I recently had the honour of speaking at a KYHO Networking event called ‘Breaking the Mould’, held at UTS Startups. It was a great conversation, covering imposter syndrome, mentoring, burnout and entrepreneur lessons. I thought I’d share my responses to some of the facilitators questions, in case this helps anyone out there embarking on a journey of their own.
Can you describe what your career path has looked like from graduating university to where you are now?
I spent the first seven years of my career at professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Firstly graduating as a Chartered Accountant, I then retrained as an Economics and Policy consultant and helped organisations conduct economic analysis to inform their strategy. It was a real thrill seeing my work leading to regulatory change, major investment and international partnerships - and I learned a lot from some talented economists.
But in all honesty, I was miserable. I was working late into the night, sometimes on jobs not aligned with my values, and my health was starting to be affected.
I could see that some things that we innately know are important, like cultural expression, sense of community and social bonding – aren’t easily measured in dollars and cents. I was working my butt off, but it wasn’t for what I believed really mattered.
I became fascinated with fields like cultural economics, triple bottom line accounting and social return on investment, and eventually followed my passion into the cultural sector and worked for three years in Research & Strategic Analysis at the Australia Council, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body.
After falling in love with my (now) husband, I moved to the UK and worked for two years at Nesta, managing the research elements of the $5m Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. I’m grateful for that experience seeing the inside of an innovation lab and having opportunities to work with some of the world’s most iconic institutions like the Royal Opera House.
I started Patternmakers back in Australia in 2016 after I had been freelancing for one year full time. Today I lead our brilliant team of four researchers, and a network of contractors and advisors across Australia and internationally.
At what moment did you decide it was right for you to start Patternmakers? What has the reception been like, and how did that feel?
From Covent Garden to Colac (VIC), I began to realise that many arts organisations and cultural institutions were experiencing similar issues: trying to grow audiences, secure funding and deliver greater impact.
I’ve now worked with organisations of all different structures and sizes and I’ve seen how some organisations grow and really make a difference, even in hard times when there’s an economic downturn, or public funding is declining.
They do it by becoming insightful institutions. It’s not about counting dollars and cents. If you’re an impact-driven organisation you need to be adopting the practises of research and insight to reach more people, secure funding and deliver even more good in the world.
Today, Patternmakers supports cultural organisations to become more insightful and impactful. With my team of researchers and strategists, we help cultural leaders collect data, create experiences people love, evaluate their impact, build compelling business cases and share their knowledge to grow the sector and change the world.
We’ve now been operating for two and a half years, and demand for our services has led to us to grow really strongly. It’s been a real rollercoaster.
But my reasons were also somewhat selfish… When my husband and I started planning a family, I started thinking about how I could grow a great business that could allow me to work flexibly.
I’m really pleased that I can now support other parents the same opportunity to balance work and family.
Have you ever felt imposter syndrome? If so, how have you broken out of that thinking?
Of course. We all live in fear that someone will find out that we’re not good enough to be doing what we do.
But I try and channel it into self improvement and professional development. I can recommend the book ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’.
Do not let imposter syndrome stop you doing things. Just make a commitment to yourself that fear and self doubt and insecurity is not going to be the driver of what you do & don’t do.
What advice would you have to young women who are entering the workforce and are feeling like a fraud or an imposter?
What I’m learning about tackling imposter syndrome is that it can help to identify and articulate the value that we bring to any conversation. Saying ‘I’m only this’ or ‘I’m just that...’ is not helping anyone. Even the youngest person in the room has something that no one else has: the perspective of youth and everyone wants to tap into that.
A colleague of mine Kathryn Geels, who now leads the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, recently shared with me the value of taking time out to reflect on your work, roles, track record and really articulate what your unique perspective is.
So for me, it’s that I understand the language of both art and maths. And it’s not until my 30s that I could see the patterns and connections and the narrative of my career, but looking back, it was always there.
How should a young person starting out go about accessing mentorship or acquiring a mentor?
Getting good guidance is critical. And there are actually three types of mentors I have accessed at different times: a great boss, a coach, and several mentors.
I’ve been lucky to have several great bosses in my journey, such as Bridget Jones, who taught me about the value of quality research closely linked with strategy. We were joint recipients of the Award for Collaboration at the Australia Council which was a great honour.
It definitely pays to seek out jobs with someone amazing to report to. You can even do reverse checks on them!
A great coach is also gold. I’ve worked with Monica Davidson from Creative Plus Business for the past three years and it has been partially subsidised by the NSW Government through Business Connect. So valuable.
A mentor, or in my opinion several mentors also play an important role. And as my co-panellist, career coach Rebecca McFarland, pointed out. It’s perfectly fine to have mentors that don’t know you are their mentor!
What has been the biggest challenge in your career to date?
In the early part of my career it was managing burnout and navigating organisational dynamics. As an ambitious, self-motivated employee there are times when bureaucracy can slow things down and it can grate when you hit certain roadblock. But there are many things to be learned in such situations too.
Since starting Patternmakers, the challenges are many, but so are the rewards! Producing work that is very high quality, while balancing the books does lead to many late nights, very few true holidays and worryingly blurred boundaries between work and everything else.
They say the entrepreneurs journey is a financial one and I tend to agree. There is a lot to learn about managing cash flow, assessing profitability and getting to know your business model inside out, and with every recruit, it can change. There have been months when I’ve wondered how we will make payroll, but it is a great discipline in becoming very, very resourceful.
In the next five years an area that will be demanding for me is HR and recruitment. Because for a business at this particular stage (and frankly, life generally) it’s all about surrounding yourself with the right people.
Did you receive a piece of advice when you were starting out that was particularly influential?
Don’t hesitate to put yourself forward. A good friend of mine, Morwenna Collett, encouraged me to apply for the Australia Council’s Arts Leaders Program. At the last minute, I put in an application. It was successful and it ended up being a pivotal experience that has shaped my world ever since.
If someone asks for a volunteer, put your hand up. If you see an award category that’s relevant to you, put an application in! You’ll be surprised how often you get further than you think. And building a great track record is the best thing you can do for your career.
What advice would you have liked to have heard?
Trust your instincts. I’ve taken on projects that I knew weren’t the right fit - and learned my lesson the hard way. More and more, I want to be selective about the people, projects and ideas that I let into my life.
And enjoy the journey! Research is the most exciting, enriching, fulfilling career. Being in the field, meeting people, hearing about their lives is such an honour and it’s so important to love what you do each day.
About the Author
Tandi Palmer Williams
Patternmakers’ Founder and Managing Director Tandi Palmer Williams is an experienced consultant and arts and culture research specialist.
Between 2013 and 2015, she was Research Manager for the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, based at Nesta in London.
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