Episode 18: The Potential for What? Podcast with Alex Birtles

Welcome to The Potential For What? Podcast, where we explore the concept of potential and its importance in today’s workforce.

This week our host Jo Taylor speaks to CEO and co-founder of tech-for-good startup In Good Company Alex Birtles.

In Good Company, is on mission to make it quick and easy for conscious consumers to find the best ethical, for-good local small businesses and experiences.

In today’s episode, we talk about:

✨ Whether we ever reach our potential?

🏆 The problems with confusing the term potential with success

✔️ Overcoming fear and given yourself permission to try something new

👑 Why the most experienced people don’t always make the best role models

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Potential For What #18 – transcript

Jo Taylor  00:00

Welcome to the Potential For What podcast. On this podcast we explore how a range of business leaders unlock the potential in people. We’ll hear how they’ve done it, find out what’s worked, what hasn’t, and why this is so important in getting and keeping great people. Most businesses focus on the here and now: that is, all about performance. But at Let’s Talk Talent we like to think differently, as we fundamentally believe everyone has potential. The question is for what? So let’s explore that together. I’m your host, Jo Taylor, Managing Director of Let’s Talk Talent, a talent management and organisational development consultancy based in London, the UK. I have a request: if you value this show, if you enjoy these stories, or find this wisdom or inspiration useful, please subscribe to the Potential For What podcast to listen to future episodes. 

Jo Taylor  00:52

Welcome, everybody to the potential for what podcast I’m Jo, founder and CEO of Let’s Talk Talent. And I’m joined by an ex-colleague of mine. God, Alex [Birtles], we’re going back probably eight years now to our TalkTalk days. But you’ve gone on and thrived, and you are the co-founder and CEO of In Good Company. How are you doing?

Alex Birtles  01:09

Yeah, really good, thanks, Jo. It’s lovely to see you. Eight years is definitely something I can deal with. If you’d said, like, oh, 15 years ago, then I’d start having slight palpitations about, you know, time. But eight years… Amazing to be on here with you.

Jo Taylor  01:23

Brilliant. And thank you so much for joining us. I’m really looking forward to our conversation because I think we’ve got a lot to kind of unpack and unravel. And when we talked when we were sort of talking about this, before this podcast, we were talking very much about potential from your perspective. And I’d really like to explore that and see where we go at the end of the day. And I kind of want to start with a, I suppose, a meta question, which is; do you think we ever reach our potential?

Alex Birtles  01:51

That’s such meta question, I love it. It’s really interesting. I was reflecting on it actually, after our initial conversation, and I think… I think we confuse or conflate the term potential with success or rising to the top. And I think because of that, it implies that it is this single destination, you know, it’s the top of a mountain and it’s a single mountain, and we reach the top of that mountain, and then we… die, basically, you know. And I don’t think that’s right, actually. And I think, fundamentally, as humans, we all have, actually lots of different potentials. You know, there are… there are many infinite number of paths that we can tak. Maybe some more realistic than others. I can’t run, for example, so I don’t think I’ll ever reach potential as a marathon runner. But I think it really comes down to actually what path you want to go on. And where do you think “I could be great”. And being great, for me, certainly now, I would have given you a different answer earlier in my career, isn’t the title, the money, the prestige, the power. It’s; Am I fulfilled? Am I high performing? I think being high performing is really important. And actually; Am I in my flow? You know, do I wake up and I want to do what I’m doing? Do I feel like I’m contributing? And I go to bed at night thinking, yeah, today’s been a great day, because I’ve done the things I wanted to do, doesn’t really matter often how big or small they are. And I think for me, that’s kind of reaching your potential. And I think your potential can change over time. So I think that’s the other thing that at various different points in your life, what you’re reaching for doesn’t have to be the same thing. And, you know, that’s maybe something we’ll drill into a bit more, because you’ve also taken a- you know, you’ve done something different now. To than- when I first met you, and so this idea that kind of potential as a straight line, one destination, you reach it, and then you’re done. And you reach it later in life, and then you kind of retire, I think is not true.

Jo Taylor  04:12

I think you’re right, I use a term a lot, and some of the listeners will probably go “oh, she’s on a roll again”, it’s ‘the journey, not the destination’. But I think it takes a lot of confidence, doesn’t it and motivation and sometimes drive to kind of realise that it’s okay to have that ambiguity or that squiggly career. And sometimes in periods of our life where there’s been knocks or uncertainty, it’s quite difficult to know where the journey is. So how do you, you know, what’s your advice, basically, on how you’ve coped with those?

Alex Birtles  04:49

Yeah, I think it’s a great question, and I definitely think it’s not easy. I found that especially after I left TalkTalk and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next, and I’d, you know, started talking to some recruiters, for example, about potential other jobs. And I fell in love with technology and digital towards the end of my time at TalkTalk. But I didn’t have depth and tenure in a digital career. And so when I spoke to recruiters, they were like, “Well, we… we can’t put you anywhere, because you’re kind of a generalist. And we don’t- we don’t work in that way we have, you know, we have disciplines and you don’t meet the kind of skill tenure requirements for that discipline.” And so I think it is really difficult. I think finding other people is really important, you know, in anything you’re doing. So I think, talking to other people – role models, for me, I tend actually not to look at people who are at the end peak of their career, it’s people who are two or three steps further ahead of me, I find so much more relatable. I remember having a lot of – I think with you actually – a lot of those conversations about women on boards. And actually, it was like, no, I want to see women directors, and I want to see people, you know, around the table running business divisions who are women, it’s not women on boards, who are 30 years older than me, or, you know, so much further ahead in their career, because that’s actually not that helpful for me right now. And then I think that’s also something about finding other managers, other sponsors, other mentors, other people who are willing to… I don’t want to say take a chance, because I think that maybe makes it, you know, you don’t want to sound like you’re kind of not good, but I think it’s… I think we all have a duty when we’re people who maybe have taken squiggly careers or are, you know, more generalists, or trying new things, to then also lift up and support other people to do the same.

Jo Taylor  06:47

I think it’s like Charles Dunstone used to say, it was about paying it forward. I think, at whatever time of your life, I think it is about paying it forward. And in some ways, I don’t know whether it’s for you, but I think my potential is about purpose. So for me, realising my potential in my business is going to be about realising the purpose of why I set it up. And I don’t know whether they’re different or they’re similar for you, but if I… I put purpose over profit, you know, I’ve got a team of 10, and I need to feed their mouths as much as I need to feed my own. But if we’re not doing the right things in the right way, then I would rather not be doing the job that I’m doing. Does that make sense?

Alex Birtles  07:35

Yeah, definitely. I think that comes back to the kind of, am I… am I fulfilled? You know, am I feeling high performing? And am I in my flow? And I think that, like you, that comes to me, when I’m living my purpose, and when I can see that my business is living its purpose. And I’m much more attuned to it now, but, you know, I can really tell when something, you know, physically, I’m like, “ugh”, you can almost feel it. And again, the; do I want to spend my evenings and weekends? Because as you know, running businesses, right, we do spend our evenings and weekends working. And I think you can tell, right, when it’s something that is aligned to your purpose, and you’re living your purpose, because then you’re like, yeah, actually, I do want to do that. This is right, and, yeah, and this idea about actually, your potential being about realising your purpose, I think is really powerful.

Jo Taylor  08:27

I think it’s powerful, but I wonder if there’s a – and I, you know, I like alliteration – I wonder if it’s also that your potential is an alignment of your purpose, but giving yourself permission. 

Alex Birtles  08:27

Yeah, I like that as well. 

Jo Taylor  08:40

Because I think sometimes, I’ve found in my career, that I’ve not given myself permission early on, because I- my sort of drive, and my attention span like a goldfish has moved me on to the next thing. Whereas if I’ve actually been purposeful, and I’ve given myself permission to try something new, then the two add up, don’t they, to us fulfilling whatever potential lookslike? 

Alex Birtles  09:08

Yeah, I think the permission thing is really interesting becasuse I think that links into fear. And fear was something that I really grappled with when I decided to start a business. And I was doing therapy at the time, because I had a recent bereavement, and we talked a lot about kind of fear. And it was really funny when you actually like boiled it right down, and we spent a lot of time, you know, really trying to get to the heart of it, I can actually sum up my fear as I’m going to change my LinkedIn status to say, ‘founder’, and then if it doesn’t work, I’m going to have to change it and be job seeking, right? And that’s kind of actually what the fear was. And it was really, you know, I was like, Well, what are people going to think of me? I’m going to be a failure… You know, all of that, but I couldn’t get myself excited about taking another kind of full time role in a big company again at that point. And we basically, I spent some time really trying to work it through and it was kind of okay, so what are the options? So the options are I either take a job now and do that. Or I try this, and I give myself the permission, actually, to spend some time. And so in the end, I said, right, you know, I’m going to take six months, I’m going to go to the end of the year, and I’m going to see if this business idea has legs because I can’t shake it. And I have this intense feeling that one day, I’m going to be on my deathbed and go, I had the idea. And I didn’t do it. And I gave myself the permission to have the six months because what we really worked out was that actually, in that time, I’m going to learn a lot. I’m going to hopefully have some fun, I’m going to meet some new people, I’m going to discover things I’m going to grow. I’m going to scratch that curiosity itch of; Can I do this? Is there something here? And then if it doesn’t work out, well, I can get a job at the end of it. So actually, I might end up in exactly the same place. But at least I’ve gone on that journey, and I’ve learnt and I’ve discovered. And so for me that sort of timeboxing of going: I give myself permission for six months, I give myself that permission to try this. And naming the fear actually. And the naming the permission was really powerful. 

Jo Taylor  11:24

I really relate to that. I remember when I left TalkTalk, I felt- it took me probably nine months to figure out what I wanted to do when I grow up. That’s what I kind of say; What do I want to do when I grow up? And I remember sitting in front of a coach, and him saying to me, “When you talk about getting another FTSE job, you look really miserable, and all the colours been drained from your face”. And he said, “You don’t look like Jo”. And those that know me, know I’ve got kind of red hair and I always wear colourful clothes, and so for him to say “you look drained” was- I was like, I was taken aback. And then he said, when you want to build a portfolio career, your jazz hands come out and you kind of get really animated. And it was- he said, “When do you need to be working?” And it was- I left in the march. And I needed to work by the December, and he said, like your counsellor said, “What’s the worst that can happen?” And I was the main breadwinner at the time. And I said, “Well, I have to go get a job or, you know, have to go and move in with my parents,” or whatever. And he said, “But it won’t happen, because I know who you are”. And I think there’s something in potential, in realising your potential, especially for me, is having faith in yourself and understanding yourself. Because if you can understand yourself, even if you don’t know where that journey is gonna go, you can, as you say, network, you are resilient, you are curious, and you will- something will come up because of the fact that you’re trying stuff. But you’re doing it with yourself at the heart of it, rather than when you’re in an organisation and you’re looking at potential, you’re looking at, like you said, the power, the prestige and the pay. I just think it’s quite an interesting thing to dwell on, isn’t it? That when you work for yourself, there are different challenges. But success has less of a… I don’t know, it doesn’t have such a personal impact to me as it did when I worked at TalkTalk or Channel 4. 

Alex Birtles  13:26

Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. 

Jo Taylor  13:28

It’s just… it’s weird, isn’t it? Because I think you- there are definite challenges of pay that, you know, you don’t get a regular income, you know, anyone can put what we put on our LinkedIn, but it is much more to do with us controlling and for me, potential is having control.

Alex Birtles  13:47

Now it’s so funny, I was just thinking about control, actually, when you said that, and I think it’s, you know, in an organisation when you are a cog in a wheel, right? To put it kind of bluntly. And it can be an amazing wheel. And there can be wonderful other cogs in there. And, you know, I will forever be hugely indebted to lots of people at TalkTalk, you know, and they… they’re a huge part of my journey and my story and, you know, I hold them in my heart, but you are in an organisation where ultimately you don’t really have control. And so the things you can control are; “Can I try meet the criteria to be promoted?” Right? “Can I try to get more…” So you do inevitably end up kind of going on that- that direction because that’s what you feel you can control. And it comes with all the kind of politics of all those different, you know, all of the stuff that happens in large organisations. Whereas I think when you’re, you know, when you’re a founder when you’re starting your own business when you’re doing side hustles, you know, when you’re doing consulting or you’re doing, you know, more of a… more of a squiggly portfolio career or just something a bit different, you feel like you have a lot more autonomy and control over what you’re doing. And I think that’s really unlocking. I think that, that really unlocks you. Whereas I don’t feel like I’m… I feel like I’m doing this for my customers, right? 

Jo Taylor  15:13


Alex Birtles  15:13

But I’m not doing it for a kind of corporate machine.

Jo Taylor  15:18

Look, I 100% agree. I was kind of burnt out by the time… And the way I’m setting up the business and the culture eight years into it, it’s very different. I think the way that we set up our businesses, and that’s what I kind of want to move on to, you know, the way that I set up my business and think about potential and performance for my people is very different to, perhaps, if I was a talent director. How are you taking that into your business?

Alex Birtles  15:44

It’s a great question and I think this is the kind of paying it forward. And I think inevitably, we- you end up doing certain things that resonate with experiences that you’ve had. So one really small thing, but, and I actually did do this at TalkTalk as well, was – I don’t have a university degree – so I don’t make university education a requirement for any jobs I advertise, because I just think that’s something that’s really- there are actually very few jobs where a university degree is really required. It’s just a kind of historical thing that we’ve been taught to ask for. And I think, you know, there’s a lot you- I learnt, actually, working with people like you and other colleagues over the years about, you know, setting out how you write job descriptions. And one of the things I’m really big on is pay transparency. So I always put a salary, because I just think that is one- you know, I’ve been frustrated by that. You look at jobs, and you’re like, well, this is… I have no benchmark here of what I’m going for or… So there’s some stuff like that, I think, for me, it’s also about the attitude of wanting to learn. So the curiosity, that’s what I look for in people, it’s not so much are you coming to this with 100% skills match, because actually, you can learn a lot. But it’s are you curious, do you want this job, right? Not a- I don’t need somebody who can, you know, for example, we hire, you know, we hire engineers, that’s what our kind of main hiring has been in In Good Company, and, you know, I don’t necessarily need somebody who’s done our code base before, or can deliver the code with 20% effort each day, I want somebody who wants the opportunity to build a career. So we’ve actually just taken on an amazing intern, who is based in Kenya. And she’s a career switcher. She’s been through a coding bootcamp, she has learned to code and she is incredible. And she, you know, she’d never used our tech stack before. She’s learnt that, she learnt it in a couple of weeks, and she’s flying. And you can see that getting a job and getting a role in a tech company is going to be instrumental to her longer term career. So that’s what I look for.

Jo Taylor  17:59

I love that. And I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve always said it’s like, a philosophy for me is; “you can teach the skills you hire attitude”. I think that really resonates with me. I think I can teach people how to do talent, management and HR. I know that my late husband didn’t have a degree, my boyfriend doesn’t have a degree, both left school at 16. And they’re reaching their potential in a different way. And I think it’s an interesting societal question, isn’t it? That, you know, when you think about education, it drives you to a particular point, like you talked about, you know, getting up to the mountain, but it doesn’t make you a good person. It makes you good at networking, probably, and good at the exams and all of that, but actually, as a society, if we’re driving people down that, then we’re- in a way, we’re only saying that that’s important, and I fundamentally don’t agree that that’s the case.

Alex Birtles  18:56

I completely agree. And I think we take a lot of interns, In Good Company. Part of that as being a startup. We’re also- one of the things is we’re a living wage employer, because pay is a, you know, that’s a huge issue in all sectors still, particularly when it comes to gender. And so we’re a living wage employer, and we really believe, you know, that’s kind of one of our principles that people should be paid a fair wage for the work they do that will cover their cost of living. But we do take interns and some of them we get funded, and some we pay ourselves, but also, it’s just giving- I think it’s about giving people exposure to the different ways in which you can have careers now. Yeah, and I think the other thing is just also recognising it’s not life and death that we’re doing. We’re not brain surgeons. And, you know, running a business is hard. And I think when we were setting up In Good Company, my co founder and I spent a lot of time talking about our values and what was important and the kind of business we wanted to build. And we, we did an amazing questionnaire actually, that I got from the co founders of Not On The High Street. Things like what mattered to us, what kind of pay did we want, what’s kind of size as team. We filled out the answers, so we can see what we’re aiming for. And actually what we’re aiming for is a sustainable business. We talked about sustainability, often in relation to the environment, but actually sustainability is your people, your profit, you know, are you generating enough money to cover your costs? But also are your people sustainable, right? And so that kind of having a culture where we also are balanced, you know? 

Jo Taylor  20:20

Love that. 

Alex Birtles  20:21

I think that is something that we really give permission to people. I- you know, I always joke, my co founder and I are constantly trying to peer pressure people into taking naps, because we love naps. And we think naps are really good your health. So I’m always like, when somebody’s like, “I’m tired”. I’m like, “take a nap, go do it!” I think, yeah, that stuff is also really important where you recognise that actually, you know, we are a finite resource, and we’re no use if we burn out.

Jo Taylor  20:46

Well, I think that’s all about your motivation and energy, right? And you valuing their contribution, which is all tied up to potential. So, as we kind of wrap up our conversation, we could go on for ages, I know that for sure. Tell us a little bit about In Good Company, and where people can find you.

Alex Birtles  21:03

So, yeah, so we… In Good Company, we’re still quite a new startup. And we basically… it was an idea that I had actually back just after I left TalkTalk. I really value in life, human connection, I think human connection and in real life is really important. And I think in the kind of age of the internet, we have… we’re so obsessed with online and convenience. And we stopped valuing in real life, and the role of the community and meeting other people. And you know, sometimes the friction that comes with real- in real life, but that’s also really important. And post the pandemic again, you saw that people suddenly got much more interested in their local community, their neighbours, meeting people, you know, got big problems with loneliness, societal integration, etc. And so we basically, it came from this idea that there are up and down our country on the high streets and side streets and all around the world, amazing, small businesses and organisations, not for profits, community centres, etc, who are not just running a business and, you know, they’re not big corporates, they’re small independents, but they are also going over and above when it comes to people, planet and community. So they are living wage employers, they are employing disadvantaged groups, they are eliminating single waste, they are sourcing from local suppliers. They’re doing amazing stuff. But they desperately need more customers to survive, you know, and it’s too easy when we get out of the tube or we go somewhere we go, “Oh, I can see a Starbucks. I’ll just go there.” And so actually, we went, how can we use technology and make it as easy as it is to order a takeaway or find something to watch on TV to find amazing hidden gems that are what we call Good Companies. And they are, for me, the business owners that we should be shouting about, supporting, loving, the places we should be going. And so we built a platform. And you can access it online at ingood.app it’s through a browser at the moment, we will be launching a full mobile app shortly. And you can find – right now we’re focused on London – but you can find coffee shops, restaurants, cafes, boutiques, hair salons, and they’re all doing something good in their own unique way, because every business is unique. And we make it really easy for you to understand what they’re doing. And then you can go and discover amazing places. So then when you’re meeting a friend for coffee, or you’re looking for somewhere for dinner, you’re not just going to somewhere that’s kind of… it’s fine, and you might have a nice night, but actually somewhere that really feeds your- feed your soul, right, you feel good. You’re like, wow, I found something great. They’re doing amazing stuff. I’m part of their journey. I’m helping. And you can make a positive choice. So people can find us at ingood.app. And then on LinkedIn, I am Alexandra Birtles. And yeah, I try and talk about start-up life, being a female founder, leading a team, sustainability, mental health, well being, so kind of everything in that bag. So please do find me on LinkedIn, connect with me and try out- try out our platform.

Jo Taylor  24:03

I’ll definitely be doing that after this, between meetings. Thank you for sharing that. And my final question to you is; is there a podcast? Is there a TV programme you’re watching? Is there a book that you’re loving at the moment that you want to share and pay it forward to our listeners

Alex Birtles  24:20

‘Four Thousand Weeks’ by Oliver Burkeman is my top read, actually of the past 18 months or so. And I dip in and out of it constantly. And it is- Four Thousand Weeks is basically the amount of life we have on this planet. And it is the antithesis of all of the time management books that tell you if you just do these 10 things you will have zero inbox. You’ll have done all your household chores, you’ll have delete- you know, you will be the peak of productivity. And he just basically says that’s all rubbish. There will always be stuff that you can’t do, because time is finite. We spend all of our time trying to control time and you can’t. And actually, the thing you need to do is pick what you want to prioritise, follow that, be fine, have the joy of missing out of the rest right now. And as we’ve talked about, right, you can, you might come back to those other things later in life. I want to write a book one day, I’m not trying to do it right now, but I hope at some point that will be a journey that I get to go on and I get to look at my potential as a writer. But you leave those things, and then you really go into enjoying the journey. And he has this wonderful bit in it. And I had such a serendipitous moment, I was sat on a tube, a hot, hot tube, in rush hour, just finished my water, the tube broke down, we were stuck. And I was reading this book. And I was so angry. And he came to this bit where he basically said, there are lots of people who don’t even get to have experiences like that, right? You know, there’s stuff you take for granted. So actually, I had had an amazing co working day. And I’d been to a really nice venue, and I’m able to get up and travel and do that. And he said, so actually, when you have those things that are annoying, there’s also- how can you appreciate the fact that they’re part of the journey, and you’re getting to go on the journey. So I have to confess my appreciation for the tube being broken down wasn’t like, wasn’t still very high. But it was a really good point. And it did make me reflect on the fact that actually there’d been so much good.

Jo Taylor  26:30

Amazing. I love that. And that’s a wonderful place to kind of end this podcast. Thank you so much. I really hope our listeners have enjoyed it as much as I’ve enjoyed chatting to you, Alex and I wish you huge success. Don’t forget, listeners, to check out In Good Company and let us know what you think. Thank you so much.

Alex Birtles  26:49

Thank you. Thanks, Jo. Thanks, everyone.

Jo Taylor  26:52

Thanks for listening to the Potential For What podcast. If you’re hearing this message, you’ve listened to our new episode all the way to the end, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you did, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Please share this episode with others who may be interested in this topic. As always, you can head over to letstalktalent.co.uk/podcasts to check out all the links and resources in the show notes and to sign up to our email list.