flow - when you learn something and you're so curious and inspired, and then you can use it. Something magical happens.
I was very intentional about the university I went to and the degree that I went in on. When I was there, I realised there was a whole world of all of this other stuff that people learn and the idea of soaking up information, but also doing stuff, that's when it really came to life.
There's a whole backstory of me wanting to be a CEO and always wanting to be an entrepreneur. University was the place where I really got to experiment with my own skillset. I set up my own business at 19 at 21 I opened a retail franchise all whilst learning about franchising.
Learning about consultancy. I set up A Very Good Company. There were all of these skills about consultancy and project management I actually learned when I was 21.
And then I studied. Journalism. And then I studied social entrepreneurship. There are things that I took away from those moments that make me a much better CEO, that made me a much better communicator and has delivered successes like Badass Women's hour that was alive in a few years on TalkRadio.
I can't undersell the importance of intentional learning, and it doesn't need to be university, but creating time to just indulge your curiosity.
What is your earliest memory of developing a skill, particularly thinking about the process actually went through to developing that particular skill?
I think the first skill I developed was learning to read myself and read other people. Being in the moment, but being conscious of watching what I was doing and what the other person was doing, and how my words and my behaviour catalyze something in the other person.
As a consultant, that is one of the most important skills that you can ever have. As a broadcaster - really important. I remember that and I think it's one of the things I do. I can profile people really well without having learned it.
Decision-making is the other one, again, being very, very young, but being very sure of the decisions I was making and what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go without needing to ask other people, or you curate my decision-making ability from other people's ideas.
I think a lot of the most successful people that you may know how to make decisions
How do you actually develop the skill to be able to make decisions and be confident in that?
You need to be brave. The next component is a confidence in the outcome and being a OK, regardless of what the outcome is.
Having a high sense of agency (an action or intervention producing a particular effect) and self-efficacy means that you don't need external influences to dictate your own ability to maneuver and operate. That's a really important part of decision-making.
Also, being able to take lots of bits of information in very quickly, process them and get rid of the stuff that feels superfluous. Hone in on the right things to then make a decision that you feel brave enough, to articulate and follow-through, and then feel confident enough that if it's not the right decision, it's the decision that you made in the moment with the information that you had.
How to overcome when a decision doesn’t go to plan?
I keep it moving. If death isn't an option, then it's okay. It doesn't matter what happens. It really doesn't matter.
I didn't die. No one died. I didn't hurt anyone. I never make a decision that's about hurting anyone else. So it really doesn't matter, brush it off, keep it moving.
When you make a decision and it goes wrong, the thing that sticks with you is what other people think of what happened. No one is thinking about you. So keep it moving.
I think it's something that anyone can learn and anyone can develop. And the more you do it, the more you make decisions, the more confident and you become.
The bravery I would say is developed - not necessarily caring about other people's response to the decision I've made - has developed over time.
On your journey so far have you discovered you have certain skills and then developed from there, or have you realised you needed a particular skill and been intentional about learning it?
Both. At 15 I decided I wanted to be a CEO. Knowing that I wanted to be a CEO meant that I went on a journey of developing skills that would enable me to be a CEO at some point in my life.
Equally, there are situations where I realised something about myself at a very young age that was probably useful.
I believe everyone is here to fulfil that highest version of themselves, whatever that might be and that’s not just business-related, it could be anything. I think those moments stay there as a reminder of the things that make me uniquely me. And the things that I will have in my toolkit for whatever life I go on to have.
In terms of having that pool of skills do you have the awareness of the opposite? What wouldn’t someone call you for?
I'm an introvert. I have a limit to my capacity in terms of being able to externalize my thoughts and ideas and feelings. I'm not a small talk person.
You probably wouldn't call me if you don't already know the answer. t's when my shadow side comes through. I spend a lot of time with my team talking about shadow sides.
My friends know not to call me if they just want to externalise all of their ideas about something and then leave the conversation that way. I'm like, what are you gonna do? What are you doing about it tomorrow?
Regarding decision making and exercising bravery, some people are in difficult situations. Maybe it's that they feel too junior. Maybe they feel reserved about going to that networking event that they know they won't thrive in?
What would your advice be to someone if they're navigating those situations?
Beyond skills, the question you should be asking yourself is if you're going to lean in 300%, Why are you doing it? Who are you doing it for? And what's the outcome?
I would gravitate towards smaller groups of people or I would spend some time just walking the room for a little while just to get comfortable in the room. I would try and find out who'd be there beforehand and be very intentional about who I was there to speak to.
Recognize what you need to lean in on and what you need to put forward to get further and explore. It's good to be outside of your comfort zone.
Are there any skills that you found challenging to develop?
I'm not very good at doing one thing at any one time.
Unless I'm totally off. When I'm off, I'm off. I can sit in silence. For a whole evening, nothing on and just staring in space at the same time, but it's either-or. The skill I need is the ability to move slower. I’m a patient person, but not with myself and with my own time.
There's a lot of beauty in being able to do one thing in a focused way at any one time.
Do you find that you strike the balance well with allowing people to go at their own pace or do you expect people to move as quickly?
For other people, I’ve learnt to totally lean back. That’s a learned behaviour. What I need to see is that there’s movement, that there’s thought, that there’s debate, and purposeful, meaningful activity.
As a CEO I should always be 10 steps ahead. I should always be thinking about the next 10 years. The best analogy for this for me is the helicopter lawnmower view.
As the CEO of someone building something, you are in the helicopter looking at what every single lawn mower is doing to build the shape of the company name. Whereas the person on the lawnmower is very much focused on what they can see in front, avoiding the obstacles and following the map they've got in front of them.
I make allowance for people to move at their own pace because I know it's all coming together.
Early on at A Very Good Company, I wanted to move quickly. I was very hungry for people to become the best version of themselves. There was a sense of urgency to make decisions and become leaders and become my version of that best selves. I put lots of energy into that and I realised actually not everyone wants that.
In recent years thinking about traditional progression has always included going into management roles and leading a team and so on, but some people just want to be better at that one thing they do and don't have or want management skills. How do you recognise that talent when progression often looks like leading a team?
I find this very often in some of my roles where people that are technically excellent become CEO and lead people when they have zero desire to build culture, engage with people, and embrace people. They build organizations and businesses that deliver brilliant products and services and talk the talk in terms of culture and people because technically that's what it says you should do in the manual. But it doesn't feel like it.
I do think we need to find new ways of creating pathways for people to be the best version of themselves and to thrive, knowing that some people are better at creating systems, processes, frameworks for other people to do things. Others are technical, deep experts and should thrive that vertical. At Belu we’re creating a good balance of both and creating a structure that enables both types of people to thrive.
Do you ever have a view that certain people will just never be able to develop certain skills or do you have a view that if people want to, and are intentional about it and apply themselves, then they can develop the skills they want to have?
I think there's a couple of things. When I was on a fellowship, one of our practices was not to focus on my weaknesses.
We didn't work on our weaknesses and we didn't have to develop our weaknesses, because ultimately they were our weaknesses. If we focused on all three strengths and excelled and thrive those things, that's how we became exceptional.
What you don't always get is people being exceptional. And so if you know that you can bring exceptional to a business to yourself, to your life, I think you owe it to yourself to really move forward into what you're exceptional at.
You need to be aware of those things. Being able to articulate why you're choosing not to develop those skills because you're focusing on being the best at the thing that suits you.
I don't think anyone wants the world's best harp player to also be able to play that guitar really well. I think we need to start to make those allowances for ourselves.
It's about really being exceptional at that thing. My caveat is on behaviours. I have zero tolerance for people that say I'm a brilliant mind, so I can be rude to people.
What have you found has held you back most in your career and how do you either mitigate that or address it?
I'm going to be really annoying and say nothing because I'm an entrepreneur and prepared from the age of 15 to run through the wall, to run through fire, to break through the glass ceiling, to do whatever was required to get the thing that I wanted to get.
There were things that probably held me back that for a long time, I wasn't open to acknowledging or exploring. I struggle with this question because sometimes people ask it and they want to know if being a woman held you back, has being a black woman held you back, has being a working-class woman held you back. They haven't held me back.
People have had biases towards me that have probably not given me the same air time. Or you walk into a room and conversations close because you're different. Did I even remotely let it permeate my brain or my body or my soul. No, I didn't. And if I did I wouldn't be sitting here right now.
Race and gender and inequity is so front and centre right now. It's easy to let it consume you. I can hand and heart say the spaces and the rooms I sit in - it's like Teflon it just bounces off me. Kamala Harris said she eats no for breakfast. I’ve got that same mentality. In life when people said, no, I was like, oh that's the question they just didn't hear what I said, let me just come back. I applied for the Big Lottery Fund three times and on all occasions, there was nothing in my brain that said to me, I am not worthy. They do not want me. I just didn't say the thing that I should have said. Maybe there's an element of arrogance there, but I really did believe I could make a difference to that organization.
I knew what I could bring my skills. I know my point of difference. I know that I wanted to advocate on behalf of lots of other people, communities that didn't have a voice around that table. It's just bounced off.
That skill is to be like Teflon. To be focused on what you want to do and things just disappear from your consciousness.
Over time, you don't even see it anymore. That idea of you show people how they should treat you and no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
I never gave anyone any consent to make me feel any way other than brilliant.
My feeling was always that I was brilliant unless I knew that I hadn't performed to my best ability, but that really comes from having a strong sense of agency. And spaces to decompress and not always need to be brilliant.
I know a lot of people are really struggling to cut through. But if I can do it, seriously, let me tell people I am basic.
There is nothing about me that someone else could not develop. In my brain, I believe I'm brilliant. I'm not a wonderful, brilliant journalist, or an excellent writer. I'm not the best CEO or entrepreneur that you'd ever get. I'm not the best orator that you'd ever meet. I'm not a wonderful intellect. I'm not any of these things that lots of other people are. What I am is someone that is tenacious and committed to living my best life. That's it.
How do you get to a point where you can say with a level of confidence: I have the skill. I know I can add value in these ways better than anyone?
It's from wins and successes.
But wins and successes come from putting yourself out there. I knew very early on that I wouldn't thrive based on who I am in a corporate structure, straight out of university. So I didn't do the milkround. I actively created my own path. My own path was entrepreneurship, but I went into employment very quickly and I went into the charity world, the voluntary sector and then I moved into the corporate world on my own terms.
I did it very purposefully. I think the things that people bear in mind if you're in an organization and you're thinking, how do I build that muscle? - find something that's just yours, that you own, when no one is telling you what the shape of it is, what the strategy should be, the timeline - you are in charge of every single outcome. Whatever it is, whether it's a side hustle, a five to nine project, writing a book, drawing, a painting, finishing a puzzle, just something that you own.
And the cumulative nature of winning, of completing, of success. It just builds up in you to the point of that muscle memory. You realise that when you move things happen and they happen well. And if they don't, you were brave enough to put your hand up or move forward or try that thing when actually most others weren't.
Confidence comes from that. I am low ego and I'm low ego because I do not save lives. I'm not doing brain surgery. You know, there's goes to my point of being basic. I didn't come up with the construct for DNA.
I am really focusing on living my own best life. My only barometer is myself. The thought for everyone is, what's your barometer for what a successful life looks like for you? And what are you doing on a daily basis to shape, to mould, to live that life?
Working out three key yeses are to any significant project or thing that you're doing by where, even if you step away from it, the thing would happen anyway?
When I was opening Morgan, my retail franchise when I was at uni, my three yeses where I needed Morgan to say yes to the lease, I needed the landlord to say yes to the tenure rental agreement. And I needed the bank to give me a hundred grand. If I got those three assets, even if I decided I didn't want to do it, someone else could step in and make it happen.
How do you think about balancing technical and non-technical skills?
I think you have to have a 50, 50. It depends on what you want to do or be. For me to be a CEO, it's not enough to be a 100% generalist. There are things that I need to bring to the business that's technical expertise to make the business fly. And it's also the thing of, if everyone around you disappeared, what could you roll up your sleeves and do.
I trained to be a journalist because I wanted to understand digital media on broadcast and the medium of communication in a really deep way. I trained myself in entrepreneurship. I became a technical expert in policy design, ethos, and the philosophy of entrepreneurship. I wasn't just doing it. I was reading the textbooks about the infrastructure of it.
I went on to design policy to enable it. I think you have to have both. I also think we're in a world of lots of people talking and lots of people putting out information, content sharing based on the thing they did one time.
It's a bit like someone setting up a Jamaican restaurant because you went to Jamaica one time and had a patty. I really don't mind you setting up a Jamaican restaurant if you apprenticed yourself and lived and really understood the food and the culture. And you make the food better than anyone I know
It’s you devoting your curiosity, your intellectual time, your geeking out on some things and living it, really living it before you try and deliver it for someone else. It's the act of really enveloping yourself in that thing then.
It shows up in the workplace between an excellent project manager or an excellent accountant or an excellent actress or an excellent computer scientist. They live it, they breathe it, they know everything about it. They understand it in a way that they make it real for other people. Those people, I think, are invaluable as we move into this new world.
How do you inspire someone to change their attitudes to learning, to think about what they're curious about, to devote themselves to developing those skills when t's just never occurred to them to do that before?
I think it's about the right teachers and coaches appearing for that person at the moment that they need it. Find people that you work with that light up when they’re talking about their work.
When you see inspired people, I think it inspires you. It inspires us to find it in ourselves. I think everyone has to go on that own individual journey to get it.
An analogy from Joseph Campbell - hero's journey. In all Marvel, Star Wars, Transformers movies a character realises there must be more, but they don't know what more looks like, or what more is. They just feel a discomfort in the space they're in, and then they go through trials and tribulations.
There are moments of wins. And then a loss happens and then there's a defining moment when they realise they either stand up and they fight and move forward for the thing they want, or they die. That hero's journey is the thing that we all experience day in and day out.
A quote from Joseph Campbell:
“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”