My Other Life
Monday 5th August 2019
Not, I am afraid, as interesting as that title might suggest. Sorry, as ever, to disappoint. But I do have another life, beyond, or maybe beside knitting.
Before I came to knitting, my child, I had many other occupations, including sausage linker, Fire Service Emergency Resources employee and the usual tattoo parlour/saloon bar sweeper-upper-manager, security at a naval dock yard, make-up ‘artist’ and magazine copy writer. Some of those examples are true. But for many years, I had corporate jobs, latterly in the public sector. These jobs gave me a rather eclectic range of…well, let’s call them skills shall we? I think they are in fact more a reserve of diverse experiences that gave me insight into ‘good’ corporate practice and that which is less good.
For the last 9 years, I have deployed these ‘skills’ in a role that in many ways could not be more different from my life as a knitwear designer and teacher. But increasingly, I do see them as tapping into the same stream.
My name is Ali, and I am an Associate with a small, highly specialist firm which undertakes evaluations of UK public listed companies, specifically evaluations of their plc Boards. This evaluation is conducted by applying the principles of the UK Code of Governance to the Board in question. I do this by interviewing the Board in a series of one-to-one meetings, and sometimes this includes other external partners with close Board relationships; or by a detailed questionnaire. Most UK plcs now opt – quite rightly in my view – to have this evaluation done with face-to-face interviews. The purposes of this work, which needs to be undertaken by an independent evaluator (me, for example) every 3 years, include helping Boards to achieve even higher standards in respect of the governance of the company. And to give insights into areas where they can learn from our external and independent experience – benchmarking, in effect. Obviously, this is in the interests of a wide range of stakeholders primarily including employees and shareholders.
At first, it felt markedly odd to have such a divergent ‘career’ model. One day, I might be teaching you to knit Fairisle. The next I might be interviewing Board members from a top FTSE company. Now it just feels normal. Nevertheless, I have been almost unconsciously slightly wary of letting the fibre designer side of my portfolio be in the limelight. OK, there was the time I left a bag of knitting in a Board room and had to be summoned back by the very sweet Chair of the company who had found it, been suitably baffled by happening upon a Sweaty Betty bag containing a half-knitted beaded mitten, on a set of DPNs, concluded by a rapid process of elimination that it must be mine, and then rang my mobile…
But as I now feel no tension between my 2 career activities, so I am less concerned about what a Board might think if they knew I was also a knitwear author and designer. For one thing, it is hardly as if I am running a human-organ smuggling ring, is it? Or making a monumental cock-up of Brexit from start to end, which is as nothing when compared to knitting brioche, actually Boris. No, no, you are too kind, and I am too, too flattered by the calls from the back for me to assume the Brexit mantel, or the Cloake of Shite as it is more formally known; but I am too busy with my allotment where referenda about binary matters such as French or runner beans are as common as butterfly teeth. I just grow both, being completely normal. Also, I am not shrouded in secrecy and a swift Google search of my name will instantly inform the more savvy corporate detective that my code (and burlesque) name is Ms Kidsilk McBeady.
I say it now feels normal, to have these 2 career paths; and that there is no tension. In fact, it is better than that. I have come to think of the knitting design and perhaps more especially the teaching events I run, and my ‘corporate’ self, as deploying a not dissimilar range of tactics. To create a design, such as the fairly complex Maybe, Baby, I have to embark on a lengthy technical process, which lasts for much longer than the creative spark that set me off on that design journey. I will draft, test, consult, re-draft for maybe 4 – 20 iterations for almost all designs. For Maybe, Baby, it was close to 20 drafts. Before I even start to teach or release it. This is just one reason why I could never be a ‘mass market’ designer. Before I interview a Board, my colleagues and I draft and re-draft tailor-made agenda, very specifically designed for their corporate and Board needs. Not off the shelf. Just like my designs. And then we draft and re-draft bespoke reports based on carefully weighted and agreed data.
And to get the best from a class, I must do the work to create a unique teaching plan that is based on my design work; then work hard to gain an insight into, and the trust or at least the respect of the class; and then to be flexible enough to adapt my plan to meet learning styles that will always vary from each other. I have never taught a class of say 8 students and encountered 8 identical ways of assimilating and learning. It’s usually 8 different ways. Boards of Directors with whom I work, and the classes I teach have one powerful element in common: they are all people. I don’t revere the Boards of Directors more than a class of students. I respect and approach them in the same way, except I have yet to suggest Kazoo karaoke to a plc Board. (We played Kazoo karaoke at Knit Camp last month).
I absolutely love my Board Room life. This is because it is so interesting to meet a very diverse (not yet diverse enough, but progress is slowly coming and some are excellent) range of people. Unlike knitters I work with, we do not form on-going relationships. Through knitting, I continue to meet an incredible body of people, many of whom I now count as very close friends. Both ‘sides’ of my life contribute emotional richness and great intellectual stimulation. They are both, but in very different ways, creative. I am probably the least ‘corporate’ evaluator most Boards will meet, and that may suit some more than others, but I will make as much effort as the project allows to get to know them, just I would if I met you in one of my classes.
Both ‘lives’ sometimes have challenge. It is very rare to meet personal push-back from a knitter in a class and I can only think of 2 real examples. I mean, maybe the majority of students stomp off home after a trying day with me, shake the workshop dust off their boots and vow never to cross my needles with silver again. And they just don’t tell me. But once or twice, (and I have been teaching for many years, my child) it has happened. And it must, for the sake of the whole class, be met with a kindly-meant but robust response. Almost all situations can be defused with listening, regrouping and defining appropriate boundaries. Sometimes, with my corporate work, we meet situations that are sensitive and which need us to be very firm, and confident in our findings – and still able to work with a client to deliver a truthful but really helpful report. Truth need not be a deal breaker. It can and should be a pathway. The more I plough these 2 furrows, the more parallels I see.
Nowadays, if a Board member asks me what else I do (rare), I don’t demur. I say I am a knitwear designer and teacher. The tumble-weed moments have happened. But sometimes, from the most unlikely of people, it will lead to a more human exchange, albeit one often tinged with slight bewilderment.
What has not happened, yet, is for the 2 worlds to really meet. Other than being glimpsed knitting when I am waiting between interviews. I have never taught a person I have also interviewed. I have never had a knitter at a class ask me if I’d like to evaluate their Board. But you never know. I am really proud, and lucky, to do both these activities and call it work. They are both hard work at times, with very long hours of travel for my Board work, and hours of writing. Knitting teaching is harder though – maybe that is my fault! But after say, Knit Camp, I feel as if I have been in some sort of fight, but probably that I won. Hard work is the best, I think. Lucky, lucky, lucky me. Also my song-de-jour, now and always.
I once met, and interviewed a man – a most remarkable character – whose business is both incredibly successful and also very creative. Massively corporate yet with an alluring artisan, ‘maker-led’ model that is so clever and which I just loved. He asked me about my other life, with no idea of what I might say. I suppose he thought (and probably hoped) I’d say I was a keen walker or something, when not engaged on Board evaluations. But he really ‘got’ it, in a way most non-knitters just don’t. So it just shows how important it is to be on receive, not always transmit, and to be open to saying ‘yes’. More, on this blog, on the power of ‘yes’ soon, by the way…