By Paul Gentle
Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations
Over the last eight years Louise has crafted a career in marketing and communications within higher education. Louise thrives on working with people to bring alive the stories that show the wider world who they are and why what they do matters.
She co-founded Invisible Grail in 2017, as Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations. Described by her colleagues as an inspirational leader, Louise has challenged and encouraged her business to sharpen its focus on social purpose and on its contribution to sustainability.
What drives a growing leader’s search for what makes people tick? How do we know that we’re making a difference in our work?
Paul Gentle talks to Louise Clifton and discovers what motivates her in her quest to enable higher education to build a better world. At the heart of this conversation he finds a courageous leader who’s deeply committed to the long run; to reaching people through emotional truth – and enjoying every step of the journey.
Paul What led you to become a Director of Marketing and Communications at Invisible Grail?
I have a belief that you should always try something once.”
Louise I have a belief that you should always try something once. It comes down to taking an opportunity when it comes up. My life is a blend of taking opportunities when they’ve been offered, and serendipity. So I found myself working in marketing because an opportunity came up at my previous organisation, the Leadership Foundation.
One of the things about people working in marketing and communications is curiosity… to find out what people think and how they feel about something. You have a responsibility to design something and respond to that and test out if it works or not. There can be such a sense of experimentation. You can be so entrepreneurial and have so much fun with it!
It was quite daunting to take up a role that had Director in the title, but it was an opportunity to shape something that hadn’t even been created yet. I find job labels quite daunting sometimes, because they come with a set of implications: ‘A Director does this…’.
It was an incredibly rare opportunity to build something from scratch. To create a brand that helps people feel fulfilled is something really wonderful to be able to do – and an opportunity to be thankful for.
Paul What have been the biggest surprises in how people have responded to the brand you’ve built?
Just be brave enough to ask the questions that matter.”
Louise One of the biggest challenges is you can send a lot out there into the ether and have no idea what people think of it. You have to hold your nerve and feel confident. And you can cut the data how you want, but at the end of the day it doesn’t tell you about how people feel. One of the most rewarding things is that we connect through personal contact and growing relationships because we genuinely care what happens. In other organisations where I’ve worked that hasn’t been possible.
We’re small enough, nimble enough to reach people one to one and that’s been the most rewarding and surprising part of this journey. That really pays dividends in building the confidence that what we’re saying and doing really does work.
The surprises have been when we’ve done focus groups. We’ve learnt really wonderful things that we would never have had the opportunity to hear had we not asked the question. If you don’t ask the question, you’ll never know the answer. Just be brave enough to ask the questions that matter.
A ‘golden egg’ for marketers is referral and knowing people are talking about you positively without you being there. That’s become really true for us this year – people have spoken about us to others in an incredibly positive way and supported us generously with their time. Just hearing that puts all the doubt aside.
Paul That shows that you’ve created a brand that’s a living example of what the company has set out to do. The website is the most visible manifestation; what have you been able to tap into in you that makes it what it is?
Louise Something that’s core to how the company works is the idea of adapting and refreshing. Never standing still. The website is constantly on my mind as something to change. As soon as you’ve completed a task, it’s almost out of date before you’ve moved onto the next one.
I think the pursuit of perfection – constantly wanting it to be new, bigger, better, bolder, cleaner – it drives me constantly. I look at it every week and I think ‘We’ve got to change this!’
I’m a pretty picky person. My family will tell you I’m very particular about what I like. I have a very specific sense of what I think is aesthetically pleasing. We started with a certain look and feel and since then it’s been a constant process of refining that. Nothing I do can just rely on me – every part of the website, and a huge part of what I do, is a product not only of my imagination and choice, but is always tested out with other people.
Finding something that works for as many people as possible and is true to the spirit of Invisible Grail and everything we do. That translates through to the images we use, and how we work on a day to day basis.
Paul What interests you most about the field of developing leadership and organisations in higher education?
Louise It goes back to the curiosity about the way people work. That’s a fundamental thing that drives me. Organisational development can be so creative. It doesn’t have to be about checking off on a list for a personal development review. It’s an opportunity to play around the fringes of what you do day to day.
The narrative challenge is about finding the best of what you do and articulating it. What Invisible Grail does, the idea of using narrative to unlock a deeper understanding of the motivation behind what individuals and teams do.
It’s about putting purpose front and centre; and shouting that out to the rest of the world, as well as keeping true to it for the people who live and breathe it around you.
Paul How does that resonate with your own life story and narrative?
Louise I’ve done a series of jobs throughout my life that have been a bit stop and start. Invisible Grail is the one that stuck.
You have to understand what drives you, what’s meaningful to you in order to do the best that you can.”
A part of that has been finding jobs that fit whatever my particular passion or lifestyle requirements were at the time, and not really articulating that, so not getting fulfilment from jobs because I never really understood the purpose of them. You have to understand what drives you, what’s meaningful to you in order to do the best that you can.
I hope I’ve played a part in articulating that to our clients and communities.
Paul What does this say about the future direction of marketing and customer relationships?
Louise Everything’s going to be hyper-personalised. Data is king and every company’s going to be clamouring to get to know everyone better. The ones that do most successfully will not only be meeting a genuine need, but also do it in a respectful way that has a lot of integrity about it. At the moment we’re in the ‘growing pain’ phase of personalisation because every company wants to prove how much they know and adore their audiences. Younger generations in particular are going to catch on pretty quickly to how hollow that is when there’s nothing really behind it.
Whereas the companies that look beyond data will be the companies that prove to be the ones that are most successful.
Paul Writing is so central to who you are and what you do. As a thought leader, your blogs connect with people through a highly personal approach. How have you developed as a writer, and where does your inspiration come from?
The most effective writing comes from something you have personal experience of.”
Louise I don’t think I ever thought about writing much when I was younger. I come from a family that’s relatively academic. We were all expected to go to university, we all went, I did quite well at school. Then I went to university and I had to work harder to be at the same level I was at school.
I was told not to do a dissertation because my writing was so poor, which knocked my confidence in my ability to express my ideas. I use it as a funny anecdote now, or someone who wasn’t doing a a particularly excellent job of supporting a student!
Part of [developing my writing ability] is necessity. I have to be able to communicate to do my job well. I’ve borrowed something from a colleague here, which is about being a bit of a magpie and trying to collect ideas and come up with something inspiring that’s going to connect with people.
My first port of call is to do the research, to start thinking how have other people expressed this idea, and then normally I can come up with a gap and use that space to talk to that point rather than regurgitating what other people have said. Hundreds and thousands of people can write about the same topic, but you want to find the aspect that isn’t talked about, the bit that people don’t think about, even if it’s the tricky bit. That can be really powerful.
Using some of the techniques we use at Invisible Grail: sometimes I’ll use automatic writing, or constraining how many words to fit an idea into. They can be particularly effective; that’s the way into something.
The most effective writing comes from something you have personal experience of. That’s when it’s so much easier to be able to talk to it. I’m sure that’s true for anyone really.
Paul What kind of emotional journey does your writing take you on?
Using emotional memory is an incredibly powerful way into expressing an idea.”
Louise The things that I’ve enjoyed writing have been based on my experience, which is driven by the emotion of that time – whether that’s nostalgia, excitement, or moving from a difficult place into a positive place. Using emotional memory is an incredibly powerful way into expressing an idea, and I know my colleagues will agree with that.
But I think it has to come from a genuine place as well. I don’t think you can manufacture the emotion. I don’t think anyone can sit at a desk and say ‘I’m going to write a joyful email and so I will manufacture joy’. You have to look elsewhere to tap into those emotions, and use that as part of the way in to write something that’s going to impact people in a meaningful way.
Paul What other kinds of leadership do you bring to your role at Invisible Grail, that impact on colleagues in universities?
Louise There are certain aspects of my personality which come to the fore in the way I lead. I’m quite risk averse and I like to think things through. Those can be real strengths, especially when you work with people with complementary skills. That sense of editing and deconstructing something and then putting it back together again helps make some of our endeavours stronger. We value the ability to create space to think things through. Without that it would be difficult to be someone who was a thinker and a leader.
I couldn’t do a role that didn’t meet high moral and ethical standards, and the way that we’ve chosen to run this organisation has been all about trying to do our best for everyone. That’s been really fulfilling! We decided that the people that were really important were our employees, and that spoke volumes. It’s the right thing to do.
Paul You’ve taken Invisible Grail into being focused strongly on sustainability and social responsibility. What’s your dream for the impact you’d like to have made as a leader in 5 years’ time?
I hope they can see in Invisible Grail a way to help achieve the impact that they want, need and are looking for, as well as contributing to the positive impact that we have as well.”
Louise Something that would be really fulfilling for me is to have a sense of camaraderie with our clients and friends in the sector who are really proud to be part of our journey together; proud to be part of something that helps not only bring more joy into their working lives but that it also helps meet very practical, positive outcomes like sponsoring the Refugee Support Network, or our commitments to offsetting our emissions caused by travel. Just a sense that others are proud of us for doing that would be a real achievement for me personally.
In terms of impact, helping others feel there’s a way into changing practices. I think most people are values-led, especially in higher education. They work in the sector because they love teaching or research. They want to contribute something not just to their local community but to humankind.
I hope they can see in Invisible Grail a way to help achieve the impact that they want, need and are looking for, as well as contributing to the positive impact that we have as well.
Paul Why is that important to you?
Louise What else are you going to do on the Earth, really? If you’re not going to have a positive impact on it, what else do you do? I don’t see the point in doing a job if it’s not contributing something; it’s important for me to be helpful and proactive, and to make a difference.
Paul How do you energise and refresh your own practice so that you can lead effectively?
If we can just have a positive impact on one person’s life, that’s job done, really.”
Louise We’re really focused about making sure that imagination and inventiveness are part of everything we do. So even within a working space, there’s a lot of energy and playfulness, and that in itself is very energising!
I’ve always believed in having things in your life separate to work. Running is a huge meditative pursuit for me. It’s an opportunity to prove to myself that I’m capable of something that isn’t just marketing and communications. That’s a huge part of my life.
Hearing about the impact of our work for people is incredibly important. If we can just have a positive impact on one person’s life, that’s job done, really.
On a day to day basis it can be challenging to be always energised. You can’t run a race at a constant speed, you have to pace yourself. Knowing when to step away and do something else, whether it’s doing a Sudoku or calling a friend – those are part and parcel of the way that I work in order to do the best for Invisible Grail.
Paul Where does your inner strength and resource come from?
Louise I’ve had a lot of fantastic opportunities in my life and I’ve always tried to say yes to them. It enables me to pull on a belief that everything will be okay if you put the effort and time in, and you invest in relationships. Things will always go wrong, but you’ve got the things in place that mean the most.
It’s always upsetting when something happens that you don’t intend to happen, but when you’re working from a space where mistakes can happen and it’s okay…that gives you a huge ability to be more confident in the decisions you make.
Making the effort to reach out to people: I spend a lot of time talking to my friends because they’re my family; my family are my friends. My work colleagues are my friends, so you have to prioritise those relationships, and everything else will fall into place.
Paul You speak a lot about the importance of curiosity. Do you have a sense of what your own individual professional grail is?
Louise That’s a really difficult question! One of the things I’ve learnt is that curiosity is the elixir of life. It means you’re open to being wrong, to hearing other people’s views and listening to them.
What am I curious about? For me personally, I don’t plan ahead terribly, which might be unusual for someone who works in marketing and communications.
I have a vague sense and direction of travel and I know roughly where I want to get to, but I prefer not to put that in stone. So I don’t have a grail as such; I guess I just enjoy the ride.
If anything, it’s a case of enjoying the process, as opposed to trying to get to the end point of whatever I’m curious about, is probably my philosophy.
Paul How do you find working with colleagues from very different generations to your own?
Louise In all honesty, it never really occurred to me. I never saw the difference in terms of grouping people into other generations from myself. Everyone has their own individual quirks and needs. There are quite distinct differences between the experiences that I bring to the organisation, as opposed to what my colleagues bring. That just adds to the richness of it. It lends itself to questions being asked that I would have never thought about. Instead of being in fear of questions I’ve not thought about, trying to embrace them is to the benefit of the organisation, and to me personally.
Paul I’ve got one final question: How do you contribute to the ‘secret alchemy’ of Invisible Grail?
It all began with the importance of having a champion who constantly supports and believes in me. Everyone should have one! And if you don’t, go out and find one!”
Louise As much as I’m very similar in some ways to you – the sort of things we’re interested in and our passions – I think our differences mean the contributions we make are magnified. Perhaps we make different decisions because sometimes I am more reserved, than having that entrepreneurial vision, but also bringing a sense of shared adventure, of wanting it to be a journey and wanting to share that with others. Keeping that notion alive has been really important – especially as this year’s been more difficult, and really believing and trusting others – knowing that it will be fine.
One of the things that helps keep me going: there’s always more we can do, more we can create and support people with.
It all began with the importance of having a champion who constantly supports and believes in me. Everyone should have one! And if you don’t, go out and find one!
Paul and Louise are friends, colleagues, and along with the wider team, co-founders of Invisible Grail. With thanks to Louise for finally agreeing to an interview, and Paul for persuading her this was a good idea.
Read more from Louise, and discover what Invisible Grail does:
A braver and bolder look at what we do
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