Could you give us a brief background into your career before starting AdvantageSPRING?
I did a law degree at University but actually spent most of my time involved in running a children’s charity. After graduating, I very nearly started a career in tax before changing my mind at the last minute to start a career in local government. Over 12 years I had a variety of roles in both central and local government, working on issues such as social housing, crime, policing, substance misuse, domestic violence and on the development and implementation of legislation and policy. In the midst of all of this I studied part time to be a Barrister, getting called to the Bar in 2008.
As government started to evolve and engage in more outsourcing to the private sector I began to see that many of my colleagues really didn’t enjoy the process of negotiating and so began my fascination with the topic. After taking a role in commercial development for a well-known charity, I started to consider a change of direction and in 2011 began to work for one of my now competitors, training corporate executives around the world on effective negotiation skills. I chose to move on after identifying a gap in the market for more flexible negotiation training that focused not just on the theory and process but also on the psychology of why people behave the way they do when faced with negotiation. I founded advantageSPRING immediately after leaving, and after a stint as a Commercial Director for a FTSE 100 company running the business part-time, I jumped into running the business full time in 2014. My team and I now train men and women around the world on effective negotiation skills, with a large number of high profile corporate clients on our books from the world of finance, law, manufacturing, tech and retail. I have also worked with the UN. Our aim is to make companies more profitable and individuals more confident and capable at the negotiation table.
Natalie wears The Camelot Dress in navy
What would you say is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?
I am very fortunate that my biggest challenge also proved to be the making of me and my business. After a difference of opinion with my previous employer, about the benefits of exploring unconscious bias and negotiation with clients (specifically in relation to gender), the initial challenge was accepting that the company I had loved was not in fact right for me. I came to the realisation that I needed to leave and do things the way I thought they should be done, as mentioned above. I also had started to believe that in relation to negotiation training there was ‘another way’ (as is often the thought process of the entrepreneur!) The second challenge was overcoming the fear of leaving the security of a regular monthly salary and also the fear of whether or not I would be successful in breaking into what is a fairly established marketplace. I went through countless internal battles about whether leaving and starting on my own would really be the right thing to do. I was then, and I still am now, the main breadwinner and as such felt a huge pressure to not rock the boat and maintain financial stability. I will always be grateful to my wonderful family and particularly my husband, for encouraging me to follow my heart.
Do you have a mentor or role model that helped you during the process of starting your own company?
I am fortunate to have a number of fabulous mentors and role models who have proven invaluable in helping me on this path. One women of huge importance to me has been a woman I met by chance on a training course. After a brief chat and exchanging of business cards, we met for coffee and have been friends ever since. Debra Ward is managing Director of Condecco Software and one of the most brilliant and inspiring people I have ever met. When I was stalling about my decision to start out on my own, Debra was there with advice and guidance that made me feel that I could, and should, just do it. As my company has grown she has provided constructive criticism and challenge as well as a sympathetic ear. I have also benefitted from the advice of a fellow entrepreneur, Graham Allcott, founder of Think Productive. Graham is the husband of one of my best friends and has always been on hand to share experiences and force me to think about the moves I make.
If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be?
That’s easy…’hold your nerve’ – I have a note pinned by my desk saying just that. As every entrepreneur reading this knows, it’s not easy! Establishing a business is exhilarating yet tough and there are plenty of ups and downs to contend with. For me, early issues around cash flow, finding the right team members, establishing the right IT and infrastructure and just the sheer volume of hours required to scale a company were exhausting. I’m not ashamed to say there were times when I thought ‘enough!’ and toyed with the idea of going back to work for someone else. However, my overriding belief that there is a market for our way of doing things, coupled with the excitement I got (and still get) from hearing the difference we make for people in terms of their confidence, success and self-belief, spurs me on. The skill is being able to hold your nerve through the tough periods and focus your energies on how to navigate through to the great periods. However, if you have done your research, believe in your business and continue to invest in yourself, it makes holding your nerve that much easier.
What does an average day in your working life look like?
There is no average day! I generally wake up about 5.30am and read the headlines and anything that’s come in from clients in Asia. I usually get my little boy Leo ready at about 6.30am (persuading him to get dressed is always a challenge!) He and I then make green smoothies for breakfast and I’ll run him to pre-school. After this point, anything goes! I might be based in the office for the day in which case I’ll be catching up on e-mails, developing new workshop content, forward planning with our operations manager, running a webinar, conference calling with the US, writing press articles or on the phone to new and prospective clients. However, the day could also be me running a negotiation workshop for one of our corporate clients at a conference centre or hotel or coaching a senior executive at their head office. I also travel a lot to deliver keynote speeches on negotiation and influencing – this could see me in the City of London or on a plane out to New York, Washington, Singapore or Hong Kong. Ideally I will plan my schedule to collect Leo from nursery and will wind down at the end of the day by catching up on TV (Madam Secretary is a big favourite currently!) or having dinner with my husband Chris.
Natalie wears The Camelot Dress in navy
How do you go about achieving a work/life balance?
I struggle! I’m notorious for trying to do too much and have had to make a conscious commitment this year to getting the balance right. This has involved me buying a bike to cycle to the office, buying a Kindle to encourage me to read more fiction (I am a business book fiend but I think it’s essential to read fiction to help me switch off from the work mindset), booking a number of family holidays at the start of the year so they don’t get ‘lost’ and ensuring I don’t sit working on my laptop every night whilst watching TV. I also benefit from having a wonderful little boy who thinks Mummy’s work is boring…so if he spies me on my e-mails after hours he makes sure I put my phone down and go and play pirates instead!
Tell us about your working wardrobe – what do you wear for the 9-5?
Smart, structured, knee length dresses or pencil skirts are my go-to, normally with a fitted jacket or a cardigan. I love heels but if I’m running a workshop, it’s flats – I’m a big fan of ballet pumps in black and pale pink. My standard colours for clothes are black, navy, grey and beige, though I try and add a bit of colour with scarves or silk blouses. My outfits will often have to bridge day and night so they need to be comfortable and smart without being too formal. I’m a big lover of bags and I’m known for the amount of ‘stuff’ I manage to cart around in them. My current favourites are large black leather bags by Victoria Beckham and Smythson. However, I am experimenting with downsizing and have just got a gorgeous burgundy clutch by Victoria Beckham to encourage me to carry less… I’m still working on it!
What’s next to achieve – what are your goals for 2016?
I have a book on negotiation coming out at the start of March called ‘We Have a Deal: How to negotiate with intelligence, flexibility and power’ and my 2016 goal is to shake up the traditionally very ‘dry and overly academic’ negotiation book market. My book takes a fresh look at what it takes to be a great negotiator and demystifies the process whilst making sense of the psychology around why we behave as we do at the negotiation table. It’s intended to be a book for anyone, from a new graduate to seasoned CEO and shows people how to overcome resistance, manage difficult exchanges, control their fears and emotions, plan effectively and get the deal they need. I would like to see the book make a big splash in 2016 and to see more and more people feel like they can speak up to get what they want. My other goals are to expand the business in Asia, get back to a more regular yoga practice and to get my little boy to Disneyland before he starts school in September!
And finally what’s your favourite piece in the Fold Spring collection?
I love the Camelot dress in Navy, it’s so comfortable and I love the pockets.