Image Ability | Blog: Long-lasting Royal lessons
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Building a company in the non-existent knowledge economy of Eastern Europe in the early ‘90s was a raw and challenging experience!

Ever the explorer, I sat and wrote an application to the UK’s most illustrious university (apologies to the ‘other place’), and when I was accepted, reality kicked in. What on earth was I thinking? Why was I leaving my new and very fragile creation to take time out for study? I had already worked so hard to secure the livelihood for a few families who depended on what we had just started, and here I was, about to desert them. So, with some trepidation, I allowed myself to get on that flight – leaving my ‘professional babies’ behind.

I arrived in Cambridge for a year of unexpected experiences . . from which, even now, I continue to learn. With a young family in tow, little did I know how my energy was going to be multiplied. I still have no idea how I did it – apart from having the unconditional support of my family. And an incredibly supportive Clare Hall.

It was intense, mind-blowing and exciting.

The Judge Business School had only just been established and was growing with us: we were the unreasonable and curious, the risk takers, including very few women. The Judge was as exotic within the Cambridge ecosystem (‘business’ had only been deemed acceptable within the local academic ethos) as we felt like pioneers and all finding our way together. And in truth, my business challenges were a world apart from the mostly recipe-driven management consultancy projects which we discussed in class.

Little did I know how meeting new people and, indeed, the overall experience was going to give me that extra strength to follow my conviction to build something that was both innovative and useful . . . and against the odds. 

One day I was invited to a reception at a neighbouring College. The then Prince of Wales was there. It was my first experience of a royal: it was that type of conversation you have with people who take a genuine human interest in what you are doing. Suffice it to say that when I told him that I had set up a new business in Transylvania, his curiosity went up a notch. So I did what I always do when people show an interest – I invited him to visit: “Your Royal Highness come and visit us – I think you’ll love it’.

All too soon, my year of learning was over: dissertation done; family packed; back on the flight home, leaving new-found colleagues from 16 countries mostly finding their way into the highest prized management consultancies. On the other hand, I was keen to follow my entrepreneurial journey in a domain (both human and economic geography and Transylvania) that I was passionate about.

Time passed, and out of the blue, two years later, I had a letter from St James’ Palace saying that HRH would like to visit in response to my invitation from the time when I was a student. My surprise was beyond being total! I asked myself out loud, “Why is he coming”? So, in my mind, I played back that conversation, and I rationalised it all before telling anybody. He had connected to my ‘why’ – that I am here (in Cambridge) to learn and get extra strength while doing something innovative and useful to improve other people’s lives.

With help from equally interested and interesting people, we made that visit a big success – especially for my small and mighty team and for curious neighbours and children – who were excited that there was a prince in our car park.

So, with the benefit of hindsight of my royal experience, I will summarise a few insights for the ambitious people with whom I regularly meet at Image Ability: 

  • Purpose is everything. Communicating yours like a normal being is key, and people get it. Success has little to do with your CV, having a silver spoon, or lobbyists on your payroll.
  • Always look for common ground with whoever you are interacting. We shared a passion for young people’s future – and a subtle connection to orthodoxy.
  • Let your personality shine uncomplicatedly. It was a November day, but each and every person’s personality was shining through; this is what made it so memorable.

From one beret to another.

  • The natural world is on your side if you respect it. The trees in the car park were originally planted by my father. He would have been so proud to see the beautiful frame and canopy they provided for the curious and intrigued 20+ British journalists who could only interview me outside.

The British press.

  • Talk science in moderation. You can always follow up with experts. Enough said. There is an expert for everything. Here, they (my experts) found themselves talking about rhumb lines with an ex-Navy man.

Repartee with a colleague.

The cogniscentii will reconise a VAX terminal: reputedly, we had the largest VAX-VMS installation in Eastern Europe – and the most computerised bathroom too (because of lack of space, we had a work-station perched on the bath!).

  • Humour says much about confidence, grace and cultural wisdom. It turned out that nobody lost any marbles on the day and thereafter!

Presentation of a marble embossed with our company name and a map of the world.

  • Respect for tradition is a glue for human beings and cultures. Incredibly beautiful restorations and old traditions have gained new momentum ever since that early visit to our city of Sibiu, brimming with history.
  • Being aspirational and modernising is normal. Encouraging more people to follow their dreams is achievable, and age is irrelevant. Whether a young mum going back to work after having her first child or a senior executive re-inventing in later life, they all have leadership potential. Sometimes they need a prompt, tough love or a celebration to get them to make a change which impacts others.

Our then team, post-visit in the car park under my father’s trees.

  • Spurs for courage come from like-minded people identifying problems and turning them into opportunities and solutions. Dressing up gives courage too! Ask anybody on the stage yesterday (7 May) and tell the new graduate how to wear royal blue when presenting her thesis with elegance and poise in a few days.
  • Feminine empowerment and leadership are not peculiar but normal ways of life. The experience was a humbling and gracious acknowledgement of how much the world needs soft power.

The Coronation of HM King Charles III has, undoubtedly, brought reflections and memories for many people who have experienced conversations with royals. Watching Penny Mordaunt most graciously holding a sword epitomised my personal concoction of emotions – and the lessons not only for ourselves but for those who need guidance in their own journey(s): soft power, focus, tradition, grace, consistency, staying power, grit, skill and shine.

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