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Interview with Christine Armstrong, co-founder of Jericho Chambers

21st January 2016
Interview with Christine Armstrong, co-founder of Jericho Chambers

Christine Armstrong is a co-founder of Jericho Chambers, a progressive communications consultancy structured like a barristers set.

She takes time out of a very busy – but very balanced – schedule to discuss her career path, disruptive businesses and how we could make life better for working parents.

To begin with, could you introduce yourself and tell me a bit about your background?

Im Christine Armstrong, Im co-founder of Jericho Chambers, Im a contributing editor at Management Today and I have a column in the International Business Times. I have three daughters aged six, four and one.

Originally I did a degree in politics at York and went to work in a public affairs PR firm, was there eight years and I worked in the States and in Canada. Then I went to an advertising agency called BBDO, was working in their European hub and moved from a communications focus to a more research and insight focus which I really enjoyed. When I had my first baby I went to work for WPP in one of their research companies, but it didnt really work for me so left and then set up Jericho.

How did you start out on your career journey, which it seems has been varied. Did you set out to be a thought leader or just to be an ad exec?

I dont think I would have known what thought leadership was or had a view on it. I didnt set out with any clear goal at all. My career has evolved in response to throwing myself into jobs and following whats interested me. Ive been guided by the opportunities and the things that have caught my energy and Ive pursued those things.

Ive been fascinated with the idea of Jericho, the consultancy you co-founded with Robert Phillips, formerly of Edelman and George Pitcher, formerly of Luther Pendragon. Its structured like a barristers chambers. Do you always work independently or do you collaborate?

When it was originally conceived we imagined it like a barristers chambers, where people would have their own lines of business – they might collaborate, they might work independently – but essentially people would have their own work streams and then you would contribute to the centre in terms of supporting the building and the brand and the team.

But its evolved in a really good way: its much more collaborative, so almost all the projects that we work on multiple people are involved with. But the structure remains hugely flexible; it means that everyone has other lives. I can write, I can do the school run most days, there are no fixed hours; literally people come and go as suits their needs and do whatever else interests them. That, for me, is a very important and special thing about Jericho – in addition to it changing the way that we approach and think about how companies behave and how they do things better.

Do you think of yourselves as being disruptive?

We recognise that the worlds changed and that the old ways of dealing with lots of things dont work anymore. We had a meeting yesterday with an organisation that was saying that theyd followed the same agenda – doing the same things – and they get completely and utterly ignored by the people that matter to them. They came in saying why is that? So many organisations know the world has changed yet arent sure how to respond. Theyve dont know how to do things differently or do things better. They struggle with the idea that they need to change what they do – not just what they say. And so we help companies, organisations and people with those things. I dont know if thats disruptive; I prefer to think that its progressive.

Your consultancy positions itself as taking an ethical approach to communications and public affairs. It takes a lot of guts to say: were going to do things differently; were going to rebel against the industries we came of professional age in. Do you find it easy to be rebellious?

I think we do and I think running your own organisation gives you a huge amount of confidence to say: we dont want to work on that or I dont think thats the right thing or If youre looking for that then were really not the right organisation to help you with it. I think thats really important.

I think you have to be a bit careful with the word ethical because sometimes companies might not be perceived to be ethical – there may be problems that theyre trying to address – and you have to be careful about refusing to help people if you think that they genuinely have good intentions and want to change. Then I think it would be wrong to say were not going to help you because youve done something wrong in the past or because we dont like how youve behaved if you genuinely think they want to do things better. Thats the question that you have to try to ask yourself when youre talking to people.

So not covering up problems but trying to solve problems?

Yes. We had a call and somebody said would you help us with a particular issue around communicating a labour problem, a problem with the workforce. And we said: are you prepared to solve this problem or are you just worried about the PR consequences of this problem? They said well, were not sure weve got the power to change it, so we said if youre not able to address the problem then we cant help you.

At Jericho we think about organisations: how they exist in the world, how they behave, what they do and the impact that they have; what their purpose is, whether theyre offering something thats positive to society and to their community.

Its about accepting that traditional power structures have broken down, that top down management and top down communication dont work and that world is messy and complicated. So its how the brand engages with the world, what it considers its community to be and how it engages with those people.

Youve had an enviable career in advertising, PR and market research. When you were at school, and at university, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was fifteen my English teacher, Mr Crump…

Thats a very Dickensian name.

Such a great name isnt it? He told me on a train to London that I should be a journalist because I was really nosey and really good at writing. And it took me until I was nearly 40 to get around to taking his advice. So no, there wasnt a clear plan, but I do have a fascination with the idea – and I really use it with my own children – that the things that youre really interested in as children are the things that you should probably pursue. I didnt have a plan, and if I look back on it now, with the benefit of more confidence I think Id have gone into magazines. I still tell people that my dream job still is to be editor of Vanity Fair. I just love magazines; I love pictures and I love words but I think I just thought those things were impossibly remote and glamorous when I was 19; I was a bit obsessed with the poll tax. And now I look back on it and think, but thats what I really enjoy.

Does the digital era ever disappoint you?

No, I love the digital stuff too, I love The Pool at the moment – I love some of the great digital stuff thats out there, its brilliant, I wouldnt choose one or the other – but I do love a great magazine. There was some Facebook quiz where you had to ask your children what they thought of you and one of them was what does your mum really like to do? and they said: read. I will genuinely read anything – from highbrow to absolute trash. Thats my happy space.

Whats your most hated bit of business jargon or marketing speak?

Its hard to choose; there are a few. Actually, there are bits of jargon that I hate but one of the things that drew me towards Jericho is that I did work with a lot of accountants, many of whom were based in America – and I dont think it was that they were American, I think it was that they were in a remote place – but those long distant aggressive emails and capitalisation…Thats probably my most hated thing about business: that really aggressive, hard-edged tone around things which actually should just be a perfectly polite, perfectly reasonable transactional conversation. Thats one of my particular bugbears.

Some people really have a problem with moving forward and close of play

Im alright with those – I probably use them! One of the things that drives me mad is when people say I think were overthinking this. And maybe I say it, which does worry me. But I think, generally, people say it when they want to shut stuff down, and actually it means we havent thought about it or we dont want to think about it. So when people say were overthinking this, I really look for it and think what are we trying to ignore, what is it that we dont want to address here? I read it as code for the something we dont want to look at.

My personal favourite, or least favourite, is action as a verb.

Were going to action this. The thing is Ive been in this so long, I think I dont notice it, which is really shameful isnt it? I cant be a purist about these things because I work in environments where people use those words all the time and you do probably pick them up.

Im always wary of people using quasi-academic words – paradigm is a fairly common one – to express what are actually really simple ideas; those people always send alarm bells ringing in my head, trying to pretend that theyre clever.

Can you describe a typical working day for you, if there is such a thing?

People always tell me there isnt when I do Power Mums interviews so I suppose I cant reject that as a thesis.

In an ideal world I drop my six year old to school at the gate at 8.30 and my four year old at the gate at 8.45. I feel an immense sense of achievement if I can do that. Theres something really psychologically reassuring in the ritual of sending your children through the school gates and thinking all is well in the world.

So I try not to do too many breakfasts and I try to do that as often as I can – three of four times a week. It doesnt always work. And then I come into Jericho – I often work from home on Fridays – and do all the things youd expect: meetings, call, seeing the team, seeing clients, writing, presenting. And when I can, which isnt as often as Id like to but I definitely do it on Fridays – I try to do school pick-up. My older daughters school finishes at either at 4 or at 5 depending on whether shes got a club, so I try and pick her up twice a week and then go home and do the evening stuff. I do stay online and track things but Im much better than I used to be at turning off and not doing stuff all night, just unwinding and relaxing.

You run the Power Mums series on Management Today, where you interview high powered women who are also mothers. You fit into this category yourself, but has anything youve heard in the course of these interviews really surprised you about how other women manage their demanding lives?

There are a couple of things that I find very interesting.

One is that these are mostly women who spend fifteen years or more years being trained and growing up in a corporate environment. When they get pregnant they retreat into a residential area theyve never really spent a lot of time in except for at the weekends, where they dont have a social network because their social network is very much around work and colleagues in the centre of town. Theyre pulled out of that environment and suddenly theyre in this place where they dont know the neighbours, dont know what time the postman comes, probably dont know which day the rubbish goes, dont know the bloke at the corner shop. Theyre there with a small baby that they have no idea how to cope with because theyve never done anything in their life so far that would equip them to deal with this baby. I think thats a really bonkers thing that we do to people! Its really stressful; Im not surprised people get depressed. Its an extraordinary idea. And then you have to build this whole new social network in that environment.

Consequently one of the problems that Power Mums have is that many of them go back to work very quickly. Its not socially acceptable now to go back to work after four weeks like some senior mums used to do, so what they do is secretly work throughout their whole maternity leave. Theyll be on calls, theyll be on email and theyll be quite involved with the office and they will completely fail to turn up to baby swimming, baby yoga, baby Pilates, baby music-making and all the other things. And the only serious purpose of those things, in my view, is that you build your social network. Then, when your child is four and the school calls up and says theyre sick and they need to go home now and youre trapped in a board meeting, youve got a whole list of people that you can phone and say help. But if you havent invested that time early on and you dont have a permanent nanny looking after other children or something else, then youre in a really difficult position. So the advice that I give to women with careers if theyre going to have babies is: dont neglect that local network because youre going to need it later. This network lives for the next 10, 15, 20 years in your community, and if you dont have it, its really isolating.

The other observation is that women go through their careers in their twenties/early thirties – whenever they have a baby – and they assume that if they flourish in a career environment, that theyre a career person. Someone said it to me when I had my first baby: it will change your perspective. At the time I thought it was a really patronising thing to say but I was completely wrong. Because it does change your perspective; the happiest women are the women who are honest about whether its changed their perspective or not.

Some women have the baby, go back to work full time, are completely comfortable and happy with that and thats brilliant. And then lots of women find it difficult to recognise that actually, their priorities have changed. So what I see is that the happiest women are the ones who are most able to be honest about who they are at that point in time, and how much time theyre willing to spend at work versus being at home – to keep an eye on that and keep adjusting it.

The other key factor in my observation around happiness is the ability to control your own schedule. So if you are in a really corporate environment where you cant go in at 10am because theres a parent/teacher coffee thing that you just want to drop into, or you really cant get out for particular events, that can feel very constraining and get very frustrating.

I think the kind of relationship that you have with your partner or husband is also critical. And there are two models that Ive observed that I call the alpha/alpha or the alpha/beta model: you can have alpha/alpha where youve got Power Mum and Power Dad and the benefit of that is youve got resources, so you can have a support team of nannies and cleaners and that can work well. The parents can really understand each others worlds – they relate to the fact that theyre busy and they can compromise what they have to. But they can seem to orbit somewhat remotely if theyre not careful.

The other model is the alpha/beta, where youve got a dad who takes a lower key role, is at home or maybe runs their own business, and that can work really well because it gives you more flexibility. I think where it can get difficult – and people say this more off the record than on the record – is if it turns into a sort of reversed Victorian marriage model where the mum goes hang on, I earn all the money and I never see my kids, while you dont earn the money and you see our kids all the time. If theres a jealousy that develops there I think that can be really challenging.

Do you think that the introduction of shared parental leave will change some of those dynamics and youll ever find yourself doing a dedicated Power Dads column?

Ive done Power Dads before. The problem with Power Dads is that theyre really boring! They have absolutely no guilt, because theres no societal pressure on them to be at home, and they have no hostile judgement.

The mums, however, have people at work who roll their eyes because they think theyre a bit part time because theyre trying to get out the door at 5 or 6 oclock. But then they go to the school gates and they dont know everyone because theyre not always there, or theyre at the school play and they dont know everyone. So then they feel socially excluded, and social exclusion is as painful as physical pain; the physical pain of feeling slightly outsider at the office and slightly outsider at the school gate is really profound.

And its that, I think, that is the challenge of modern corporate motherhood. Because everyone says we want more women CEOs and more women in boardrooms, but you write a Power Mum interview and it gets posted on Facebook and somebody will write underneath it: she might be powerful but shes no mother. And that is piercing, really horrid. As a society we have to be honest about what were asking senior women to do when they have children and whether were comfortable with the idea that there will be mothers who never get home to have dinner with their kids in the week. Is that OK? Or are we judging that person? Because at the moment, its really hard for people to feel good about this stuff.

Youve written about Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo boss who plans to take a very short maternity leave. You thought that shes in a no-win situation as regards her balancing her responsibilities. Do you think this is a common thing among working women, even those with less stratospheric careers than Ms Mayer?

I think you need to be really tough and determined and do a really big job, especially when you have kids. You need to feel within you that you think its the right thing – I notice its often those people who have got working mothers themselves as a model and confidently feel Im at ease with this and its fine. For those people who dont have such an innate, strong sense that this is the right thing to do it can be extremely painful and stressful.

In that article you also talked about your experience of having children and how it offered an escape from work and a chance to take stock. You also said it felt like a period where you have no idea what youre doing. Have you ever felt like that in your working life, or suffered from so-called imposter syndrome?

Oh yes, every day!

Even now?

Definitely now, more than ever. For example, I still struggle to describe myself as a journalist; I feel like its fraudulent which my editor finds funny.

You publish this great digital magazine called the Revolutionary Times and your colleague and co-founder George Pitcher has said that theres no conflict of interest in doing both journalism and PR. Do you feel the same way?

I do interviews and I comment on things in International Business Times that are in the news, but no, I dont see a conflict and if I did think there was a conflict that I wouldnt write it.

Youve also got your family friendly holiday villas company, Villas4Kids. Did you always have the entrepreneurial spirit?

Thats more my husbands – he runs it, thats his business. It happened by accident entirely; long before I met him he bought these houses in Cyprus and just ran them as rentals, and then when we had our first child we just realised how much clobber – unbelievable volumes of stuff – you have to take on holiday with a small child. Then we just thought well, why dont we make over our houses? The bookings went through the roof, the interest was huge and then we just started asking our neighbours and people we knew if they wanted to do the same and it really evolved from there. I dont know if thats entrepreneurial spirit or not.

Finally, what would you change, either legally or socially, to make life easier for working mums and indeed dads?

Theres only one thing for me: our obsession with hours. And I have to say that the legal profession is one of the worst offenders, because the most challenging roles I see in Power Mum interviews are jobs that measure hours. So management consultancies, accountants, law firms are incredibly difficult and I am hugely frustrated by the fact that weve been talking about the nonsense of these working hours for decades. All the research shows this: that theyre not productive, they make us unhappy, they make us stressed, theyre not good for the economy…and yet nobody does anything about it. I still interview women who work 60, 70 hours a week.

I interviewed a woman who said that her daughter was going on about finding her true love. She said I wonder where she got that idea from, and I thought, shes never watched Frozen with her kids. Shes got girls the same age as mine, and if shes never watched Frozen. Its quite a big part of what girls seem to think and talk about.

To be fair, if some of my neighbours who are at home with their kids heard this, they would laugh uproariously at the idea that Im completely engaged with my children because obviously Im here a lot. But the comparison between the flexibility I have and someone who works 60, 70 hours a week in a corporate office is, I think, monumental.

So I would encourage all employers to change hours and I would encourage everyone whos having a baby to think really hard about how theyre going to manage their time and not just accept the system that they go back into, but to try and make it work for them. Because otherwise its very easy to become disconnected from things that are going on in your home life and with your children. Its an absolute tragedy of our society that women – and men – who want to be involved with their kids, who are interested in them, who want to play a part in their lives every day, but also have a career, are somehow being forced into binary positions. Its crazy.

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