Leadership Stories: Judy Piatkus – a self-made entrepreneur and founder of Conscious Café

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Judy Piatkus has been a member of IWF UK for more than thirty years. Her business memoir, Ahead of Her Time: How a One-Woman Startup Became a Global Publishing Brand will be published in Spring 2021. She completed her MA in Creative Leadership as a mature student and she founded Conscious Café to bring people together in thoughtful conversations.

What does leadership mean to you, and how has your approach or style changed over time?

I discovered I was an entrepreneur in my twenties – and you cannot become a successful entrepreneur without being a leader. I was ambitious to own and run my own enterprise so it was natural to me to take on the leadership role. I did not expect, nor ask, my employees to work harder than me. I did not expect them to ‘do as I say, but not as I do’.

An innate sense of fairness was part of my authentic leadership style. Having never worked in a corporate, I always felt free to be myself which is a great luxury for a woman in business. I was also fortunate in being born with a fairly even temperament and it was natural to work collaboratively and to delegate. I wanted my staff to feel empowered and able to make their own decisions and I trusted them. As a result, working together with my senior colleagues, we were able to build a brilliant team and together we were able to punch above our weight. No small feat in a very crowded publishing industry.

Leading from the front, treating people with respect, trusting them to do their work competently and well. These were all the qualities that stood me in good stead as a leader as my company grew and my staff remained loyal and contributed with enthusiasm and to the best of their ability.

What have been the biggest challenges and the biggest successes in your life, and what have you learned from them?

A self-made entrepreneur, I founded and grew my publishing company, Piatkus Books, to become one of the most successful global publishing brands. We were pioneers in the personal growth and alternative health areas in addition to publishing many successful general non-fiction books. We launched several first-time writers and furthered the careers of many bestselling novelists, including Nora Roberts and J D Robb, both in the UK and other global export markets.

The challenge of building a company with my own money and developing a range of new books twice a year which would both support our outgoings and be profitable enough to enable us to grow was huge. General publishing is a very high-risk industry. The financial responsibility rested upon my shoulders as we had no outside investors. I learned perseverance, focus, commitment and how to manage risk.

In the 1980s there were so few female role models that every woman who found herself in a powerful leadership position was judged more critically and had to work exceptionally hard to prove her abilities in order to be taken seriously.

During that decade it was harder for women to learn about leadership. There were few books, courses, lectures and networks. Many successful women were fortunate in having a mentor to encourage them along the way. I was not one of them. Management until that time was both patriarchal and hierarchical. It took a while for me to have confidence in myself and to find my natural management style. There was only a handful of women in the UK at that time who owned controlling shares in their own company and had achieved a turnover of over £1 million

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

There is no substitute for hard work, knowledge and expertise. You need to understand basic finance to be taken seriously on your way to the top, even if you do not have a financial role. You have to believe in yourself and you have to master your intellectual and emotional intelligence skills at a high level. Integrity and, of course, a sense of humour are both essential. If you are working in a place which does not value integrity your values will constantly be in conflict with how you are being told to operate. Do not take yourself too seriously. We are in the world to enjoy it while we can.

If you are able to, find a mentor who will support, encourage and teach you what you do not know that you need to know. Be vigilant – not everyone you meet can be trusted – and remember that it is not essential that everyone like you or everything you do. In order to succeed it is essential that you and your accomplishments are respected and that people are confident and comfortable about working with you.

I discovered I was an entrepreneur in my twenties – and you cannot become a successful entrepreneur without being a leader.

Judy Piatkus
Judy Piatkus