Leadership Stories: Miranda Sharp

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Leadership Story: Miranda Sharp is at the forefront of data science and evolving business models. She shares her moving story of grief and forging an identity that enables her to listen deeply, lead with compassion, a witty sense of humour and questions to disrupt the status quo.

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

As the tall one and an older sister I never had to strive for leadership but retained a gentle surprise when people followed me. (My siblings were quick to point out that I had no special skills, I just was more practised at mostly doing the right thing.)

I attended formal leadership training with a keen interest in the scientific theories and stories people told but I had played under enough sporting captains to know that leadership could be exercised from any position and with any level of formal authority.

I remember keenly the moment I could describe my leadership ethos for the first time. We were taking a long holiday in an RV (camper van) around Colorado and we stopped in at the Museum of Wildlife Art in Wyoming. I took an audio guide about the depiction of females which started with their absence, because artists were first engaged on hunting expeditions where the target of the paying customer was the many pointed stag or the gnarly alpha male on top of a rock.

The story moved on to the depiction of mothers as protectors which jarred uncomfortably for me as it was only 6 months since my son had died. Suddenly overcome with grief, I was aware that I was in an alien environment out of sight of the rest of my family, without a purpose, role or any idea how someone in my position should behave once they had stopped being the object of pity. I was also very aware that bereaved mothers have a bad reputation in literature, often depicted as mad, angry and sad, notably Clytemnestra, Demeter and Niobe in Greek myth.

And then I saw her. A small statue of a mountain lion, leading a hunt. I approached her from behind, her upright ears and curled tail both signalling to her troop and ensuring her perfect understanding of the surroundings. We can trust her and she will listen to us, but now is the time to be still before we complete the mission. I dared not move. Here, right here, was my model of leadership, I felt empowered to go and conquer the world.

I have found consensual leadership with skilled experts to come much more naturally to me than any form of directive style. I struggled at the start of my career as the posh English graduate in a factory in a mining community in Scotland or with striking posties at Royal Mail. Over time, I learned that everyone struggled and that I could normally find a quiet moment with one of the team who wanted to talk to me, though they normally started with the rugby.

More recently I have struggled to find a way of telling people that I am human, that I have known tragedy and that it hasn’t all come easily and naturally. I have avoided telling people about being bereaved because I don’t always want to be sad. I’d rather be efficient and functional sometimes. Also, by telling people that my son died when he was 5 leaves them with very few safe ways out of the conversation and normally leads them to a dark place where they are overtaken by their emotions as they process how they would feel.

I hope I have become more flexible with my leadership approaches over time and more thoughtful in my interventions. I recognise my ability to derail conversations and other people's learning by interrupting to ask a question or being unable to resist a funny observation.

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

I cannot tell you how proud I am of my remaining son. Walking with him on our grief journeys hasn’t been in any way easy but watching him flourish brings me joy and pride every day. When people seek my advice now I am slower to offer it and much keener to listen to the story they are telling first.

I am thrilled too with the business portfolio I am building. I have turned my inability to focus on one thing into an asset for the multiple interesting projects I get to work on. My mission has been to get people to think of data as a business asset. Ever since I tried to run a business responsible for the curation of the postcode address file, I have been at odds with open data campaigners who were arguing that I should be giving it away for free. Now I’m glad to be at the forefront of the more mature and nuanced debate about different business models.

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

You can do leadership in many, many different ways. You can copy someone you admire or adopt the style you believe can be successful in the world you know but think about how your skills and experience will mean that you do it authentically for you.

Everyone is winging it, everyone has imposter syndrome and some of the worst behaviours are the result of insecurity.

Have a strong hinterland, things that matter to you outside work. Have a good reason to leave work sometimes. It focuses you and makes you more interesting for, and interested in the next job.

I have turned my inability to focus on one thing into an asset for the multiple interesting projects I get to work on. My mission has been to get people to think of data as a business asset.

Miranda Sharp
Miranda Sharp

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