Helen Fitness is a leadership success coach and mentor to emerging C-suite women and other executives globally. She helps them to design and create their own style of leadership, not a cookie-cutter, man-shaped style. After 20 years excelling in a corporate career that spanned the globe in the insurance industry, Helen is intent in seeing more women in leadership – confidently themselves and loving it! She left the corporate world to establish her own leadership coaching and consultancy practice based in her heartland, Paris, with international clients (private individuals and corporates.) She inherited a cat called Clafoutis [klah-foo-tee], who runs the joint.
Hey Helen, can you introduce yourself to us?
I’m a Kiwi living in Paris, a leadership success coach working with executive women the world over to help them LOVE leadership – getting them to a place where they feel truly in their power, and confident, bringing more of themselves to their positions, instead of adopting a cookie-cutter man-sized style of leadership. I work with organisations too to help them create a more inclusive and creative work environment.
Can you take us through your journey to where you are now?
I started as a primary/grade school teacher in New Zealand, drifted into the insurance industry in London (I know – a natural progression, right?!) spending 20 years, several international relocations, and numerous positions, climbing to global leadership – DESPITE myself. All this success, despite the fact that I struggled with Impostor Syndrome, and feelings that I didn’t deserve it. Ironically, it wasn’t until I stopped trying so hard and became more myself at work that my career really took off, and I was able to define my own style of leadership – which looked nothing like what was modelled for me.
What is a day in the life of you like?
I love my mornings, in particular. I feel so grateful to be able to ease into my working day with meditation, journaling, exercise, and breakfast before jumping into helping women take charge of their lives – I mean, come on! I have strengthened my spiritual practice since leaving corporate, and it’s something I wish I’d done during 20 years of what was usually a high-stress time in corporate. I would have been a much calmer, kinder, more content soul.
Otherwise, my day is spent coaching clients one-to-one, either in-person or via video, working with corporates to design and deliver facilitated creative workshops that meet business outcomes and change the workplace, recording my podcast, or masterminding with many of my tribe of amazing female entrepreneurs around the world. I’m often traveling, too, whether it’s for corporate work, or to mastermind with other entrepreneurs. It’s the beauty of a career like mine – I can do it from anywhere.
How did you launch your career as a success coach & mentor?
I’m not sure I launched my career as a leadership success coach & mentor so much as I closed my eyes, held my nose and jumped in the deep end…with no life preserver!
The last years of my corporate career were particularly frustrating for me because I felt like I wasn’t able to create the change I wanted. I’m passionate about seeing more women in leadership, and not just in leadership, but LOVING being there! I hadn’t stopped loving my career but I realised I’d be more effective at challenging the status quo of organisations if I worked outside them. I wanted to make an impact, and see organisations change for the better, and I felt the only way I could do that was from the outside in.
As well as that, once I resigned from my corporate job, I lost the right to work in the UK. So when I took the leap, I changed career, and changed my home from London, to come back to live in Paris! Hey if you’re going to change one thing, why not go mad with it, right?!
What other training did you undergo and where did you study?
I have already a degree in education from my days as a school teacher in New Zealand, so human development is not a stranger to me. I studied for a Postgraduate Certificate in Business and Personal Coaching in the UK, granted by the University of Chester, before I exited my corporate career. As soon as I started studying the theory behind what I had essentially already been doing all my working life, I knew this was where I needed to be.
I am continuously up-skilling, and I’m currently doing a course in the field of Applied Neuroscience which is truly fascinating! I have incredible respect and wonder for the human brain.
Can you talk us through your successful 20-year corporate career you served in a male-dominated industry, and what you took away from that experience?
I grew up in a very masculine environment, and my favoured sport, sailing, as I grew up was also male-dominated – in which I either competed directly against men in an all-women sailing crew, or I was one of only perhaps two women, at most, on a male crew. It modelled fierce competitiveness for me. I think that’s what I drew on consciously for my career success because, by rights, my crippling self-doubt should have prevented me from succeeding as I did.
What I wasn’t so conscious about, and yet it is a gift of mine as it is for many women, is how I relate to people. Aside from sheer grit and hard work, it was my ability to relate to even the most senior of executives on a very human level, that helped my career trajectory.
I’ve learned that the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our relationships – and that extends to our careers, too. I saw a post on LinkedIn a while ago from someone declaring that LinkedIn is not about personal relationships. LinkedIn – and business – is ALL about relationships. It’s how you influence, it’s how you sell, it’s how you get a raise, it’s how you get the promotion, the new, sparkly job – it’s everything! And when I speak of relationships, it’s also all about the relationship you have with yourself. If that is suffering from self-doubt, lack of self-worth, etcetera, all your other relationships suffer, too. There is no way you’ll get the promotion, the raise, the new job, if you feel, at some deeply unconscious level, that you don’t deserve it.
How are you supporting executive women like us that are looking to claim our own power, transform our career?
Women usually come to me to prepare themselves for the promotion, the raise, the new job, to be better leaders, and explore leadership styles, for example, but the work we do together is much deeper than that. I’ve mentioned relationships already and the biggest, most important relationship we have is the one with ourselves. So much of the work I do is on helping my clients to challenge the way they see themselves, to define how they want to show up in their lives and careers, to look at themselves in the mirror and see a leader. Once you can redefine and nurture the relationship with self, everything else simply falls into place – other personal relationships, work relationships, the new job, promotion, and so on. That’s where the power comes from standing strong in your shoes, influencing those around you, as the powerhouse you are.
You lost $1.8 million…….. How?!?
Yes, not proud! In fact, it is probably more than that. Ultimately, it came down to my having poor boundaries which showed up in my professional and personal lives. I loaned vast amounts of money to various unreliable men in my life because I didn’t have the strength of self at the time to set boundaries – see? Relationship with self! The gender pay gap contributed to the loss, of course, too. I didn’t have the boundaries to step up and say, “This is unacceptable,” to negotiate a pay rise. Add interest to all of that, you get at least $1.8 million. It’s a cautionary tale, ladies!
Can you give us 3 tips on how we can jump out of our comfort zone and challenge the status quo?
- I would say the most effective way you can get uncomfortable and challenge the status quo is to give fewer f***s! What I mean by that is women spend so much time and energy worrying about judgment from others which turns into fear – of speaking up, of being visible, of rejection, of conflict, of failure, even of success. Letting go of the need to be the Good Girl and being concerned about what others think is a massive step to challenging the status quo for yourself, as well as how you are perceived by others.
- Secondly, I go back to this idea of letting go. When I speak with my clients, frequently they are trying to control things like puppeteers – outcomes, people, emotions – juggling a hundred balls at once. It takes so much time and energy to be so in control, diverting it from where it could be better spent on nurturing quality relationships, for example. Be in charge, but don’t control. Being in charge is confident; being in control is fearful.
- Thirdly, be you! This is radical, and will challenge some people to be honest with themselves, because so many are trying hard to be somebody they are not, to conform to someone else’s ideal of what a leader, woman, wife, partner, mother looks and feels like, that being comfortable and confidently you are challenging the status quo. Being you is what makes the world interesting.
Where can you see yourself within the next 3-5 years?
Honestly? I have no idea, and I am energised by that! I have gone from a place of getting really clear on my goals and striving to achieve them all my life in that hyper-competitive way, to now listening very calmly, and intuitively to what is next for me. I have a clear purpose to see more women in leadership and loving it. I have a vision of how I want to live and work and, most importantly, how I want to feel, and that’s the blueprint I’m working to. It means that making decisions about opportunities when they present themselves is easy because I’m super-clear on my purpose and vision. I’m excited about what the next 3 – 5 years might bring, doubly so because I can’t even predict it. It feels right for me right now to approach my life and career in this way. That’s not to say I won’t go back to being goal-oriented in the future. There’s a time and a place for both.
What strategies do you have in place when looking at the expansion of your business?
My strategies are very much focused on creating a solid business foundation and client base in these early days of entrepreneurship. It’s important to me that I continue to listen to my clients and prospects, hear and understand what’s challenging them, and offer solutions and content that serves them best. Importantly, too, is that I feel emotionally connected to my business and my clienThe expansionsion will take care of itself by keeping connected in this way.
Can you tell us what areas you have struggled in professionally?
Self-doubt is a killer that so many women feel. As I mentioned, it plagued me throughout my corporate career, although I was a master at disguising it. I present to the world very confidently. It has taken me this long to finally make peace, have a better relationship with myself, and know that what I have to offer is valuable, unique, and inspires others.
Have you ever had any other mentor? If so how has this benefitted you to grow?
I didn’t have any formal mentor in my corporate career. That said, I had some key people who believed in me more than I did at the time, and I am forever grateful for them for the opportunities they opened up for me. They saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself at the time.
Now I have a mentor, a coach, and mastermind partners who guide me in this wild ride of entrepreneurship. Whether you’re in a corporate structure, governmental or non-profit, or an entrepreneur, success, however you describe it, is not an individualistic pursuit. People need people – we’ve forgotten that along the way. Get a sponsor, a mentor AND a coach. They all serve different purposes.
What outlets do use to market your business?
I think the world is starved of authenticity right now, so I am less concerned about the channels I’m using than I am with how I show up on them. If it doesn’t feel authentic, or it feels off, it is – and the discerning audience will pick up on that. So I am acutely aware of the importance of building connection and relationship.
To specifically answer your question, though, I use social media of course, getting most traction on LinkedIn; Instagram because I love the visual medium and it tells more of a story of who I am; Facebook of course. Offline, it’s a question of creating a connection with new and existing contacts, offering value, showing up.
Critical to all the marketing I do is it has to be fun for me and my audience. If it’s not, it shows.
Which methods are you using to build your own support network?
I have been a member of a community of like-minded women entrepreneurs since I began my entrepreneurial journey three years ago. They have been my oxygen at times when I didn’t feel like I had any left. I was very fortunate to be introduced to them by a coach I was working with four or five years ago. I think what’s really important is getting clear about what type of support you need, and doing this on a regular basis. I check in with myself about every quarter, or every four months, to do a pulse-check on me and my business, and decide what we both need to feel good.
What do you believe are the common misconceptions about being an entrepreneur?
That there is such a thing as an overnight success, it takes years! The biggest factor is this elusive thing called mindset. Ensuring you have an abundant or success-oriented mindset or attitude, childlike self-belief, and unwavering faith that success will be yours and that you’re serving a higher purpose are critical to achieving it.
Fear is insidious. Once it creeps in, it takes hold and incapacitates you as an entrepreneur very, very quickly! I’ve experienced times like this myself. It’s why I have deepened my spiritual practices such as meditation, journaling, gratitude, and I have a strong, supportive community around me who understand the journey – to keep my mindset in check. Without all these support mechanisms, I’d be toast!
What would you like to see changed for millennials in business?
This last three or four years in the world has been such a vibrant time in my view. A lot of pain, of course, but it’s like the breakdown before breakthrough – like we have to hit rock-bottom to see the stars. I feel very optimistic that the future is bright for men and women in this world, with women sharing their gifts more confidently and widely. We can only share our gifts if we are in tune with them, confident about being ourselves and using those gifts to help the world haul itself out of where we’ve been. It’s why I created the brand Womanly Art of Leadership® to say, it’s time for women to step up as their true, authentic, powerful selves. We’re doing that by having more of a voice, more opportunities opening up. It’s a wave that needs never to come to rest on the shore.
What is the best piece of business advice you have received to date?
Ooo – I have loads of great advice from my coach and mentor! One that comes to mind is, “Don’t think you have to do it all yourself.” It’s like that saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We short-change ourselves by thinking we have to do it all. We have vast resources available to us, friends, family, networks, even spiritual resources. We’ve been operating in an individualistic ultra-competitive world and there is an opportunity now to be more collaborative, share and swap skills, ask for help, co-work, brainstorm – create, instead of competing.
It’s especially true for those of us described as solopreneurs. It is easy to get stuck into a rut of feeling you have to do everything yourself. Delegate! And quickly! Outsource the things that suck your time, and focus on what matters – relationships and income-generating activity.
What is the number 1 critical lesson you have learned in your career so far?
Being a good girl doesn’t get you far. As women, we are raised to sit quietly, be polite, wait our turn, get good grades. None of that matters in business. Expecting your good work to speak for itself is one of the factors keeping many women from leadership positions. Being true to who you are, focusing on your relationships with yourself and others, and taking risks is how to go far. Shed the good girl and be more rebel!
How do you create an evenly balanced work and personal life?
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! Learning to say no – and mean no – is a saviour to achieving any sense of balance. There is no need to feel guilt if what you do makes you a more fulfilled, happier, more interesting woman. At the same time, I think we have to see obtaining balance in work and personal life as a cycle. Accept that at times you won’t get the balance right. Observe it, then tweak your routines to find the balance that works for you and your loved ones. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Observe, amend, move on.
The highlight of your career so far?
The highlight of my international insurance career was most definitely the relocation from Melbourne, Australia to Paris. It was such a big step for me in terms of career progression and it’s a city I have loved since learning French from the age of 11. I learned loads from many mistakes in my first complex management role, and they have all brought me to where I am today.
In terms of my coaching career, launching my podcast ‘Womanly Art of Leadership’® sessions has been a highlight. I love chatting with guests about their leadership journeys and hearing their insights. Other than that, I experience highlights every time one of my clients experiences transformation. To hear a client get a global role that she would never have considered applying for prior to the coaching is priceless.
What gives you ultimate career satisfaction?
Seeing women happy in leadership and feeling in charge of their lives and careers – I love it! The more happy women we have, the happier, more progressive is our society.
What challenges have you seen to have been presented during the growth of your business?
Stepping out of corporate into entrepreneurship is like nothing I imagined! As a cog in the corporate wheel, although I felt a great deal of ownership in what I did, ultimately the business could still whirr on without me. As an entrepreneur, it doesn’t function without me. If my head is not in the right space, or I’m feeling energetically low, it shows in my business. Maintaining high energy and the correct mindset is imperative. It isn’t a one-and-done game. It has to be done every single day, even when I feel great.
Which other leading entrepreneurs and pioneering game changers do you also admire and why?
Sallie Krawcheck – my #girlcrush! I love everything about her business model – her mission, her outspokenness to create societal change, her ability to synthesise complex topics into accessible bites to help women take ownership of their lives and futures by investing. She’s a gift.
I’m hugely impressed with Alexia Hilbertidou, a young woman of 19-years old with so much fire in her soul to encourage New Zealand’s young women into STEM, entrepreneurship and higher leadership with her organisation Girl Boss New Zealand. Her impact outside of New Zealand is already being felt getting the support of business and political leaders globally, including even royalty! She is a woman to watch, for sure.
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
My favourite book that I recommend to everyone is ‘Time To Think: Listening to Ignite The Human Mind’ by Nancy Kline. In my view, failure to actively listen is the single greatest cause of where we are in the world right now. It is a practical book, giving great instruction about how to listen more actively and effectively, and implement what she describes as a “Thinking Environment” into your personal life and workplace. I incorporate elements of it into the work I do with private clients and corporates, and it’s powerful.
Top 3 go-to Podcast channels?
- ‘Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations’ is a regular listen. My mind is often opened up to new ideas about spirituality and life.
- ‘Desert Island Discs,’ is an old favourite, and I just love the interviewing style of Kirsty Young. In a way, I guess I have modelled my own podcast on this format.
- ‘Ellevate Podcast, ‘such smart interviews that have the potential to seriously elevate your career. Ellevate Network was co-founded by my #girlcrush Sallie Krawcheck.
How do you measure your own terms of success?
Great question! Success is a word I am a little conflicted about, in all honesty. For me, it can have very Gordon Gecko connotations. That said, success has to be defined personally, and that is the first step I take clients through. For me, success is about how I feel. If I have rewarding relationships, I’m making an impact on someone’s life, I’m having fun doing so, and I can make a living that keeps me in a lifestyle I enjoy, I am winning!
What does #BEYOUROWN mean to you?
Be your own advocate. Women very often put far too much emphasis on acceptance and approval of others. The advocacy, acceptance, and approval have to start from within. Anyone else is a bonus.
Lastly, what is next for you?
I’m excited for 2019! Retreats, speaking engagements, and a tweak in my messaging and branding that I believe will have a massive impact on women in leadership and the corporate world. Still in production so watch this space!
Podcast: Womanly Art of Leadership Sessions available on iTunes