Q & A with Michelle Carson-Williams, CEO of Holmes Noble

Michelle is the CEO and Founder of Consulting firm, Holmes Noble.  We discussed how her inspirations shaped her work ethic and how, during a stressful time in her life, she did not get the high grades at school she hoped for, but this may have been the making of her…

Who are your inspirations?

I am very lucky to have several inspirations, all of them related to my upbringing, and all of them teaching me the value of hard work and humanity.

Holmes Noble is named after my grandfather who was a big influence during my formative years.  He was a Northern Irish immigrant who moved to England at 24 years of age.  He was taken in by the Salvation Army as he initially could not find anywhere to live.  He struggled due to prejudice against Irish people at the time.  He found himself a job, met my grandma and, after a long courtship before and during World War 2, they married and together they brought up 7 children and then became great supports to the numerous grandchildren who followed – including me!

My mother was a divorced single parent who held down a full-time job, retrained as a teacher when I was aged 5, did a degree in politics and government while teaching full time and later went on to complete her M Ed – and raised me with high expectations and plenty of love! Everything she did, she did for me and when I could provide for myself, she continued to develop her career – holding several senior posts in education.

Another important role-model for me was a close friend of my mother.  She took over sole responsibility for the construction company that her ex-husband had almost destroyed.  She was a mother of 6 by then and still single handedly turned the company’s fortunes around.  It remains a successful and well-known company to this day.

Hard work became my norm, through seeing my mother and her close friend working long hours and through their commitment to providing the best possible life for their children.

What qualifications helped you to get where you are?

My family are all academically gifted, but I did not enjoy school and did not achieve the grades I was capable of at my first attempt.  This gave me a burning desire to be just as successful but in a different way.  I had early work experience for a local radio station and I also went back to college at age 17 to successfully improve my examination grades.  I am a huge advocate of lifelong learning.

I am constantly working on my professional and personal development.  I truly believe in the power of education but more than anything, I understand that education is not restricted to the classroom.  I went on to achieve my Higher Business qualifications with flying colours, but the core part of my educational journey has been through learning in the workplace – which is why I am passionate about supporting alternative educational routes for young people.

Qualifications are important but they do not prove your experience and expertise.  The most important skills you need to develop for the workplace are confidence, emotional intelligence and resilience.  I am not sure that these can be taught in the traditional way.  Really, when it comes to these core skills, nothing beats experience!

Why did you choose the industry that you are in?

I remember seeing the advertisement and it caught my eye.  I had just been made redundant, I was job hunting and it sounded interesting.  I had no experience in recruitment so hiring me was a risk, but it turned out well in the end!  When I found out what the job entailed, it was a great fit for me.  The rest is history!

What barriers have you faced in your career?

Age.  When I first worked in recruitment, I was young and I was working in engineering and technical recruitment for the automotive, aerospace, construction and rail sectors.  How could a 20-year old possibly support them with their hiring needs?!  I got to know people over the telephone and built a rapport – people could not see how old I was!  Wherever possible I did everything I could over the telephone and only when I had made a successful appointment would I arrange to meet them.

I was fortunate to receive some invaluable early training about body language, setting an agenda and interviewing skills.  I had to be on my ‘A game’ as I was being judged by my gender and age.  Once in a meeting and I was in full-flow, I could see the prejudice disappear and I quickly gained credibility with clients and candidates.  I was good at my job and I knew the sectors that I operated in.

As a female I had to work harder to be taken seriously.  You can be initially underestimated until you show how good you are.  I still feel this at times, even now (albeit not as frequently anymore!) I never allow it to change how I interact, and it does not affect my confidence.

What motivated you to keep going?

I needed to keep a roof over my head.  I left home at age 18 and I needed to pay the bills!  I was on a one-woman mission to prove that success could be found through various avenues and I always wanted to be the best I can be.

If you could change one thing about the working world what would it be?

Never be too busy to spot when someone needs your help.  Not as a boss or colleague, but as a human being.  Never look down on others when you are on the way up, because you never know what is going to happen.  Be very human.  For example, we are people first, job titles second.  We have a responsibility to help others to develop and grow and this can be forgotten.

I would also change the culture of unpaid internships.  I really believe that we have a social responsibility as business leaders to allow our employees to thrive.  We cannot say we are doing that if we are not paying them.  Interns bring fresh insight into our business.  They work hard and should be rewarded fairly.  We cannot remove barriers to access in corporate spaces and truly say we care about diversity and inclusion, if we are not proactive in the way we run our business.

How do you ensure that you are an inspiring leader?

Believe in your team, spend time getting to know them as a person and put your trust in them. Small acknowledgements as often as you can.  Do not ask of others what you would be unwilling to do yourself.  Show not tell, if you are putting someone out of their comfort zone, lead the way.  Show that you can do it too. Help foster the professional growth and development of employees, take time to mentor and / or guide development and growth.

I believe that inspiring employees to continually perform requires a leader who sees beyond the obvious in people.  Inspiration comes not from something that you turn on and off, but rather from constant behaviour.

What three tips would you give to young females starting their careers?

I have four!!!!

  • Do not try too hard to impress, let your work do the talking.

  • Make real connections, where you are really interested in what others are doing.

  • If you are doing something you are not enjoying, do something else.  Life is too short.

  • Do not get pulled into negativity – such as gossip or cliques.  It is not healthy, and it will hold you back.

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