A photo of Amy Higham

Ivy House alumni interview

Amy Higham

Commercial Manager at Marks and Spencer

What did you think of the IH Programme?

It promised to be a life-changing experience and it absolutely lived up to that. It’s had a massive impact on my personal and professional life. It’s made me reflect a lot more on how I can interlink the two.

I think I was nervous at first about the unknown. I’ve never experienced being put into a room with so many talented people from different backgrounds and organisations. I was thinking that I’d have to shine the light on myself a little bit – there’s quite a lot of self-reflection. But it was a safe environment and everyone was really supportive.

How different is it from other courses that you have attended?

It’s totally different. It brings the leadership skills training that’s normally reserved for executive board members, chief execs and financial officers, and gives it to you at an earlier stage in your career. We don’t do that on our internal programmes (at M&S). To have professional coaching from experts who’ve coached senior leaders was very different.

At age 26, I think it would have been so useful to have this experience earlier, particularly the insights around understanding your own personal values. It can prevent a lot of conflict or unnecessary conversations.

What were your main takeaways from the workshops?

The biggest thing for me was around the art of more effective conversations. I’m not sure any organisation covers this in detail. I think when you’re first leading people, you’re just learning through trial and error. I’ve never had any sort of direction in the seven years that I’ve been a line manager on how to have an effective conversation and I had never realised the importance of that until coming on the programme.

My biggest challenge was not wanting to tackle difficult conversations. It’s nerve-racking but I felt so much more equipped to go in and hold my opinions lightly and talking about facts.

How has the experience affected your relationships with your team/department?

I have been much more open with my team, about what I’ve learnt, for example, giving and receiving feedback. I think that has broken down barriers within the team and encouraged everyone to be more open. It definitely feels much nicer walking into the office in the morning or onto the shop floor.

In such a big organisation with 85,000 employees, we’ve only sent about fifteen (emerging leaders) on the Ivy House programme. We’re not going to touch everybody but if everyone I come into contact with can benefit from something that I’ve taken away, that’s great.

I’m keen that the people that signed me up for the programme know that it is going to add value as I passionately want us to do something bigger with the kind of stuff that Elke and the team are teaching.

How have you used the core principles in your personal life?

During one workshop, Elke asked the question, ‘who likes to be right?’ Most people put their hand up. I think that’s something I was guilty of, not holding my own opinion lightly, whether it was a personal or professional conversation.

I just feel like we’ve got a totally different relationship now, for example, with my dad. It is just nicer and more comfortable to have a conversation with each other. I’ve explored more about him and understand now why he might be how he is and to accept him for who he is. I just need to adapt how I approach it. You can only change yourself.

If there was one thing that the course has helped you with, what is it?

Effective conversations are definitely a big thing for me.

But we also covered purpose which helped me and my team when I was back at M&S: ‘Why are we here? What is our purpose?’ and ‘Are we always working towards that purpose?’. So it has been particularly instructive with meetings:  ‘Why are we having them? What is the purpose? What’s the output of them?’.  

In every organisation there are so many unnecessary meetings. I think it has helped me and my team to weed out any ineffectiveness. We’re still working on it, but we question the purpose a lot more.

How would you describe yourself as a leader before the course? And then afterwards?

I would have said I was supportive, straight-talking, inclusive and directive. My leadership style was hierarchical, but I think Ivy House has helped me to reflect more, be more open and vulnerable, share more of me as a person, which has allowed the team to trust me more.

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