Voices

Fearlessly failing: Finding your voice amid life’s challenges

Sairah Ashman, Global CEO at Wolff Olins explores the lessons and advice shared at a recent TEDx Women event to address fearlessness, from failing to leadership to finding your purpose.

Sairah Ashman, Wolff Olins

Global CEO

Share


Like any emotion, fear is a necessity in our lives. It’s a part of our evolutionary survival and a natural state. It can also be a constructive force, not just destructive as it makes us stop and consider our actions rather than leaping into every situation feet first without thinking.

So to be fearless is not as clear cut as it sounds and, importantly, it will always mean different things to different people. Fearlessness, whether in our professional or personal lives, is much more about how we use our life experiences, especially those that manifest as seeming failings or hardships, to face challenges with greater strength.

Or, as Allison Kirky, President and CEO of Scandinavian telecoms giant Telia, brilliantly puts it: “Don’t view failure as failure. View failure as an opportunity for you to learn and make yourself a more confident and braver version of yourself.”

Allison was one of the inspiring speakers who joined me last week at a TEDx Women event I hosted on the theme of Fearless. Completing the line-up were Wendy Beckman, Senior Director at Apple Retail and former Regional Vice President of Operations at Starbucks, and futurist and performance artist Adah Parris, who is also Chair of Mental Health First Aid England.

Each of these awesome women addressed fearlessness in their own unique way, covering fearlessly failing, fearless leadership and finding your fearless purpose and voice.

My motto in life is, have a dream and bravely make it happen.

Allison Kirky

Fearlessly failing

According to Allison, it was only when she reflected on her own life story that she realised it’s through failure that she’s learned the most and learned to be the fearless version of herself that she now is.

From a young age, she faced struggles. Growing up in a poor area of Glasgow, although with very hard working parents, being bullied at her inner city school, then losing her father at a young age and deciding not to go to university. 

“All of these experiences, while tough, made me who I am today,” she explains. “The bullying helped me become tough but also taught me to have empathy. And losing a parent at a young age, I realised life could be very short and you shouldn’t stay at anything too long if it doesn’t make you happy. As a result of that, my motto in life is, have a dream and bravely make it happen.”

After 20 years at Procter & Gamble, including more moments where her bravery was tested and reaffirmed, such as having to fire a Bulgarian distributor for paying off the Mafia, she stepped out of her comfort zone and moved to the TMT sector, to Virgin Media first then eventually ending up at her current company, Telia, in Scandinavia.

While failure is almost always defined as a negative, Allison reminds us that often these are the most important life-forming experiences. “When I look back, if I hadn't walked away from an undermining boss, if I hadn't failed to get that job I really wanted at Manchester United, then I probably wouldn’t be here in Sweden today.”

For Allison, learning from her so-called failings, she believes passionately that there are things we can all do to help others coming up. “Looking at the concept of levelling up, we have a need for social mobility. We need to reduce divides and inequality that now exist in society, we absolutely need to be role models to the kids at the poorer ends of society. We need to invest in education and teaching not just academic, but teach life skills that give them hope, aspirations.”

Fearless leadership

There is a distinct similarity between Allison’s reflections on fearlessness and Wendy Beckman’s. Wendy, too, looks back to her early family life for how her fearless approach in later life was formed. She grew up in the US in a family where she was the youngest of five. Her house was chaotic, and there wasn’t much room for being shy, nor much room for tears.

Wendy’s childhood and family values are reflected in the fearless woman she is today, running head-first into big complex problems, prioritising response over reaction. “When you think about complexity, I don't know about anybody else, but family is probably one of the most complex infrastructures I've ever lived or worked through. And so much, like life, there were a lot of bruises, emotionally and physically, in that setting. So, I learned to get on with things and that’s played a role in my survival instincts.”

Quoting Steve Jobs, she says it all makes sense when you “connect the dots looking backwards”, especially growing up in a situation like she did. “You had to get on with things. If you scrape your knees, you stand up and you move on. And there's not a lot of room for idling or wallowing in what's happening. And I don't think that's very different than being in a work environment.”

Wendy makes a crucial distinction in her fearless leadership between reacting and responding: “The times when I gained the most bruises is when I reacted rather than responded. If you think about reacting, it’s like fight or flight. You’re in the moment, it's very intense, you need to run. In most situations from a business standpoint, unless you’re in ER in the medical field, there’s always an opportunity to pause for a second. Being reactive is almost 100% emotionally driven, whereas responding, even if it’s taking five or ten minutes to slow it down, it gives you a chance to bring in a bit more data, to figure out what is the right response.”

She adds: “Complex situations can be either draining or exhilarating. But you choose your path to embrace the possibilities moving forward; it's how you accept the situation that you're currently in.”

Only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth and that is not speaking.

Adah Parris

Fearlessly finding your purpose

For Adah Parris, it’s also been a lifetime’s journey to find her voice and identity. She never thought her words could make a difference and, deep down, she says she didn’t believe she deserved to be seen or heard.

“For a long time there was a big difference between how I was presenting on the outside and who I really was on the inside. I tried to fit in, I didn't raise my head above water, I didn't ask probing questions. I felt I was happier behind the scenes. I realised that I was compromising my values, I needed to stop making myself small, and waiting for other people to really see me, and to actually become an unapologetic version of myself.” 

Like Wendy and Allison, Adah also puts great significance on life-forming experiences in her early life. On a trip to New York to recover from a health issue, she was involved in a serious car accident on her very first day that left her with most of her internal organs damaged and amnesia. “I had to start again. I realised that I had to rebuild myself, rebuild my identity, rebuild the relationship and the gap in my memory and it took years to get better.”

She threw herself into work and life and on the outside was successful and supremely busy. But deep down she realised something was wrong. “I’d lost my identity again because I was avoiding being with myself and really being honest about who I am. On the outside, people saw this strong Black woman, but they didn’t see what was happening on the inside. They saw me as fearless, but didn’t know what was going on.”

Adah actively rejects the stereotype and the narrative of the strong Black women because “I'm more than the sum of what people think of me”. “Yes I’m strong, yes I can also be vulnerable, I can be gentle, I can be wild, I can be fierce. I've had amazing opportunities and I could reel off my CV, but that’s not going to convey who I really am inside. And, as we say at Mental Health First Aid, I’m bringing my whole self to everything that I do.”

She adds: “I believe in something bigger than myself. I know that I can use my voice and my platform to amplify the voices, the experiences and the messages of others that don’t reflect my own life. And by recognising this, and being clear about my values, I know that I’m being unapologetically myself. For some that would seem fearless, but I don't know any other way to be. Only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth and that is not speaking.”

Guest Author

Sairah Ashman, Wolff Olins

Global CEO,

About

Sairah Ashman is Global CEO of brand consultancy Wolff Olins, where she oversees the business direction across its offices in London, New York and San Francisco. She’s passionate about working with ambitious leaders to help their businesses become great brands in world, the kind of radical and category-defining brands that represent something special for the people who buy from them and the people who work for them. She works across a wide range of jobs, helping to push creativity and challenge the work internally. Sairah is an alumna of Harvard Business School and Goldsmiths University of London, where she recently completed a Masters in Digital Sociology. She’s also an active supporter of The House of St Barnabas, working to break the cycle of homelessness, and a regular TEDx host and speaker.

Related Tags

Leadership