Alumni, Personal Journey

Mind over matter

uG38z5r8T72ehoH4urpH_Marilise_maskOn the 26th of June this year, I did a TED-style talk at PwC’s inaugural Alumni Live event. My talk was titled: “Completing the human firewall”. This was the toughest public speech I’ve done to date. To have 10 minutes to get your key idea(s) across, ideally with no notes and minimal slides, while being live streamed, is no small feat.

[See YouTube link to my talk further below] 

Minutes before my talk I panicked and had to leave the room to get some fresh air, at which point the organisers also panicked. Andy Woodfield, the PwC partner sponsor, told me afterwards that when I left the room, he thought I wasn’t going to come back. And I very almost didn’t. I was seconds away from allowing my emotions to get the better of me. Fortunately, I managed to replace the emotions of fear and anxiety with feeling calm and excited to share my story.

[During the early mornings of the weeks running up to the event, I visualised myself on that stage and rehearsed my presentation over and over and over again. Stella, my black Lab accompanied me to the park and patiently listened to me rehearsing every time. I practised feeling calm and excited to share my story and when I found myself spiralling out of control I took myself back to those moments with Stella]

I walked back into the room feeling calm and knowing that all I had to do was try my best and that it would be good enough. But as soon as I walked onto the stage, my heart started racing again. I had to dig deep to calm the nerves. I realised that I had to do my breathing exercises again, that it would be the only thing that would calm me down again. A classic Marilise moment of “here I go again”. I had a split second to decide whether or not to tell the audience how nervous I felt and asking them to help me out.

The next thing I knew, I asked everyone to stand up (which they did) and take three deep breaths with me (which most people did). This could have backfired big-time. But it didn’t. The risk paid off. Oh, and if you are reading this and you are one of those people that got up and did the breathing exercises with me, I want to say thank you very much. I don’t think you realise how much you helped me pull through. Some people even asked me afterwards if it was staged. I just smiled and said: “I wish” 😉

When I got home later that evening, the boys – who watched me live online – commented on the breathing exercises (of all things!) – Heinrich couldn’t believe that the audience actually listened to me when I asked them to get up (“me neither”, I told him). Andreas thought it was very funny and giggled about it, probably because the two us do a lot of breathing exercises together.

That evening I did myself proud. I spoke from the heart and felt a strong connection with my audience. I learned how sometimes the emotions of fear, anxiety and insecurity can overwhelm us, but we can control how we want to feel.

This is why the saying “mind over matter” has such significance for me. I recently read a story about an elite athlete who was asked whether he still experienced performance anxiety after a yearlong winning streak. His response was that there is always some fear no matter what, but that he doesn’t feel anxious. He defines the feeling he wants and tells himself that what he is sensing is a feeling of readiness, excitement.

It just shows how powerful our minds are. If like me, you depend on breathing exercises to cope with life’s challenges, I hope I’ve reassured you that you are not alone and ultimately we can control how we want to feel.

Completing the human firewall, my talk, is available on YouTube here:

https://youtu.be/F5mKE8eXs6w

Or you can read it below.

“My late grandfather was my hero. He fascinated me. He was also a brilliant mathematician and always telling me stories about him solving complex maths problems with his students.

This picture was taken 11 years ago, where he was 90, approximately 18 months before he died.

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I look at the guys solving these complex maths problems with computers today, and I can’t help to think that my grandfather would’ve been one of them. He would’ve loved it! What these guys can do with computers is mind-blowing and sometimes scares me, to be frank. And what I admired the most about them is their persistence, curiosity and ingenuity at keeping the ‘bad guys’ or ‘hackers’ out.

7 years ago, a whole new world opened for me, when a conversation with a colleague sparked my interests in the human aspects of Cyber Security. That colleague was William Beer and he said: “Marilise, we need you, with your people & change management skills to work us, the security experts, to solve what is ultimately a people problem.” So, William was the catalyst for me starting. Even though at the time, I had no idea what Cyber Security was, I was super excited!

I passionately believe that people are the solution. But it is going to be critically important to attract people from all walks of life. And William agrees:

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Shortly after my conversation with William, I collaborated with the Cyber Security team to develop a unique people proposition. This experience has taught me that the more diverse the skills and the more diverse the roles, the more complimentary, coordinated and valuable the collaboration.

Unfortunately, we have work to do if we want to strengthen and complete the human firewall.

A 2017 GISWS study by Frost & Sullivan shows that women are globally underrepresented in the cybersecurity profession at only 11%. But most worryingly is that more women are leaving the industry than entering it.

This is such a complex problem and there is no silver bullet, so I’ve decided to touch on two pertinent themes close to my heart:

  1. Failure to attract women into the industry in the first place
  2. Failure to retain them.

1. Failure to attract

We have an image problem: perceived to be an industry for geeks

What is more, we are looking for ready-made experts only. I was told; “Marilise, you are not technical and therefore will never be taken seriously”. Groovy…you see, usually, when someone tells me I can’t do something, I make it my business to prove them wrong. Yes, I am not techy, but I have excellent communication and creative thinking skills to help our industry find innovative people solutions I no longer feel inadequate because I am not technical. Imagine the problems we could solve if we embraced this idea that people all walks of life can bring innovative solutions which will help us outsmart the bad guys.

Women tend to be overly cautious. We are less likely to take risks. An HP report found that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women, women will apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. 100 percent.

2. Failure to retain

So why are women leaving? Have you ever:

  • been too scared to raise your hand and ask a question?
  • felt ignored or sidelined?
  • had your ideas stolen?
  • been overlooked for a promotion?
  • felt belittled by a colleague?

Here is my view: Women leave because they are alienated by the work environment, not because we’ve lost interest in the work. We feel unwelcome and undervalued. Like we don’t belong.

Guys, let’s for a moment, imagine the roles being reversed. Imagine you being the only man in a boardroom with 9 other women. How might you feel?

It always serves me well if I put myself in the other person’s shoes and if I try to see the world through their eyes. For me, it all starts with self-awareness, how I communicate and the impact I have on others.

Call to arms

Parents:

It starts at home and at schools.  Let’s raise our girls to believe they can be anything they want to be. If you are sat there silently thinking, but I don’t want my daughter to be a scientist, engineer or mathematician, please open up your mind to the possibilities. Imagine the problems we would solve.

Women:

I want to help women – young and old – to become warrior princesses. To become strong, stand firm. To stand up for themselves and call out unacceptable behaviour. That is why I am going to start running boot camps for women. Picture a lioness, nobody is going to mess with a lioness. I want women to become this incredible force of nature.

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Men:

You hold the key that can open doors for women. And by unlocking doors and breaking down barriers, you will progress your business, progress your Code, be more effective and become inspirational leaders. So let’s step-up, be inclusive and make this industry the amazing place it has the potential to be. We need men and women. Together we are stronger.

Here is one of my favourite quotes from a phenomenal woman, Maya Angelou.

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I want all of you to feel inspired, to become great leaders.

Please join me in completing the human firewall.”

Personal Journey

Two BS beliefs I had about food and exercise

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This morning I woke up feeling overwhelmed, as I am struggling to get to grips with my new training programme and food protocol, so I checked in with my coach. She reminded me that I am trying to do too many things at once. She told me to breathe, to relax, and to just focus on one thing for my business and one thing for me. And she also reminded me that if I had a clear vision of where I want to be and I keep taking small steps towards it, I am doing brilliantly. Great. Panic over.

Little did I know when I spoke to my coach this morning that a couple of hours later I would be inspired to write this blog and share my personal ‘body transformation’ story.

At this point, I would just like to say that I am not sharing this to tell you “look at me, look at how amazing I am”, in fact, quite the opposite. I am doing this in the hope that I will inspire you and share two BS beliefs I had about food and exercise.

In the gym this morning, I noticed a guy staring. I vaguely recognised him from spinning. I ignored him and carried on with my workout. Next thing I know, the dude is walking towards me – at which point I freaked out. So he said: “I almost didn’t recognise you. I had to look twice and then I realised who you were. Gosh, you’ve changed. Where have you been? I haven’t seen you since January” As some point, he also commented on how ‘buff’ I looked. I graciously accepted the compliment, while at the same time wishing that the earth would swallow me.

I quickly realised that this man was truly inspired by my body transformation, not some kind of stalker, and I relaxed. He had a lot of questions, so I shared some of my experience with him. Afterwards, I thought, why not share my story, and what I’ve learned about food, exercise and myself, with others too? So here goes:

Since January I lost almost half my body fat. I am now in the same range as professional athletes. To give you some idea:

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So why did I decide to do it?

Last year I turned 40, and even though I was fit – I did the Prudential Ride London, a 100-mile cycling tour (the day after I turned 40) – I felt fat. I was also mentally and physically exhausted – on the verge of burnout. So after 20 years, I left my corporate job and took a few months out. That’s when the soul-searching started. I had to reconnect with my why. I reached my lowest point when I decided to start my own business, as a high performance and leadership coach and trainer. In doing so, and through my own training, I had a stark realisation that I had to “practice what I preach” and the logical next step was to focus on my own mental and physical health. I then set myself a goal for 2018: To get into the best shape of my life  – for life.

[Please note that none of this was carefully planned… I think about my journey over the last year or so as “the stars aligning”, and I feel eternally grateful for the way things are turning out]

With the help of an incredible coach, I achieved my goal. Now, I am not going to lie and say it is easy. I have to work hard at it – every single day, and some days I lack motivation. But I’ve learned to be kind to myself. To not beat myself up about it when I don’t have a perfect day.

So this morning I shared with the said guy in the gym, two BS beliefs I had about food and exercise, which completely transformed my life. So simple, yet so profound, they are:

#1 Cardio is king.

I love cycling and I am in my happy place on my bike. It clears my head and I often tell people that cycling is my Prozac. So when I turned 40 last year, I couldn’t understand why I was so heavy, despite being cycling fit. Well, it turned out that cardio isn’t king. Most of my workouts now include power walks, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), strength and resistance training.

#2 Fat is the enemy.

Growing up I used to eat everything low fat or fat-free. I was raised to believe that fat is the enemy. Now I eat everything full fat. And a lot of it. And I am loving it – avocados, nuts, Greek yoghurt, olive oil etc. All those things I didn’t use to eat because I thought they were bad for me.

Since I left my corporate job a year ago, I’ve been focused on regaining my strength and confidence; on getting my ‘mojo’ back. My physical and mental health has been my top priority. And it’s only now that I am beginning to feel comfortable to share my journey. And this is only the beginning. As I continue to learn and transform myself in the coming months and years, I hope to share many more inspirational stories with you.

Not only am I in the best shape I’ve ever been, but my business also is doing great, and I am happy. It’s only after I turned 40 and realised that I was unhappy at work, and my relationships were suffering, that I decided to prioritise ‘me’ on my list of priorities.

And I can honestly say that it’s been the best decision ever.

Alumni

What a difference 6 months can make…

0fJoTvlOQVCZKQpyk6rt_PwC-Alumni-preview_232Last week I celebrated 6 months of being an entrepreneur. I had to pinch myself… but more about this another day.

I also celebrated – yes, lots of champagne was involved – my new healthy lifestyle. Never in a million years did I expect to do so much weight training and drink so little alcohol… but more about this another day as well.

My biggest celebration last week was my ‘TED-style talk’ at PwC’s inaugural Alumni Live event. It was held at Sea Containers on the South Bank – a simply stunning venue – and I had the honour of sharing the stage with six other amazing speakers.

This talk was a big deal for me, and I had to dig deep to stay calm and composed – hence the breathing exercises at the beginning. I had an important message to share, and the title of my talk was: “Completing the human firewall”. I explained why a failure to attract and retain women in the Cyber Security industry is making us all less safe. That we need people from all walks of life to strengthen (and complete) the human firewall. Let’s face it, technology and processes can only get us so far after then we need people.

But although I am very proud of my talk, it is not the point of this blog. So let’s talk about unintended consequences:

On Monday morning, both Heinrich (my 10 yr old) and Andreas (my 8-year-old) played piano exams. We practised their scales and pieces slowly over the weekend, which was a battle in itself (I was contending with Fortnight), but we got there in the end.

I woke up Monday morning thinking, how do I get my boys ready for their exams? Reflecting on my own anxiety as a child (when I played piano exams), and my recent studies as a high-performance coach, I realised that I needed to prepare them mentally. So lots of motivational talks followed, for example, Heinrich asked me: “Mom, what if I fail?” and I said: “But Heinrich, what if you get a distinction? You’ve worked so hard and you know your pieces so well, it is not possible to fail”

I also decided to make them do some of my own morning ‘rituals’:

First, I gave them each a big glass of water to drink (we’re most dehydrated when we wake up).

Then I took them to the garden for some exercise (jump squats, skipping, push-ups etc). This cleanses the body from cortisol (stress hormone), releases serotonin (happy hormone), releases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and gives you a dopamine rush (i.e. motivates us). In addition (to these health benefits), the joy on their little faces was priceless.

Finally, we did breathing exercises – from the moment they woke up until they entered the exam room.

I listened to them playing their pieces, closed my eyes and played every note with them… They both did so amazingly well. I was so proud. And afterwards, Heinrich (with a very chuffed little face) told me: “Mom, those breathing exercises helped a lot”.

Wow, I didn’t expect this. Talk about unintended consequences.

My boys were petrified to play their piano exam on Monday morning – they probably felt similar to the way I did go onto the stage last week. But I was able to prepare them mentally and give them the confidence and belief that they can do it. #priceless

I want to help boys – and girls – growing up believing that they can be anything they want to be. I want to open their minds to careers in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics). Like Bryony Mathew, I want them to grow up thinking that it is perfectly normal to be an Algorithm Specialist, Cyber Security Analyst or Aerospace Engineer.

Please join me in ‘completing the human firewall’. I am very interested to hear your thoughts on how we can do this – please be so kind to share.