Leadership Stories: Liz Marsh found her golden thread.

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Entrepreneur Liz Marsh is able to see opportunities where others see problems and had the courage to be unconstrained by their expectations. This has propelled her to create a highly successful floral design business serving prestigious clients.

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

I think in my case, leadership is innate. I have always had this certain quality, where I needed to express myself and I never seemed to fit into any of life’s boxes. Maybe this is a quality of a leader, they forge the way forwards because none of the existing choices ‘fit’ for them? Being the younger sibling by four years, I was worried about upstaging my older sister. I think my career in the arts was my way of removing myself from her world so I could express myself freely without posing a threat to her. I started my career and business by mistake. Having spent my teenage years looking forward to a time when I would be a famous writer, I found out after an internship on a hospital radio, that I didn’t like that world. So I ended up working one day a week in a flower shop, along with three other jobs whilst I figured out what to do with my life.

I never actually considered floral design to be a serious career choice. I viewed it as a way to make ends meet whilst I searched for my vocation. Thus, I embarked upon a journey that, in retrospect, has always felt like a golden thread that has run throughout my life. I was always about to leave after ‘just this one opportunity that I cannot pass up’.

The first was the offer to work alongside Mary Portas designing and installing the window displays for Harvey Nichols. Then I took on Le Caprice and the Ivy as regular clients. Barbara Amiel, married to Conrad Black, asked me to work with her decorating her large Kensington house and so it continued… until I finally gave up on the idea of finding a ‘proper job’ and embraced my fate. Currently I am really excited at the prospect of decorating the Palace of Versailles for the first international event to take place there since Queen Victoria visited in 1855.

Having said this, I have never seen myself as a leader. In fact, I always thought I made an excellent follower, the perfect assistant, ready with the right tool at the right moment for the next task my bosses, managers or clients needed. One of my career choices, if I hadn’t pursued the writing, was the army. I am not sure if it is a good thing that I never followed that path or not. I think I would have been successful, but possibly would never have had the opportunity to find the soft side of myself. This is something that has only come with time. An astrologer once said I was unusual because I had equal amounts of creativity and structure – normally people only have one or the other. And I think this has informed who I am today.

My team are probably a little scared of me, but they do respect me. They know I never lie to them and I will always support them if I can. I have no prejudice against them personally whatever their background and I will do everything I can to help them grow and develop as an individual. This is maybe why I have never had to sack anyone, those that don’t want to grow usually leave!

I think the greatest attribute I probably have as a leader is that I do ‘see’ my team. This is important to me and I think it creates a bond with those around me that is stronger than money or success. In the last ten years I have invested heavily in self-development and this has dramatically influenced my leadership style. From being regimented and hard hitting to survive in a ‘man’s world’, I have had to summon all my courage to allow the softer, more feminine side to reveal itself. Today I am able to define myself as ‘strong in my vulnerability’. I am able to connect with my team and the world emotionally, with compassion, clarity and empathy. This has been the hardest and yet the most rewarding part of my journey as a leader.

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

My single biggest challenge was to organically scale a floral design business, that is all about the detail, whilst simultaneously taking the opposite approach to my competitors. I maintain my commitment to highly bespoke designs for each and every client. Twice I have doubled the turnover of the business overnight. In the case of the Birley private members’ clubs I started with just two days’ notice, without actually having seen the spaces. They were described to me over the phone. My brief was that on no account should anyone notice that there had been a change in florist. I suppose the leader in me sees opportunities where others see problems.

At one point, I realised that I was fine taking the negative feedback of my clients, finding their views ‘interesting’ and never taking it personally. However, I was unable to enjoy my successes because I couldn’t keep out the negative without also keeping out the positive. In order to succeed as a leader, especially as a female leader, inevitably I found myself judging myself more harshly than anyone else. Today, however, I am proud to say that I set my own standards for myself, and I celebrate my successes, both small and large.

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

My advice to those following me is to ‘walk the walk’. Always lead by example, not just women, but anyone aspiring to leadership. Without integrity our leaders are a liability.

Secondly, I would recommend constant and continuous self-development, because the world is only ever an external reflection of your internal world.

Finally, love yourself. It is hard to do this sometimes as a leader because, inevitably others will disagree with your choices and you may find it hard not to let some of their attacks in.

I have had to summon all my courage to allow the softer, more feminine side to reveal itself. Today I am able to define myself as ‘strong in my vulnerability.

Liz Marsh
Liz Marsh