Here at Suit & Pie, we love highlighting ‘everyday heroes’ – the women and men who accomplish so much but are so humble and grounded that they often slip under the radar. Fiona Thompson is one of those heroes and we had the pleasure of interviewing her.
Fiona is an entrepreneur with a particular interest in social impact businesses and the strategy of turnaround. Her career has spanned banking with JPMorgan, the Civil Service as a crime policy advisor within the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, strategy consulting with McKinsey & Company and corporate social responsibility for Rio Tinto. She is currently spending most of her time leading turnaround projects and recently started a specialty coffee shop, Love & Scandal in Waterloo (winner of Time Out’s most-loved café and serving our favourite oatmeal lattes!). Her interests include coffee, motorbike riding and travelling.
Tell us a bit about your various lives / careers and achievements.
My favourite ever boss very kindly referred to my working life as a ‘portfolio career’. I hadn’t heard the term before he used it, but it summarised it perfectly. I’ve worked in management consulting, the civil service, banking, social enterprise and as an entrepreneur. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in the UK, Russia, China, Australia and Kenya among other countries, so I’ve had a mix of both industries and cultural models. I’ve loved each job, and mostly loved each country!
Your experience has been so varied. How do you get to grips with running a coffee shop and doing your day job and being great at both?
Thanks for the vote of confidence about being great at both! The reality is that balancing two quite diverse careers means that it is true some days, and not others. Being ok with that imperfection is key to being able to juggle the demands of both on an ongoing basis. Both streams of work involve risk and requiring perfection at everything everyday would mean nothing happened. I’ll happily take imperfect action over inaction any day of the week.
The key to ensuring that Love & Scandal is successful is a great team, sound processes and alignment on what we are aspiring to create. For my consulting work I rely on discipline in choosing what I decide to make happen myself and what I delegate to my team. I rely heavily on strategic analytical tools to make decisions on where to put my effort – otherwise it can be too easy to end up chasing housefires and being very reactive. The commonality between both is that I rely on experiment-assess-adjust cycles to ensure we can overcome whatever issues we face.
How do you pick your projects? What about them keeps you motivated and committed?
I tend to pick projects by what elements of challenge they offer. My most satisfying professional experiences have always been those where I’ve had to learn how to do something new without a roadmap. It means I need to be willing to accept roles and projects that almost always look unmanageable when I start and are often in new industries. It doesn’t leave any leeway for easing into a new role, but I love the rush of needing to find a way to deliver when it isn’t obvious. The learning involved in these projects keeps me motivated – it’s like a life-size puzzle that is absorbing in the most satisfying and fulfilling way.
What do you do to relax and find balance?
One of the things I adore about Love & Scandal is that it gives me an opportunity to indulge in my obsession with coffee. I’m heading to Costa Rica in February to visit coffee farms – I can’t wait. And of course there are always new specialty coffee shops to explore for ‘research’. I’ve been travelling extensively over the last year and I love getting to know how people live across the world. Every time I hit a new city I immediately find out where the best coffee is – it is an amazing way to get to explore a city and people-watch.
Any pieces of advice you would like to share with other ambitious women and men?
I have an avid interest in advice and used to absorb any I could find. I found it really confusing as so much advice from really successful people appeared to be contradictory. Experience has shown me that there are a huge numbers of ways to success and the contradictory elements are just varying routes used by people with different styles. The key for me in sifting through advice has been to work out what my strengths are and then filter advice according to what would help me capitalise on those, and leave aside advice that works well for others but wouldn’t suit me.
All that said, one of the most useful things I’ve ever learnt is that you don’t need to be good at everything. Find your strengths and match your work to them – even narrow excellence will beat an average performance across a breadth of areas. I think it also tends to make for a much more fulfilling professional life.