Miriam Connaughton is the Managing Principal of Connaughton Consulting, LLC, where she works with start-ups and other high growth companies, focusing on culture, leadership and teaming, change resiliency, talent, and employee experience. She has led an international career as a Principal and Advisor at companies such as Advisory Cloud, EY, Willis Towers Watson, and Mobil Oil. Miriam has an MBA from University of Warwick, an MSc from University of Birmingham, and a BSc Aston University in the UK. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
Miriam, tell us about some of your career highlights.
I like to be optimistic so hopefully the step I’ve recently taken to become self-employed will become one of my career highlights. After a long career mainly working in large organizations, it’s both a little scary but exhilarating setting up my own business. It is also glorious to have the freedom and flexibility to mix-up what I’m doing and how I’m investing my time.
In retrospect, some of my career highlights have been some of the traditional achievement-oriented milestones. Like the first time I made partner, or when I was appointed to the West Region when Towers Watson came into being through a merger.
But to be honest, the career highlights that really stand out for me are some of the experiences I’ve had working with great people – especially with those who made me laugh, or from whom I learned a lot, and many of whom remain friends. I also reflect on some project highlights where I got to work with really interesting companies, being part of a team helping clients tackle some difficult problems. For me, the real highlights are the experiences we look back on and still tell stories about, more so than the progression or promotion milestones, as nice as those are.
To what do you credit your success from your background or work or life experiences?
I think success is always a combination of all of these things and never something we achieve without help and support from others. In the workplace, I’ve had some great mentors and supporters who have significantly influenced my career. And my family has for sure supported my success.
I credit my parents for placing a strong emphasis on education as a way out of the more limited options available in my hometown area and as a way to expand career possibilities. I credit a large part of my career success to having a supportive and enlightened spouse. We’ve mutually made trade-offs at times in our careers to help the other do what they wanted to in work and in life.
In terms of life experience, I think what has also shaped my success at times was being told that something “wasn’t for a girl” or being underestimated in some other way. Trying to blaze a trail or proving doubters wrong fires me up.
What’s a tough career lesson you had to learn and how did it serve you?
You have an “arc” in any role, or sometimes in any company, and that arc is a mix of the intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic factors are your own motivations, learning, life priorities and the like. Extrinsic factors are how the company is evolving, options open to you, how you’re viewed, and so on. I reached a senior level at one organization I was with and, quite naturally, the number of more senior roles available to follow were more limited. The next role I thought I wanted didn’t happen and I was twice passed over. On the one hand, that was disappointing and frustrating at the time, but on the other, it freed me to address some other things that were missing in my work and to seek new challenges.
Is there anything you might have done differently as you look back?
So much! That’s life, isn’t it? If our older, wiser selves could go back in time, there’s so much I’d want to tell myself.
I wish my younger self had more of the confidence and knowledge gained as I progressed in my career. For example, earlier in my career I naively assumed that just because someone (and let’s be honest, at least at the time I was coming through, most often a white male) was in a more senior position than me, they must be smarter, or more capable – but this is not always true! Imposter syndrome is real and can be a strong force in undermining your sense of belonging. I think I first remember consciously being aware of it when I was one of a handful of women doing the science degrees I studied. It’s hard to fight the assumption that just because you’re one of a few, or sometimes the only woman, doing something, you’re not at least as deserving, as capable, as the guys sitting alongside you.
As I look back, I wish there was more I could have done to improve equality and equity. In society, and therefore in the workplace, equality and equity are obviously still major works in progress. My youthful optimism when I joined the workforce in the ‘80s was that the women’s liberation movement of the ‘70s had kicked down many doors and it would be plain sailing from there. How wrong I was! The glass ceiling is cracked but still intact. I remember an article from about five years ago that highlighted at the time there were more CEOs of the S&P 1500 called John than female CEOs in total. Sadly, when it comes to diversity and inclusion the numbers haven’t shifted as much as we think. We’re just talking gender here; looking at other under-represented groups, the numbers are even more stark.
I hope that through some of the roles I’ve had, especially as I became more senior, I’ve been able to help make a difference. When you join a leadership team as one of a few, it’s an opportunity to help bring about more progress and hopefully make it easier for a more diverse talent pool to join you and move forward. Helping change that is something I’ve valued and, hopefully, influenced at different times in my career. But that said, I wish I’d felt the confidence and had the influence earlier in my career to make more of a difference.
How do you balance work with the rest of life?
I don’t think in terms of balance; it’s an impossible equation so why frustrate yourself trying to solve it? I see work as part of life, so for me it’s about figuring out how to live the life you want to live; work just happens to be one aspect of that life. I have more of a European mindset of working to live, not living to work. That’s not to say that I’m not committed to roles I’ve taken on. I work hard and have worked crazy schedules, including flying extensively for periods of time. But at times in my career, I’ve also switched things up to focus on what I wanted to do differently.
For example, when I first made partner, I stepped off the consulting merry-go-round for a year to focus on other things, then came back to the same firm for a really great role that I don’t think I would have necessarily been sought out for if I was still there. Later, when my son was about one, I asked to take a year off (and was lucky to have a really supportive boss and mentor). It turned into 18 months, but who’s counting! It was a magical time I knew I wouldn’t get back and I have absolutely no regrets for doing that.
I’ve said no to roles that would take me away from my family too much, or may cause a relocation that didn’t work for us. I realize that making some of these choices I’ve likely traded off on some opportunities that may have been more financially lucrative or advantageous in other ways. But with the mantra of work to live, not live to work, they weren’t really hard decisions to make. All that said, I know at times in my career, I’ve let the balance get out of whack. Especially in consulting, you’re often working under compressed deadlines, with clients who rightly expect you to move mountains for them. Provided it was periodic rather than constant, I knew it was part of the game, and I’ve made it work – not always perfectly, but most of the time. Lastly, I’ve always been an advocate for taking all of my vacation and encouraged others to do the same – it’s called paid time off for a reason. Use it!
What’s still on your career bucket list that you intend to do someday?
I’m in the process of refreshing this list, to be honest, but energized that in the fourth decade of my career I am looking forward to what’s new and what’s next. A couple of things that I intend to do are:
Advisory board work: I’ve done some Board work in the past, and consulted a lot in the tech space especially, and I’m looking forward to doing more advisory board work. I’m especially interested in the evolution of the digital employee experience and the opportunities innovation is accelerating in this space. In addition, the increasing emphasis on a more expansive definition of employee well-being, and all that entails is ramping up interest in different aspects of how to support and deliver the best possible workplace experience. So, I’m excited to work with companies that are innovating in this space. I also intend to continue consulting with a range of start-ups and fast-scaling companies that believe in the power of the people agenda to create a strong foundation for success: HR strategy, talent, culture, leadership, employee experience, and change management. I’m excited to work with companies who also believe these things matter and who need help getting them done.
Volunteer with a cause I believe in: This is more on my life than career bucket list, but another reason I wanted to give myself more flexibility is to have time to volunteer with an organization whose mission I believe in: St. Vincent De Paul of Marin. Food and shelter are such basic human needs, and I value organizations that provide these services and also help solve these problems in our communities.
Under the “would like to do” heading:
Write a novel: A cliché, I know. We all think we have at least one good book in us. But I’ve started a writing course and I’m enjoying the learning experience and exercising the creative part of my brain. Of course, not expecting to write the next blockbuster and make this my full-time career, but it’s always good to dream a little and have some fun while doing so.
What one (or two) bits of advice would you give someone regarding work or career?
Think first about how you want to live your life, then figure out how you want your work and career choices to fit into that.
Seek out and take all the help and support you can get. We all need a network of coaches, mentors, and just people around us, supporting us to grow, learn, and thrive. And always extend the same help to others, return the favor and pay it forward.