When I looked back over my chat with Carlene, I realized that the consistent theme in her story is her determination both to reach her own potential and an equal one to help others reach theirs.
Carlene was born in Ireland. Her parents had split up, but divorce was still illegal. She had a tough time at school but shone at sports and music. She believes that schools should concentrate on developing people in whatever areas they show potential rather than force-feeding children into pigeon holes.
When Carlene was a teenager, she moved to Scotland from Dublin. One of her hobbies was to train as an air traffic controller. She only failed the exams on one question, and they told her to come back next year. However, that question had relied on her being able to tell her left from her right. Carlene thought hard, decided people’s lives were at stake, and never went back.
She had not been formally diagnosed with dyslexia but remembers wishing that she could easily remember her tables like other children. We know now that a considerable number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. Carlene has always tried to turn it into an advantage.
Carlene went into sales and came to work for IBM delivering CRM systems to large corporate clients. From there, she moved to Xansa, who bought Druid. Xansa sponsored her to do an MBA with the Open University, but in her final year of the MBA, they made literally thousands of people redundant.
Undaunted, she started a Masters in Digital TV Production and Management. While on the course, she became pregnant with her second child and started a strategy consultancy business with someone who now works for her. They were sadly hit by a double bereavement, and it was impossible to go on.
Carlene went back into the corporate world, including working for the CRM division of Sage. She had also fitted in becoming qualified as a ski-instructor, and she and her husband had the idea of relocating to the Alps, so that the children could grow up bi-lingual.
She was planning to set up a business working remotely as Cloud was taking off, and she could see an opportunity there to fulfil her ambitions to be an entrepreneur. She had loved strategic consultancy and had completed her exams. However, SME’s tended not to have heard of strategy, so selling it wasn’t easy.
Instead, she worked briefly for a private consultancy learning to mix her existing skillset to become a CRM specialist consultant and then, seeing the potential to help SME growth with tech, co-founded Cloud-9 Insight.
Carlene set up Cloud9 with Nigel Ridpath and a third partner in 2010. Carlene and Nigel needed to set everything up at Companies House, so they didn’t wait and put the third name down. It was potentially disastrous. The third person never joined, never even signed the shareholders agreement, but it cost Carlene and Nigel a sum of money they could ill afford to buy them out.
Carlene had been right about the potential market in supplying cloud tech solutions for growth. The company thrived and she was able to buy Nigel out a couple of years in, though they remain on good terms.
Developing the potential of her team has always been a key driver. Carlene trained as a coach which she explained taught her that it wasn’t her job to get people to 10/10. Instead, the coach needs to lift them from their comfort zone, perhaps 5/10 to that scary, uncomfortable place 6/10. From there, they are on course to develop their own potential.
Her team are a mix of process people and creatives. Often, they have never worked in the tech sector. One of Carlene’s great joys is to see them perform with clients to levels they never would have believed themselves capable.
A second way she helps people reach their potential is through her new company, Vantage Academy, an apprenticeship provider, and training business dedicated to developing tech talent.
One of Carlene’s heroes is Satya Nadella, the current Microsoft CEO, for his incredible work with the culture there. She says he is so humble, so accessible, and absolutely prioritizes community. The old beast of a corporation has changed. People are free to invest in themselves.
Carlene also admires Lewis Hamilton, who she believes to have made tremendous sacrifices. He never takes credit for himself. Every achievement is down to the team but he still has to manage the image of him that the world sees very carefully.
Carlene had been finding balancing her personal brand with running a business. Coming from corporates, she believed the company should not be about her.
Darren Shirlaw of the BoB Group has opened her eyes to having a Guru Brand, and her role supporting the company and also retaining her own opinions and identity as Elon Musk does. By chance, the very next day, she met Corrine and Jon Card of Full Story Media in Brighton and started to put the advice into action.
Carlene’s future plans centre first around her kids. She wants to be a good role model and support them to reach their potential and develop their dreams. She loves her business too much to plan to sell, but says that way in the future the children might be part of an exit or a John Lewis type of ownership deal might suit her brand culture.
Their growth has been tremendous and Carlene has plans to at least double her 30 strong team. She is less driven by sales than the difference she can make to both individual and business potential.
She is on a mission to encourage more traditional businesses to adopt tech, to be more efficient, and change their culture. She wants her brand to be recognized as part of changing the future face of work
Carlene also wants to influence at least the UK government, if not governments further afield, to recognize what an essential role apprenticeship schemes should be playing, what influence they can have, and how they should be run to develop people’s potentials and their dreams.
Carlene’s Advice to develop potential
When Carlene was struggling to sell strategy consulting to small businesses who barely knew what strategy was, her brother took her aside and gave her some advice. He is a very successful entrepreneur with several businesses and told her she should stop trying to innovate new products but instead look for something there is a demand for and do that better than anyone else. It was life-changing.
Carlene describes her brother as both “the perfect brother and the perfect mentor.”. She defines that perfection as someone who believes in you but also kicks you into doing the things you need to do. She is a strong advocate of mentoring and has seen what a difference it can be make in helping people reach their potential.
With this recession, everyone needs to be taught to be an entrepreneur or at least an intrapreneur. They should not wait passively, but go out and take control of their life. Carlene talks about the people in the Caribbean who don’t wait, but instead do go out and sell whatever produce they have to make their way.
Her 17-year-old daughter asked for career advice recently. Carlene told her to imagine she had only five years left to live and ask herself what she would do with it. Her daughter could go and work in a bank, meet and marry someone wealthy perhaps, but it would be no life without a purpose which is no life at all.
Carlene says that to reach your potential you have to avoid being stereotyped. She hates the norm of putting children into schools, and then ideally into universities and then expecting them to get married and settle down, so the whole cycle simply starts all over.
She agrees that everyone should be encouraged to go to school and get sound skills in maths and English, particularly in developing teamwork. But apart from that, everyone needs to take control of their own life.
At IBM, she was told never to wait around till someone gave you a promotion. You can hide, they told her, but if you want to reach any potential, you need to get out and learn the skills. She says it is still the best advice she was ever given.
Carlene also has advice for people setting up in business and fulfilling their potential that way. Firstly, she says never get investment unless you really need it and if you can, keep 100% ownership.
She sees many customers who are hampered by partners. They can’t be as agile when they have to consult with other people continually. Partnerships can be horribly exposing as she found to her cost when she started. On one strategy consulting job, she was employed to pull the owners together, but the reality was that it was all she could do even to get them in the same room.
Better to go it alone if you possibly can but surround yourself with sound executors of your vision and with experts, especially in areas that you are personally not as strong in.