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Interview with Christine Armstrong, co-founder of Jericho Chambers

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? 

I’m Christine Armstrong, I’m co-founder of Jericho Chambers, I’m 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 didn’t 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 don’t think I would have known what thought leadership was or had a view on it. I didn’t set out with any clear goal at all. My career has evolved in response to throwing myself into jobs and following what’s interested me. I’ve been guided by the opportunities and the things that have caught my energy and I’ve pursued those things. 

I’ve 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. It’s structured like a barrister’s 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 it’s evolved in a really good way: it’s 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 world’s changed and that the old ways of dealing with lots of things don’t work anymore. We had a meeting yesterday with an organisation that was saying that they’d 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 aren’t sure how to respond. They’ve don’t 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 don’t know if that’s disruptive; I prefer to think that it’s progressive.

Your consultancy positions itself as taking an ethical approach to communications and public affairs. It takes a lot of guts to say: we’re going to do things differently; we’re 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 don’t want to work on that” or “I don’t think that’s the right thing” or “If you’re looking for that then we’re really not the right organisation to help you with it”. I think that’s 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 they’re 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 “we’re not going to help you because you’ve done something wrong in the past or because we don’t like how you’ve behaved” if you genuinely think they want to do things better. That’s the question that you have to try to ask yourself when you’re 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, we’re not sure we’ve got the power to change it”, so we said “if you’re not able to address the problem then we can’t 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 they’re offering something that’s positive to society and to their community.

It’s about accepting that traditional power structures have broken down, that top down management and top down communication don’t work and that world is messy and complicated. So it’s how the brand engages with the world, what it considers its community to be and how it engages with those people.

You’ve 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…

That’s a very Dickensian name.

Such a great name isn’t 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 wasn’t 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 you’re really interested in as children are the things that you should probably pursue. I didn’t have a plan, and if I look back on it now, with the benefit of more confidence I think I’d 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 that’s 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 that’s out there, it’s brilliant, I wouldn’t 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. That’s my happy space.

What’s your most hated bit of business jargon or marketing speak?

It’s 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 don’t 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…That’s 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. That’s one of my particular bugbears.

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

I’m alright with those – I probably use them! One of the things that drives me mad is when people say “I think we’re 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 haven’t thought about it or we don’t want to think about it. So when people say “we’re overthinking this”, I really look for it and think “what are we trying to ignore, what is it that we don’t want to address here?” I read it as code for the something we don’t want to look at.

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

“We’re going to action this”. The thing is I’ve been in this so long, I think I don’t notice it, which is really shameful isn’t it? I can’t 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.

I’m 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 they’re clever.

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

People always tell me there isn’t when I do ‘Power Mums’ interviews so I suppose I can’t 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. There’s 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 doesn’t always work. And then I come into Jericho – I often work from home on Fridays – and do all the things you’d expect: meetings, call, seeing the team, seeing clients, writing, presenting. And when I can, which isn’t as often as I’d like to but I definitely do it on Fridays – I try to do school pick-up. My older daughter’s school finishes at either at 4 or at 5 depending on whether she’s 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 I’m 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 you’ve 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 they’ve never really spent a lot of time in except for at the weekends, where they don’t have a social network because their social network is very much around work and colleagues in the centre of town. They’re pulled out of that environment and suddenly they’re in this place where they don’t know the neighbours, don’t know what time the postman comes, probably don’t know which day the rubbish goes, don’t know the bloke at the corner shop. They’re there with a small baby that they have no idea how to cope with because they’ve never done anything in their life so far that would equip them to deal with this baby. I think that’s a really bonkers thing that we do to people! It’s really stressful; I’m not surprised people get depressed. It’s 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. It’s 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. They’ll be on calls, they’ll be on email and they’ll 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 they’re sick and they need to go home now and you’re trapped in a board meeting, you’ve got a whole list of people that you can phone and say “help”. But if you haven’t invested that time early on and you don’t have a permanent nanny looking after other children or something else, then you’re in a really difficult position. So the advice that I give to women with careers if they’re going to have babies is: don’t neglect that local network because you’re going to need it later. This network lives for the next 10, 15, 20 years in your community, and if you don’t have it, it’s 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 they’re 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 it’s changed their perspective or not.

Some women have the baby, go back to work full time, are completely comfortable and happy with that and that’s 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 they’re 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 can’t go in at 10am because there’s a parent/teacher coffee thing that you just want to drop into, or you really can’t 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 I’ve observed that I call the alpha/alpha or the alpha/beta model: you can have alpha/alpha where you’ve got Power Mum and Power Dad and the benefit of that is you’ve got resources, so you can have a support team of nannies and cleaners and that can work well. The parents can really understand each other’s worlds – they relate to the fact that they’re busy and they can compromise what they have to. But they can seem to orbit somewhat remotely if they’re not careful.

The other model is the alpha/beta, where you’ve 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 don’t earn the money and you see our kids all the time”. If there’s 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 you’ll ever find yourself doing a dedicated ‘Power Dads’ column?

I’ve done Power Dads before. The problem with Power Dads is that they’re really boring! They have absolutely no guilt, because there’s 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 they’re “a bit part time” because they’re trying to get out the door at 5 or 6 o’clock. But then they go to the school gates and they don’t know everyone because they’re not always there, or they’re at the school play and they don’t 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 it’s 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 she’s no mother”. And that is piercing, really horrid. As a society we have to be honest about what we’re asking senior women to do when they have children and whether we’re 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, it’s really hard for people to feel good about this stuff.

You’ve written about Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo boss who plans to take a very short maternity leave. You thought that she’s 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 it’s the right thing – I notice it’s often those people who have got working mothers themselves as a model and confidently feel “I’m at ease with this and it’s fine”. For those people who don’t 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 you’re 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 it’s 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 there’s 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 don’t see a conflict and if I did think there was a conflict that I wouldn’t write it.

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

That’s more my husband’s – he runs it, that’s 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 don’t 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 don’t know if that’s ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ or not.

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

There’s 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 we’ve been talking about the nonsense of these working hours for decades. All the research shows this: that they’re not productive, they make us unhappy, they make us stressed, they’re 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, “she’s never watched Frozen with her kids. She’s got girls the same age as mine, and if she’s never watched Frozen…”. It’s 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 I’m completely engaged with my children because obviously I’m 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 who’s having a baby to think really hard about how they’re 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 it’s very easy to become disconnected from things that are going on in your home life and with your children. It’s 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. It’s crazy.

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