21st Century guide for every woman looking to break ceilings

Amanda Turnbull is Discovery Inc’s Vice President and General Manager for Middle East and Africa. She is no shrinking violet when it comes to seeking and exploiting opportunities, and she believes no woman should be. 

1. Relax about childcare

When I got children, I had that moment which all working mums have where you wonder how to attain balance. I started my own consultancy firm, because I thought that was the way to do it in order to spend more time with the children. It kind of worked but it was not as successful as I needed it to be.

You need a personal network around you. When my children were younger, I had a lot of great people to support me - my parents, the nannies - they kept me in my job by helping to look after my children. For women, you have to be relaxed about the whole childcare thing. It is not about the quantity of time you spend with your children; it is about the quality. When you are with them, be with them. Put the phone away and totally focus on them. That is better than if you are always with them but totally distracted. You will never meet a working mother who has the balance right. It is really difficult. Working mothers sometimes feel as if they don’t do enough for their children, while women who aren’t working and have chosen to focus on raising the children sometimes wish they were working. The grass is always greener on the other side. You just have to be comfortable with what you choose and then make it work.

2.  Take chances to follow your passion

There was a lot of luck and circumstance involved, for me. I absolutely love travel. It is something that really drives me. I have a History degree from Cambridge but after I left Cambridge I went to work for IPC magazines, which is now Time Warner. I did their graduate training programme. It was a 12-month apprenticeship and you moved every month to a different area of the business, so I worked in both the editorial and commercial sides of the business. That has been a secret of my success in the business, because I have always understood both sides. However, I left after a couple of years because I felt I had to travel. I just had this bug. When people talk about having itchy feet, it was like that.

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I quit my job and left my boyfriend, got a backpack, set off and travelled around the world on my own for a year. I ended up in Hong Kong with a tropical disease and no money. There is a club in Hong Kong called the Foreign Correspondents Club. I knew someone there from my time at Cambridge, so he said he would introduce me. By the end of the evening, I had a job. I went and said hello to everyone in the room, explained about my training at Time Warner and I said, “if anybody needs an editorial assistant or marketing official, I can do all that.” So I had a job by the end of the evening and I ended up staying in Hong Kong for 17 years.

First, I worked for that small publishing company, then I was headhunted by a company called Hachette Filipacchi, which produced Elle magazine. I worked with them for about eight years and worked my way up. I started in Sales and Marketing and by the time I finished, I was the Managing Director for Hong Kong. That was great because it gave me the opportunity to learn about working with a global brand in a local situation. So the theme in my professional life is travel and then the idea of working with global brands in really interesting high growth markets.

3.  Build relationships

It is all about personal relationships. Getting to the top is all about how you build relationships and how you maintain them. You meet a lot of people in all the different stages of your career but the idea is to stay in touch with everybody. To build an ecosystem of people around you who can support you and you also support them. Also, you can’t just take; you have to give and take in your network. Somebody helps you, you help them back. You get out what you put in. At some point, everybody is going to have something to contribute. It is just a question of timing. It is also how you get ideas, by talking to other people. It is how you get more opportunities. In modern business, you want to work with partners who you like, who you enjoy spending time with.

4.  Turn potential challenges into opportunities

Working in these markets can be very complex and it never goes according to plan. It never turns out the way you expected it to. So you always have to have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and very often Plan D. So you not only need to be resilient, but also very flexible. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I always look at tough things in terms of, “how can I make it so that I see the glass as half full rather than half empty?” It is all about how you react to the situation. Do you see it as a huge drawback, or do you see it as “well, this is not ideal, so let us try that.” Be comfortable with change and uncertainty. Rather than freaking out, see it as an opportunity.

When I first joined the Middle East Television Association, out of 50 people, I was the only woman. You have to be quite confident in yourself to handle that. However, you can also use it. I am THAT woman from Discovery! You use it to your advantage. Turn potential challenges into opportunities.

 5.  Take time to process during tough times

We spent the whole of last year negotiating a deal in the Middle East. It was a really big deal and at the end of the year, at the last minute, it fell through and yet I had spent the whole year on it. I did not really understand why it failed. In such situations, you just have to pick yourself up. Give yourself some time to mourn a little. Give yourself time to just process it. It is best to step away for a given period of time because you don’t make great business decisions when you are in that frame of mind. How I reacted to that is that it made me redouble my efforts because I still think the deal was a brilliant idea. Now I just have to find somebody else to do it with. That is what I have been focusing on this year.

6. Take charge of mornings

One thing I do is that immediately the alarm goes off, I get up. Snoozing is a disaster. If you snooze, you will be behind for the rest of the day. As soon as I get up, I leap into the shower. I tend to get great ideas in the shower. During the day, I try to find little moments of calm. I try to carve out little moments in the day when I tell myself, “breathe, think about what you are doing.” You might get so into what you are doing that you are like a hamster in a wheel. So you need to get off, step back and look at what is happening there. I also try to get things done earlier in the day. It gives you a sense of accomplishment. I have a list of things to do and I have things that are priority. I put them into categories. The things that are urgent but not so important, and there are things that are important but not so urgent.  So I try to be very clear with my to-do list: “This is an A-priority. I have to get it done.” And then you try to attack it at the beginning of the day. I love crossing things off my list. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.

7. Find your ‘thing’

When I come home in the evening, I try to ensure I get out of my work clothes. It is a psychological thing that signals that I am in a different part of the day now. I do a lot of reading. That is my terrible secret, that I am in television but I prefer to read a book. I read anything and everything, and I try to read before I go to sleep. Because then, I will be thinking about something else, not my work. I read a lot on planes too. The book I am reading right now is called, Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. I also read a lot of poetry. Carol Ann Duffy is one of my favourite authors. The book I would recommend to everyone is The Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk. It is centred around a family and their journey from the country side to Istanbul and how they gradually work their way up through society. The storyline is true to life.

8.  Don’t leave room for misinterpretation

What I would tell my younger self right is to find older people to mentor you. Be completely upfront about asking for their help. Find mentors and listen to them. People you want to be like, who can be role models, build a network and listen to what they say.

Be very clear with people about what you want and why you want it. It is not enough to just tell people what you want them to do. The most important thing is to give them the context and the vision. Why they are doing it. So that they can feel that they are making a contribution and having a purpose. You do not have to be in a position of authority to lead. You lead through influence and you can influence at any level.

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Amanda TurnbullDiscovery Inc’Woman