Now here’s a woman who describes herself as having a ‘range of persona’ – significantly more than being a portfolio worker. But the term ‘more than’ is built for my Page 1 woman, Sue Liburd.
She’s the CEO of Sage Blue, working with the likes of IBM, the Prudential and Balfour Beatty PLC; a non-executive director on several boards and published author of 2 books . And that’s not all. Her awards include International Businesswoman of the year (2004), founding fellow of the Sales Leadership Alliance (CIM, 2010), HSBC Business Excellence Award (2005) and a nominee for Radio 4 Woman’s Hour – 100 Powerful Women List (2013). A black woman of high visibility and energy, she’s surmounted barriers of racism and sexism to operate globally. Her career trajectory was unusual; starting as a nurse she moved into midwifery before bigger challenges beckoned. So she took a commission in the British Army rising to the rank of Captain. Since then, her carefully constructed career pathway has included senior posts at the British Red Cross HQ, the Peabody Trust and Total Office Group before becoming an entrepreneur, setting up and selling small companies. She’s made a point of dreaming big and always learning and developing, an increasingly necessary way to create value for individuals and organisations. Want to hear more?
Tell us about Sage Blue?
Sue Liburd: We’re into our 14th year. We have a strong client base that says, “We have a problem can you come and help.” It can be with an individual or a team or they need a new way of thinking and we work with them. The heart of everything I do is about influencing thinking and creating courageous changes in behaviour. I run my businesses where we’re acting almost as the midwife. When people are stuck or they’re going through change or they want to birth something, you need an experienced and wise guide. I’m not going to birth this child for you. You’re going to have to do it but I will accompany and support you.
What essential steps did you take to get to where you are today?
Sue Liburd: I’ve always made it my business to surround myself with a good diverse group of people and I listen to their wisdom. Generation X’s as well as baby boomers and traditionalists – people who have experiences and perceptions on life that’s different to mine. Also, having a big vision or ‘my north star’. Travellers and explorers look up and there’s a bright fixed star and you always know where you are. One of my heroes is Dr Martin Luther King Jr. When I first heard his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, it allowed me to dare to dream big and to have a really ambitious vision for myself and to set off on that path. So one of my essential steps is I always have a big vision. I don’t have to map the whole thing out. Just know what direction I’m going in. Then there’s my continuous learning and education. I’ve matched my experience with education – formal and informal. I always take a deep dive into a range of subjects and become very knowledgeable.
What was the most significant thing you did as a black woman that got you into your current position?
Sue Liburd: Dreaming big. I grew up at a time where a lot of messages for women, and certainly for black women, were about the future being marriage, kids and that we don’t have a right to be here. As a black woman I come from a long line of women who have encouraged me to be my own person. I’m going to dream big, have an ambition, go out on that path and I will achieve. Giving myself permission and challenging myself to not just do other people’s scripts.
And often, educators and men generally would say ‘no’ or ‘that will never happen, you’ll never achieve that.’ There was an environment outside my home that said ‘as women, there’s a place for you in society and that’s not at the top of anything’. But I’ve got a different script. And part of that script came from when my father died. So there’s my mum, aged 37, widowed with three children and I was the eldest, aged 12. You grow up overnight. She worked hard and ensured we had regular holidays, great clothes and a good social life. I learnt that I don’t have to do it the way that the rest of the world is telling me I should do it. Because I grew up in a household where even before my father died, we would sit and discuss stuff. I was encouraged to have opinions – ‘you have choices, make a decision. You’re beautiful and loved. You’ve gifts and talents that you can use in this world’.
What’s your most significant learning that’s been really crucial in your career?
Sue Liburd: In two words, People Matter. Without people, there’s no service, no product, no sale, no business. If you don’t look after and invest in the talent in people, you’re on a hiding to nothing. If you do it, you can achieve amazing things. Therefore, people matter.
As a nurse, midwife, business developer, board director – to achieve anything, it’s always had a people component. People matter. And once I got that, my leadership style changed from being transactional. Now it’s very much around, let me look at what motivates this individual, how they’re going to grow, what do they need. How can we marry that individual’s hopes, dreams, aspirations, strengths and skills to what needs to be done? And you can manage a department of 50 people like that. Look at people first and task second; not task first and people last. My leadership style evolved. I looked at what other people were doing; I experimented and gradually moved my style because I was getting bigger and better results.
What are your three most revelatory moments?
Sue Liburd: I’ve got four. My first is nobody dies. When I was a nurse and midwife, I was making decisions whereby if I got it wrong, somebody could die. When I was a midwifery sister on night duty, there was a woman getting into extreme distress and it was going to be a difficult delivery. I called for the obstetrician and he said, “Sue, I’m too tired. I can’t come.” In that moment there was just me and I had to save that woman and save that child. So stepping into the corporate space, I learned that the decisions I make today, nobody dies. So I don’t have a problem making decisions. I remember sitting at a meeting making a big decision. There was a lot of angst and I just did the, “Nobody dies here. This is not a decision that we’re making where there is a life at the end of this.” The decisions I make today in business, are important but they aren’t life threatening. So, I’m not burdened by the decision.
Another revelatory moment is, don’t live a life of regret or incompletions. Again, that’s shaped by those very early days. There were people at the end of their life full of regret. ‘I wish I’d done this’, ‘I haven’t been here’ – and it’s too late.
This is a beautiful quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, which sums up another revelation, “Well behaved women don’t make history.” I started to notice all my heroines are positive disrupters. Take Rosa Parks. Bone-tired at the end of a day she didn’t set out for home saying “Right I’m going to change history”. She did say on that bus “I’m not giving up my seat. It’s not right.” That action changed the course of history. Anita Roddick. She asked, “What are we putting into cosmetics? What are we doing to animals?” She did the ‘bring it on’ to the cosmetic industry and challenged them to do it differently.
One of the things I’ve done this year for me personally, is to create a website called Tifina.co.uk for posting my heroines. These are women that are positively disruptive, who’ve behaved differently e.g. Alice Walker, Nichelle Nichols, Indira Gandhi, Eileen Fisher, Coco Chanel. And that’s how I see myself – a positive disrupter.
My fourth revelatory moment is reaIising that I change lives. It’s a message that I receive regularly and it’s now part of my identity. I walked into a room to deliver a presentation and I heard this shriek, “Oh my God, it’s Sue.” This woman gave testimony about how I’d changed her life. She said that, “If it wasn’t for this woman, I wouldn’t be where I am today”. Talk about being humbled. I hadn’t known that the time we’d spent together had such an impact.
Another chap said to me, “Sue, I have to thank you. You changed my life. I’m now a chartered manager running a big team. You were there at a time when I’d no belief in myself and you helped me shape a vision.” This gives me a sense that I’m doing my thing. And when I return back to my source, I hope there are some people that are better off for having had an experience with me.
What tools or resources have been essential to you in becoming successful?
Sue Liburd: First is a diary. It’s allowed me to value, respect and manage my time effectively. If it gets in the diary it gets done. Second, I’ve always built myself a power team. That’s like my conscience board made up of real people and my heroes and heroines. So if I’m finding myself stuck or uncertain, I can ask, “What would such and such do?”
Third, is my ability to prioritise, which I’m extremely good at. It enables me to say yes or no to things and carve out time for myself to read and reflect and to just be.
What’s your understanding of leadership?
Sue Liburd: Leadership is about when you’ve got an alignment of purpose, passion, your values, skills and experience. Magic happens and in that moment, you’ve got an ability to influence yourself or others which is truly transformational. So whether leading self or others, that transformation doesn’t occur without those factors. And on those occasions where I don’t have the skills, passion or energy around it, I’m not leading well. But when I know what I’m doing and where I’m going, I’m on purpose, there’s an energy, it’s absolutely aligned with who I am, my core skills, the experience I can bring. I regularly do a sense check, particularly when we’re doing a new project or initiative or I’m at a board meeting. I check, ‘Am I in total alignment here?’ It’s a good gauge for me because how can I lead or advise if I’m not in alignment?
What difference have you made being a black woman leader?
Sue Liburd: As a black woman leader, I often ask the questions that others aren’t prepared to ask. Sometimes, those questions have created a seed change in thinking or direction. And as a black woman, I feel that is one of my biggest contributions as a leader. I see my blackness as part of my superpower. It’s what I bring to the table particularly when I’m the only black woman in the room. Corporate, uber-alpha white males sitting around the table, and I’m the only black person. I can use that. I get heard because I’m not always alpha-ing, or always shooting my mouth off. I ask clear questions, make relevant comments. I love being a black woman. Do you remember the song ‘Young, Gifted and Black’? I would dance to it and my dad would tell me I was growing up in a world where people would see my skin colour first. “They’re not going to necessarily see who you are first,” he said, “But you can use that to your advantage.” So being a black woman and different, allows me to do things differently.
What are your top tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Sue Liburd: First, don’t use men as your blueprint. Men have their way of being in this world. A lot of constructs are male and as women, we aren’t of those constructs. Women who’ve gone before us and have adopted that male persona, aren’t popular and don’t necessarily get a lot done. So find your own authentic side.
Second, brag more. Let people know your accomplishments. Self-promotion is a key to success.
Third, success is done in partnership with others. Join a Lean In Circle, get a sponsor, a coach or a mentor. You can’t do this on your own.
Fourth, we learn who we are through practice not theory. So have a go. Take a step.
Find out more about Sage Blue here. Sue’s books: ‘Executive Coaching – How To Make It Work’ (2010) and ‘You Can And You Must: Career planning in changing times’ (2014)
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