CEO By Day, Book Enthusiast By Night. Helen Brocklebank on Creativity, Leadership & Being OK With Being Behind
Layered with insight & humour, we speak to Helen Brocklebank, the CEO of Walpole, the official sector body for British Luxury Brands.
CEO by day, serious book enthusiast by night, Helen Brocklebank is refreshingly authentic. Cemented by the fact that she starts the interview by tucking into a hazelnut brownie and joking that the lockdown is going to make her fat. With her early career days in fashion publishing and her early mornings dedicated to fiction, this CEO is a wealth of luxury knowledge and ruler of her own creativity. She’s warm, charismatic and undeniably bold – the ultimate Hedoine. And so, we dive into the world of Walpole, taking off the pressure and the book we all need to read this year...
Tell us about your career so far?
90% of my career has been in publishing. I grew up in the north of England reading glossy magazines cover to cover and dreaming of big cities and beautiful brands like Chanel. So it made sense that I’d end up working in magazines and I loved my time at Harpers Bazaar. I met so many inspiring women along the way – high flying and entrepreneurial to the core.
How did you move from magazines into the CEO role that you have now at Walpole?
Creating ‘Bazaar at work’ shifted my focus from writing to building communities: meeting so many inspiring, high-flying Harper’s Bazaar readers who were driving forces in their work, whether in creative industries or finance, was the catalyst I needed to leave Harper’s Bazaar and start my own agency, creating content for luxury brands. The experience of running my own small business, coupled with luxury knowledge I’d gleaned from working in glossy magazines, meant that when the role at Walpole came up, it felt like a natural progression. Walpole is a community of 270 of the finest British luxury brands, and its mission is to protect, promote and develop the business of luxury in the UK. It feels like every job I’ve ever had has been an apprenticeship for this one.
During 2020, in what was unprecedented times for you as a CEO, you stood up to the government and spoke out in leading publications on the impact both COVID-19 and Brexit were having on UK luxury. What did you learn about yourself as an outcome?
Everyone will have learned such interesting things about themselves over the last 12 months, not least their ability to just keep on going when times are very challenging and you feel like putting your head under the duvet rather than attacking the day. I learned to take tough decisions quickly, and that I had hitherto untapped reserves of fighting spirit. Above all, I’ve learned constraint is the godmother of creativity and if one path is blocked, you simply need to find another, better path.
As a member of the 'Brands of Tomorrow Class of 2020' we were incredibly inspired to see you take the time to answer questions of younger brands. You made yourself approachable and available - even when you had probably barely slept! Where does your passion for helping others thrive come from and more importantly, how much coffee do you drink?
Ha! I drink insane amounts of coffee, but never after 3pm, so I always have an excellent night’s sleep. I get a huge buzz out of seeing luxury brands succeed; when I meet a founder of a new business who is clever and creative and full of entrepreneurial drive, there’s nothing more nourishing than thinking, what can I do to help? What have I learned that could be useful? Who do I know who might give them a break?
What do you think makes a great leader?
Thinking creatively, in a broad way, is really important. You need to be thinking about the future always and you also need to be a good problem-solver. As a leader, you’ll be at the forefront, but you have to bring everyone with you to make your vision work – have a really clear goal and get your team focused on it as much as you are.
It’s also so important to know you can’t do everything and that’s why you hire an amazing team. Hire people who are brilliant in their field so that they can work their magic where you need them to.
What does authenticity mean to you?
It’s about being sincere in everything you do and doing it with heart. If your heart isn’t in it, people will know. Being authentic builds trust, so I think it’s important to align your values with what you do.
What has been the biggest lesson of your career so far?
Treat your career like a marathon, not a sprint! Women put enormous pressure on themselves to achieve everything by their mid-30’s. A great career, an enviable social life, getting married, starting a family... the list goes on.
Of course, our biological clock dictates timelines for certain things, so pace yourself in the other areas – you don’t have to do it all at once. There are so many great women who didn’t come into their own until they were in their mid 40s – sometimes later. Don’t burn yourself out – if you feel left behind, know that you can catch up again. Treat it like a marathon and make sure you keep some energy in the bank. You don’t have to lead the field all the time, it’s ok (and essential) to take a step back, take time out and do things at your own pace.
What advice would you give someone struggling to forge their path?
Treat every job or side hustle like an apprenticeship for the next job. Nothing is ever a waste of time as everything helps to grow your skill set. Never stop learning!
Many believe that to be successful in your career as a woman means adopting more “masculine” traits. What are your thoughts on this?
Success and power are not exclusively masculine - don’t try to be like a man, or like anyone else. Leadership means bringing yourself and your A-game to the party. That being said, I am absolutely mad about Savile Row tailoring: a beautifully cut suit definitely makes you look and feel like a boss - Kathryn Sargent, the first Master Tailor in the whole world and the first women Head Cutter on Savile Row, makes my suits, I don’t think you’d mistake me for a man, but I do feel super confident in one of her brilliantly tailored, flattering creations.
How do you unwind?
I take a digital detox for a week at least once a year. It really helps me to reset. I also love reading and fiction is actually proven to improve your empathy which is unbelievably important for great leadership. I make a point of reading 30 pages of a classic, beautiful book each morning before doing anything else. It’s a bit like a daily mindfulness practice which helps me to concentrate and definitely stimulates my creativity. Then it’s on to emails!
I’ve found that great leaders also usually have a really rich cultural life. I think it’s so important to go to the theatre, to galleries, to museums and to be inspired. It’s also a reminder that luxury doesn’t operate in a vacuum - it’s part of an incredible creative and cultural ecosystem. Culture makes you use a different part of your brain which helps you to respond to life with all your heart.
Women put enormous pressure on themselves to achieve everything by their mid-30’s. (...) Don’t burn yourself out – if you feel left behind, know that you can catch up again.
What’s your biggest indulgence?
READING! My head is always in a book. I get all of my great ideas from books and love escaping into someone else’s world or imagination. Creativity is a muscle that needs to be flexed and strengthened regularly.
If there's one book we should all read this year, what is it?
Viv Groskop’s ‘Lift as you Climb: Women, Ambition and How to Change the Story’ is just out in paperback and I recommend it to any woman looking for advice about how to get on in the world at the same time as helping others. It’s motivating, practical and joyful and it helps you work out what ambition means to you, and how you can support other women without disadvantaging yourself. It’s an intelligent self-help book for anyone who ever wondered what it means to be successful without being the kind of person you hate (ie. without being an ***hole).
What makes you a Hedoine?
My rock solid commitment to supporting British luxury businesses and my ability to make a cracking cocktail.
You can follow Helen for CEO content and cocktail making on instagram here. Don’t forget to share this article with someone who inspires you and sign up to our newsletter below to have the latest Real Hedoines in your inbox.