Reflections on 25 years

  • the names and descriptions of hundreds of single malts, as a barmaid for a famous Scottish golf course (since forgotten)
  • that my skin is too dry to wash dishes 8hrs a day without developing painful eczema, learned as a cafe barista one summer
  • that the super-rich can neglect their children too. I once tutored the 14yo daughter of a film producer. Let down by mainstream schools, this girl with learning disabilities still hadn’t learned to tell the time, but a specialist school was too much of “an inconvenience” to her father’s travel arrangements
  • that teachers don’t like to buy sex toys from their pupils (while I was working as a sales assistant in my parents’ shop. Yes, my parents for a while ran a sex shop)
  • that you see everything in retail. The extremes of poor mental and physical health, addiction, homelessness, all on view from a shop window looking out onto the High Street. I couldn’t say more without a content warning, but I’ve seen things that still keep me awake at night
  • that the challenge of the job of bra-fitter isn’t in the fitting but in making women feel comfortable enough to let you fit one (learned during my summer as an M&S shop assistant)
  • that MPs who go out for a run at 6pm and come back red-faced and sweaty 45 minutes later haven’t necessarily been out for a run (learned while working in an MPs office)
  • that pubs can be the beating heart of a community in a small village — learned pulling pints in my parents’ pub— but it can also be the alcoholic liver of the same village if you don’t learn how to say no to your most enthusiastic regulars
  • that the inevitable forward march of progress I believed in as a fresh graduate was very much evitable: national health inequalities are now so much worse than the sorry state they were in when it was my policy portfolio back in the mid-2000s. Socioeconomic determinants of health have only declined, driving a stake into heart of the naive optimist I once was
  • that policemen will always drink me under the table. And that lots of them drank at the Old Monk on Strutton Ground, opposite (old) New Scotland Yard. Learned whilst working on counter-terrorist financing policy and the Financial Action Task force— the only woman in HM Treasury working on it when Casino Royale was produced, so I guess it means Vesper Lynd was based on me?
  • that jobs focused almost solely on building trust and cooperation are scoped that way for a reason, and will feel woolly and unproductive, right up until you need those relationships (as I did in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 terrorist attacks, when the work I’d done to build trust and information sharing channels yielded massive dividends and got us identities within days and not weeks)
  • that immoral and illegal behaviour exists in every sector, whether or not people want to hear it —a lesson I learned reviewing fraud, money laundering and terrorist funding in the charity sector
  • that most Whitehall departmental boards suffered (at the end of the 2000s) from the type of dysfunction that comes from a culture where identikit older white men make DG, conflict aversion is rife, and where there’s an unspoken agreement that “if you don’t challenge me, I won’t challenge you”
  • that in many departments, your opinion doesn’t seem to have any weight until you make SCS1. Genuinely, in some places you’re not invited into the collective consciousness of the department until you hit those ranks
  • that HR is not there to support you. They are there to protect the business. That HR will not always do what you think is right, but they’ll do what they think limits litigation risk and management load. And if female contractors complain about sexual harassment and even sexual assault from a respected older male civil servant, HR will do what HR does. Which is not always action on the side of justice
  • that sometimes you do just have to quit. Even if you’ve no job to go to. Because you need to be able to sleep at night. And because life is too short to dread going to work each day
  • that we make the most amazing collection of friends as we go through our working lives. And they want to see you succeed. But also that they’re not psychic — if you want their help, you have to actually tell them what it is you’re trying to achieve
  • that career pivots aren’t that hard if you’re already suffering imposter syndrome. It’s fairly transferable across domains
  • that luck — being in the right place at the right time, especially times of crisis — is a massive factor in getting career-changing opportunities. They’re also the times when everyone gets to act-up a little and take on greater responsibility — showing what you’re really capable of — because there’s too much work to go around and the preciousness and territoriality of normal bureaucracy vanishes
  • that government departments are gross — basements commonly flood with sewage, widespread rat infestations (this is not a metaphor), so much sick-building syndrome
  • that leadership is astonishingly lonely. It’s a huge and terrifying responsibility. What you do and say can have a disproportionate and unintended impact on how people feel and behave, on their physical and mental health, on their career prospects. And yet we give ordinary, flawed humans these roles, often without sufficient support, and expect them to flourish. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t, and people get hurt
  • that even if leaders want to throw the kitchen sink at a problem, too much “rock-star” talent in a single multidisciplinary team is a guaranteed disaster-in-the-making
  • that a lot of policy-making is going not in circles, but in spirals. It all feels very deja-vu, but don’t feel despondent — the effort this time will go further, will last longer, will be more impactful. Each time more progress is made, even if it doesn’t stick, so you’re starting from a higher baseline next time round. There are exceptions (see above: health inequalities)
  • that professional peers without children or dependent parents have more time and money for extra-curricular stuff (reading, holidays, projects) — it will always make me feel like I’m not doing enough, and that feeling will always be unjustified
  • that when you find something that you care about so much people comment on how animated you are when you speak about it, you ought to consider taking your career in that direction. “Go where the energy is” applies just as much in your own life as it does in change management idioms
  • that age, apparent age, and gender will hinder me whatever I do. For the first 15 years of my career people expected me to get coffee and take notes while they addressed my male juniors as if they were leading the meeting. Now I have older men publicly questioning “how I managed to get where I am at my age”, heavily laden with a variety of unspoken insinuation, because they think I’m in my early 30s, not my early 40s. Perhaps looking especially youthful will delay the onset of invisibility in my late 40s and 50s, a career phenomenon that seems almost systemic in digital and design — though it’s not an advantage to savour
  • that sometimes you just have to take the hits when it’s the right thing to do. Acting with integrity can sometimes mean taking the hit to your ego, or to your reputation, or to your career, in order to protect your team or to protect someone less privileged than you. Especially on social media, staying quiet while you’re being attacked can be tough: it all feels so unjust. But if protecting someone else with your silence is more important, then you can take solace in knowing that you’re doing the right thing, even if no-one else knows or sees it
  • that life’s too short. And that it’s fine to coast a little sometimes, especially in between sprints. And that stopping completely is sometimes exactly what you need.




Leader — digital/product/service design/research/strategy — and mother

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Audree Fletcher

Audree Fletcher

Leader — digital/product/service design/research/strategy — and mother

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