We spoke to Cathryn Barnard, co-founder and director of Working the Future, who provide work trend intelligence to organisations. They analyse and make sense of emerging trends and help organisations with behaviour and cultural change.
Tell me about how you got to where you are today.
I graduated with a degree in modern languages from the University of Reading in 1993. When I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or even what I could do.
Fortunately for me, my Mum had been perusing newspapers (before the internet!) and found a job that was local to where I grew up that was advertised as a graduate trainee scheme for a firm that sold technical publications, which I applied for and got. I realised in 2 months that it wasn’t a graduate trainee scheme. I knew pretty quickly that it wasn’t my cup of tea. Once I realised that I didn’t like this place, I started applying for other jobs that were similar because I knew how to do the job, but I didn’t get any of them.
A whole year later, a friend told me that the company he was working at was hiring and thought I’d be good for the job. I applied, but I didn’t really know what the job was. It was for a staffing company that specialised in providing contract engineering resource to the telecommunications industry. I arrived and loved it - the culture and the people.
I did that for five years, and it was awesome. I travelled across Europe to source engineers for projects, worked in Spain, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Belgium and Italy.
I was then presented with another opportunity by my former boss, who reached out and offered to bankroll a startup. I took a huge leap, going from a very stable and secure job to a startup. After only a year or so, it didn’t work out - we didn’t quite share the same values, so I decided to go it alone and start up my own business at 27 years old. I had no real idea of what I was doing except for the fact that I knew how to source engineers for telecommunications projects. In its first year, it turned over 3 millions pounds.
It was better than I ever could have imagined. From that point onwards, I’ve only ever worked for myself.
I think this is going to be similar for more people now, that some people who leave school and university may only ever be self-employed.
Do you feel like your languages degree helped with your career journey?
Yes, on paper I was hired in the roles that I was because I was fluent in French and Italian. However, in both roles I rarely used them.
Once I was working for myself with the business, we won a lot of business because I was able to speak French and Italian, and these French and Italian clients really appreciated that I spoke their language.
I think the thing that’s served me the most by studying languages, is being out of my comfort zone by having to go to the country and immersing myself in that culture. You’re often relying on non-verbal communication when you’re speaking a foreign language. I’m really interested in communication and conversation as human beings, and I think this has really underpinned my career. The art of conversation is what keeps teams cohesively connected and successfully collaborating together.
What’s your advice for anyone wanting to start their own business?
I think there’s a dominant narrative that permanent employment is the preferred method of income generation. So, if you’re not working in a permanent capacity, you’re somehow substandard. I definitely don’t subscribe to that view!
My first advice would be to deliberately create for yourself a support network, because it can be a really lonely place, if you’re a freelancer, delivering services to an organisation from the outsider, or working as a contractor or a temp. Don’t try and do it alone. Having a community of people around you who you can compare notes with is powerful, rounding and nurturing.
The other thing to recommend is to continuously keep your eyes peeled for what’s going on in your industry. Figure out how to navigate the tools that will help you market and position yourself, whether that’s things like LinkedIn or Instagram. Social media is innately powerful, used in the right way.
What hurdles have you overcome during your career?
I think I’ve found that a lot of men out there don’t like the idea of a successful woman. A lot of people don’t appreciate your success. I’ve received quite a lot of animosity.
When I became a mother, any animosity dissipated, as I think I was no longer perceived as a threat. But over time I think my skin has thickened and I’ve become less aware of it.
What excites you most about the future of work?
We’re more connected digitally than we’ve ever been before, so we have this massive opportunity to rethink how we work and how best we create value.
With the backdrop of the pandemic and climate crisis, we’ve got this opportunity to completely redefine how we coexist as human beings in a way that is infinitely less impactful to the planet. I think we’re all craving better connection and community.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the population don’t want to think about the future or change at all. It’s going to be a tumultuous period. I’m very inspired by the conversations I’m having with young people who are thinking about things in a different way. They’re infinitely more aware of equality, social injustices, resource depletion etc. It’s our job (as elders, I guess!) to pass our wisdom and experiences to those to be the most helpful we can be so we can confront these challenges together.
What is your proudest moment so far from your career?
It would be easy to say those ‘tickbox’ moments of ‘setting up your own business’ or turning over a certain amount of money, but they’re not what made me proudest. My proudest moments would be when I’ve been able to create opportunities for people. For example, when I’ve been able to make an introduction and those people have gone on to do something wonderful together.
Last year, my proudest moment involves the mentoring I now do at the University of Reading. I help them understand what they can do and what they could be doing that’s extra-curricular. One of my mentees mentioned that their friend set up a podcast during lockdown. Serendipitously, one of our clients came to us wanting to create a podcast series, and so we essentially hired (on paid internships) the two girls to do all the sound editing for this podcast series.
I’m really proud of the content and material, but mostly proud that these girls have got something amazing that they can take to future employers. I don’t know why that sticks out for me, but I just feel privileged to have been able to provide that opportunity.
Do you have a goal for the future?
Over the course of the next 5 years, I really want to continue building Working the Future as a prototype of a future-proof and agile organisation. I’ve got a very strong view of what I believe organisations of the future will look like. I love building relationships with people.
I want to continue helping people to navigate the future of work, as it is going to be scary.