A LOT has been written about leadership and there is a lot being written about leadership at this time of Covid 19. I was lucky enough to meet Mariam Crichton relatively recently in the digital and creative hub of Brighton, aka Silicon Beach. As a leader in the digital sector who also happens to be a woman of colour – and a relatively young one at that (most certainly in my eyes if not her own :-)) – I was fascinated to learn more about her experience of leadership and the workplace more generally. She kindly agreed to let me interview her and the insights she shared were so powerful I felt compelled to share them (with Mariam’s permission of course)! I think it provides inspiration for always, but especially for now!
What do you think drives the type of leader you have become?
I remember what it feels to be ‘different’ and to not have my needs included. To really understand why you need to do inclusion you have to understand what it’s like to feel excluded – it was such a painful experience, such a deep, deeply painful experience… That pain drives me to learn how to make people feel included and to learn more. I know why but I don’t always know the how. With the why it’s not an intellectual exercise, it’s very human. We probably all have been excluded at some stage but when what you look like is enough to feel excluded it’s very painful. The thought of putting someone in that discomfort makes me extremely uncomfortable and that drives me to learn how to make people feel included – and there’s still lots for me to learn.
Your work often involves managing remote teams – how do you approach that?
People need to know right at the beginning that you’re there for them, you’re there to help them. For example, on a practical note, you need to make time for ‘social talk’ in meetings, especially remote meetings when people are each joining from different countries, continents, socio-economic backgrounds etc. When I plan for a meeting I allow time at the beginning and the end to check-in with everyone – some people might think that that’s a waste of time: it’s not. You need time to check-in with people on a personal level. Where are they coming from? Have they had a bad week because their contribution will be influenced by that? What is the environment like that they’re working in – I’ve had team members in Cape Town with riots going on outside, or there is a water shortage going on or a heat wave in India and everyone’s struggling to work. Getting the context of their state of mind is really important.
Of course, not everyone will share in a group, especially a newly formed team, but you have to take the time and it will emerge. I also include humour – that’s very powerful and shows people that you’re human.
Building rapport means you also need to do 1-2-1s with people – and when they’re remote you need to do that a lot more than you would normally. They need to be frequent and in short bursts. However senior you are, you need to be approachable and available. Micro chats and micro calls are really important – they can sometimes be a 2-minute call much like the spontaneous quick chat or clarifying question you might have whilst making a cup of tea in a physical office – oh, and I love emoticons on instant messaging too 🙂!
And when you reach out to someone, don’t always do it because there’s an actual reason – in fact, unstructured meetings and check-ins can be much more powerful because it shows that you’re thinking about someone. For example, that person might have gone unusually ‘quiet’ for a day and it’s good to check in and see how they are. It’s good to understand each team member’s natural rhythms and communication methods (does this person ping me an IM daily, weekly, has something changed…), actively observe that and you’ll quickly sense if something is not quite right.
It is also important to provide developmental opportunities for everyone. For example, if a junior member of the team is great at presentations and speaks clearly – unlike me who talks at a 100 miles an hour – I would ask them to present to a client.
You work hard to quickly build trust with your team. If they’re all working remotely – and have never met in person – how do you encourage team members to build trust with each other?
That’s really hard. I try my best to get others to communicate between themselves and to build relationships with each other. A lot of people on digital project teams think their role is to get the job done and do the task. I try to encourage and foster what it means to collaborate. I’m not sure everyone understands what ‘to collaborate’ means – you do something, I do something is not what it is. To foster this, I’ll phone a colleague up and ask for their help and we work on a project together – and we replicate that ‘bouncing’ ideas around that a physical office space can give you. I will encourage my team to work on documents together and sometimes we’ll all be online together but barely speak – we’ll occasionally interrupt each other or ask a colleague to sense check something for us.
Do you spend time as a team, up front, agreeing how you want to work with each other?
I’m big on communication – it’s a route to success or failure for a project – and I see my role as communicator. The first thing I will ask my team – as well as my clients – are what are your communication channels? What are your communication preferences? How frequently would you like to communicate? For example, if you send me an email, I’ll panic as I’m dyspraxic but if you send me a Slack message I’ll probably reply straight away. It’s understanding that different things stress different people out. You need to communicate with a client in the way that suits them and the same goes for your internal team.
Internally, it’s important to set your boundaries, and the same goes with clients. I don’t want my team to feel they have to constantly work overtime and I will flag to clients that I don’t want the same members of my team to always be on the ‘late call’ because of their geographical location. Always be appreciative, every single time, if someone is working out of their typical working day. I don’t think we thank people enough.
As you often lead teams who are remote how do you really get to know them?
You have to learn a lot more about each person and actively do this. With remote communication, especially when audio is our main form of communication due to connectivity issues, you have to amplify how you come across – it’s about your ‘vocal variety’. Pay hyper attention to the sound of people’s voices and learn what their norm is. The truth of anything is always in the sound of someone’s voice and so when you practice actually listening to someone, you learn how best to respond or to understand what’s going on with that person. By building that awareness you can build that sensitivity and that comes from really good listening. We should be doing all this stuff all the time but when I’ve only got a voice of someone to go on – this is where I focus my attention on understanding them.
I also recognise that as the leader, I know that people will want ‘to impress me’ – particularly young men! That’s really hard, as they don’t want to admit that they don’t know how to do something, but it makes it really difficult for me to spot when they need support or additional training. If someone took a long time to do something or kept avoiding it, I learnt to look for the reason that sat behind that. And whilst I’m never shy at asking for help, I recognise that, that isn’t true for everyone. I would encourage others to connect in with them to help identify and solve their challenge.
How do you ensure everyone in the team has a voice and feels fully part of the team?
When you’re in meetings and group situations, especially if they’re remote, you need to create a meeting with a sense of space. If someone wants to share something that’s not on the agenda or if all the extroverts are talking, you need to actively create that ‘empty space’ to enable them to do that. I know that some people ‘think, act, think’ rather than ‘act, think, act’ and need time to reflect before they feel able to contribute. I want everyone to have their say. To do this, I try to be hyper aware of my own behaviour and try hard not to do all the talking – I also encourage my team to stop me if I’m talking too much 🙂. If I have a list of five things I want to say, I share but then give space to co-create the agenda and re-prioritise. I’m also bad at transitions and will happily jump from agenda item to agenda item. Knowing this, I’ve learnt to keep quiet and will leave a minute of silence to ensure everyone has had their say. (I remember what it feels like to reflect, process and pluck up courage to speak – I remember feeling physically scared doing that and don’t want people in my team to feel that too.)
As a woman of colour, I have to work hard to navigate different barriers. In the roles I had I was often talking with white men, from different socio-economic backgrounds who were sometimes two decades older than me. That’s hard. But it meant I understood the concept of navigating difference and what that feels like and what it feels like not to be included…My driver for being a leader is that I can’t bear the thought of people feeling stressed. I think poor leaders make people feel unnecessarily stressed and they don’t understand the power of their words or they don’t understand that people go home and talk to their partners about what happened. I remember feeling like that and you cannot be creative if you are stressed. You have to feel safe. In technology and innovation, we need to come up with new solutions and you can’t innovate in an unsafe environment.
And, at the end of the day, we are all human.
Mariam has been the entrepreneurial driving force of the growth of many start ups over the last 16 years. Her innovative technology management expertise lies in GIS, SAAS, Software, Mobile Design and Development. She was formerly co-founder and CEO of professional mapping tool FIND and has been appointed in executive board positions of many start ups in the past.
Based in Brighton, Mariam has worked in the field of International Development for Every1Mobile on Digital Social Impact Solutions in sub-Saharan Africa countries, leading global multi-year contracts for clients including Unilever, DFID, USAID, Gates Foundation, the UN, the World Bank, ONE, Mozilla Foundation and the EU.
Mariam is currently a NED for Wired Sussex and is also on the Advisory Board of Safe & the City, who use technology to keep streets safer using crime data and reporting on sexual street harassment.