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The Rising Festival 2020: A Q&A with speaker Harriet Fear on rising to the top

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The Rising Festival, supported by the Cambridge Independent and Velvet magazine, is all about women having meaningful conversations. Ahead of this year’s event, Sarah Ingram had her own conversation with guest speaker Harriet Fear, founder and director HFA Ltd, chair of the business membership organisation Cambridge Ahead, and CEO of Deyton Bell Global.

Harriet Fear. Picture: Keith Heppell
Harriet Fear. Picture: Keith Heppell

You’ve achieved a great deal in a phenomenal career - have you always been a high achiever?

I wouldn’t describe myself as a high achiever! I've always worked really hard, and I learned that from my dad and my mum.

When I was 17, doing my A-levels, I wasn’t very clear about what I wanted to do so I decided to go to university. It was a massive shock, to me and my family, when I only got one A Level and realised I wasn’t going to university after all. I was devastated but that early blow gave me fire in the belly and taught me never to take anything for granted.

Tell us about your diplomatic career and how you came to work in the business sector.

I joined the Foreign Office in 1987 at the age of 19. Usually, if you were under 21, you’d spend two or three years in London and your first job overseas would be in Europe in a single-skilled role. I bucked the trend – and not for the last time!

After only 18 months I was sent to Senegal to do an all-rounder job. I was the only junior member of the embassy team so I ended up doing all the comms and all the administration. It was an amazing experience. After several years of doing what I call ‘crisis management’, helping Brits in distress, I was sent to Prague to do a commercial job, supporting small to medium-sized enterprises to trade internationally. I loved it and I’ve never looked back.

Harriet Fear in cartoon form, by William MacDonald)
Harriet Fear in cartoon form, by William MacDonald)

You moved into life sciences – becoming head of the life sciences and healthcare trade team and, indeed, receiving an MBE for services to life sciences and health care in 2016 – was this always an area of interest to you?

No! I was actually about to start a new role in training when I got a phone call from a previous boss.

The government was setting up a new national biotechnology trade team that would be based in Cambridge and he wanted me to come on board as the deputy. My reply was to ask him what biotechnology was! I’d learned very quickly in Prague, doing commercial work across different sectors, that businesses will sniff you out in a second if you pretend to be something you’re not, so the answer had to be ‘no’.

A few weeks later he rang again to tell me that they’d recruited a biochemist to lead the team. This time I said, ‘Well, happy days!’ The biochemist set the strategy and I recruited the team and implemented the strategy and, again, I absolutely loved it. After about 18 months, the biochemist left to work in Norway and although I didn’t think I stood a chance, I applied for his job. I got it on temporary promotion and kept it until I left the Foreign Office in 2009 to become CEO of One Nucleus.

Described as a transformational leader yourself, what do you think are the most important qualities of a leader?

One of the things that’s instilled in you very early on in a diplomatic career is to be a human being. I had an inherent set of values, which I’d learned from my upbringing, and the Foreign Office gave me the opportunity to practice those values, to see that they worked, and that gave me confidence.

A good leader, I think, is somebody who knows what they’re really, really good at and is humble about it. But they also know what they’re not good at and who they need to have around them – not to make them look good but to make the vision and the mission a reality.

Harriet Fear in conversation with Dan Thorp of Cambridge Ahead. Picture: Keith Heppell
Harriet Fear in conversation with Dan Thorp of Cambridge Ahead. Picture: Keith Heppell

You’re one of the speakers at the Rising Festival. What's your topic?

Mine is the Open Conversation on ‘Owning it: Lead, Influence and Inspire’ and I’m going to be talking about the importance of being yourself.

I learned early on in my career to be myself because it’s just exhausting trying to be someone else.

I think people take notice if you don’t fit into a certain mould – you're more interesting, or more scary, or more confusing. And I don’t mind any of that.

I like it, because it means that people will listen to what you’ve got to say. Be polite, be decent, and be understanding, but don’t feel that you need to conform.

The Rising Festival

The Rising Network aims to use the power of community to help professional women realise their true potential, to navigate next steps, and to live a balanced life.

Each year it celebrates International Women’s Day with a flagship event, The Rising Festival, this year on Saturday, March 14. It’s a day of keynote speakers sharing their personal stories – the inspirational Harriet Fear being one of them – and a day of breakout sessions, 1-2-1 coaching, networking and skill building. Harriet Fear attended her first festival last year and described it as "spectacular". To find out more about the festival, and to book tickets, visit therisingnetwork.com.

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