#PushTALKS: Meet the Step Up Club founders: women putting a new spin on confidence, career and success

Alice Olins and Phanella Mayall Fine are the driving force behind Step Up Club; the platform championing the success of career women.

We caught up with the two ahead of this month’s panel event – Confidence: Learn To Be A Girl On Fire – to talk starting out, challenges in the industry, mentors and making big things happen.

These women are connected, creative and loaded with professional pointers. Not only have Alice and Phanella set up a club you want to be part of (and immediately tell your friends about) but they’ve written a book too. Step Up: Women. Work. Success goes on sale from the 7th September, and yes you need it in your life.

The vibe? Think new style career manual for women complete with interviews and anecdotes from Step Up’s Women At The Top.

What inspired you to start up the Step Up Club?

Alice: As with many things in life, timing played a big part. Phanella had received an email from a female lawyer in Columbia, who’d seen one of her women’s leadership training programmes online.  She wrote asking for further reading material and rather predictably, Phanella couldn’t find anything that was quite right in terms of tone and credibility.

In true Phanella style, she made a decision then and there to write a book. She got touch with me and we did what any two women would do when faced with such a big career move: drink wine and talk everything through.

We discovered that we shared a passion for empowering other women, which we suppose is what you call feminism. The book was born. But the book wasn’t enough. Once we started working on the project, and were taken on by United Agents and later signed by Penguin Random House, we realised that women not only wanted a career manual, they needed a place – a platform really – to meet in person. The Step Up Club was born. We now hold monthly events, always in unique spaces that bring together and celebrate women from all professions in a cool, modern way.

What do you each bring to the table?

Alice: When we talk about ourselves in terms of Step Up, I am the creative one. The one who on the book side on things can take Phanella’s brilliant academic research and deliver to a woman who enjoys the weekend supplements and watching House of Cards.

As a journalist, I get a thrill from creating a voice that engages readers and as such, our book feels like an intelligent conversation with a friend – sharp and witty. As well as that, I’ve been able to draw on my celebrity contacts; there’s nothing quite like picking up the phone to Kirsty Young on a Monday morning to fill you with glee and bring another exciting layer to our Step Up proceedings. I am a visual person and that has meant that I’ve been a bit of a pain (read: perfectionist) when it comes to the book cover, but hopefully it’s an added bonus in terms of curating our events!

Phanella: For me, the fact that there are two of us is crucial. We come from completely different ends of the scale. I am corporate and logical, Alice is creative and passionate – and I think the resulting combination is part of what makes the Step Up Club unique. We challenge each other when necessary but, surprisingly, often agree and are able to support each other to achieve what we want. In simplistic terms when writing the book, I bring the knowledge of the subject from my experience as a coach and trainer, whereas Alice, as a writer, makes things stylish and readable.

What has been a career highlight so far?

Alice: My career highlight is probably also one of the most terrifying moments of my life. It was an ordinary day on the fashion desk at The Times, but then news broke that Alexander McQueen had died.

The four of us went into action mode; phone calls, investigative conversations with his old flames and friends, quotes, research – it was an entire month’s work in the space of two thrilling and tragic hours. This craziness culminated, for me at least, with a live broadcast to Sky News. I was standing on a makeshift box in the throbbing heart of the newsroom and then into my ear came the voice of the newsreader. Thankfully, I didn’t flunk it and my interview was shown on repeat for the next 24 hours.

Phanella: Having a book published has always been one of my goals so if you were to ask me again in September, I would say that. But since publication is still a few months away, I would say finishing my postgrad. Handing in my thesis a week before giving birth to my daughter (already with a toddler and pre-schooler in tow) is not an experience I would want to repeat, but it is something I am now incredibly pleased I did.

What has been the biggest career challenge that you’ve overcome?

Alice: Starting off. Journalism is a tough nut to crack; it’s a job with many gifted applicants and it’s one that holds no prisoners. Your work is always there for others to critique, which can make me feel vulnerable and exposed. Having said that, once you’re in, it’s a tight clan that looks after its own. I love and respect the people I work with and constantly learn from my peers.

Phanella: When I had my oldest son, Noah, I was running big European equity funds at JPMorgan. I had fully expected to return to work full-time quickly afterwards, which would have meant only seeing him awake at weekends. But I hadn’t anticipated how much I would miss him. So I left my job – which I loved – and re-qualified in organisational behaviour. It wasn’t a hard decision – there was no question in my mind it was the right thing to do – but going from my high status, high earning city career to starting all over again was tough. It challenged my identity and my confidence. Thankfully, with hindsight, I can say it was definitely the right thing to do.

Best bit of career advice you’ve ever been given?

Alice: It wasn’t so much advice but gut instinct; I wrote a five-year plan when I left university. It seemed like a good idea and helped focus my mildly wayward mind. Once it was written, I barely referred to it; but just knowing the plan was there, tucked inside one of my (many) notebooks, gave me guidance and drive – I was going to try my damnedest not to let myself down.

Phanella: When interviewing her for our book, law firm partner and 30% Club founding member Tamara Box told me about something her mother calls ‘Broken Cookie Syndrome’. As women, she said, we are socialised to put ourselves last, to accept the broken cookie. As she said it, I recognised myself. Like many women, I dislike confrontation and often put myself last. I’m still not perfect but am learning to assert myself more: to be less willing to accept the short straw.

Have you had a mentor in your professional life and how has this shaped your career?

Alice: Recently, I told Sarah Vine (columnist at The Daily Mail and founder of Get The Gloss) that she was my mentor. We don’t speak that often, although we did sit opposite each other for many years in our previous jobs. There’s something about her resilience, openness and wisdom that I find mesmerising and inspiring.

She was flattered with her new title, although I’m not sure we’ve maximized its potential. If I think about it objectively, all of my bosses (they are all women) have acted as mentors – they have listened, helped strengthen my confidence and will always share a laugh over a glass of wine if the opportunity presents itself. Being loosely mentored my many amazing women has toughened my resolve and made me a better journalist; I’m one of those people who never thinks she is the finished product, and my mentors and role-models help me to evolve.

Phanella: I don’t have one mentor, I have many that I turn to depending on the issue – a bit of a mentor smorgasbord. My family – particularly my mother and husband – are invaluable sounding boards when it comes to career decisions as is my best friend (conveniently a clinical psychologist!). There are also two senior women I work with closely who advise and support me in my corporate work. My supervisor – a senior coach you meet regularly for support with clients is also a bit of a sage. And in the last year, I have discussed almost everything with Alice so she is in there as my peer mentor too.

What makes you feel your most confident at work?

Alice: Being informed and knowledgeable about what I’m talking about. When I’m an expert on a subject (and I may only remain an expert for a short amount of time – journalism is a fluid and fast-paced industry) I am able to stand tall and think clearly.

Phanella: There are three things I need to make me feel on fire:

1. Knowing my stuff. I have to feel like an expert – I don’t bluff well. So making sure I’ve done the right reading, attended the right training, prepared properly is essential to my confidence in any situation.
2. Making sure my body feels right. Not necessarily in terms of exercise, but in terms of posture, breathing and poise. If you have to speak publicly for example – something we do a lot – making sure your feet are grounded, your shoulders are down and your breath is steady tricks your mind into feeling confident.
3. Looking right. Even in the most corporate of situations, if my hair is good, my outfit feels powerful and I am wearing heels (I am small) I feel like I will succeed.

What track makes you feel like a #GIRLONFIRE?

Alice: Ooo, great question! Janis Joplin ‘Piece of My Heart’, gravely and passionate in equal measure.

Phanella: My daughter is obsessed with Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. We turn it up loud and dance like crazy things. I always feel pretty fearless after that.

What questions are you asked most at Step Up Club events?

Alice: Success is a big topic of debate at all of our events, and an important theme in the book. Something we feel very strongly about is that each of us needs to define our own brand and type of success. We are all wonderful individuals, and as such, we need to stop trying to succeed in someone else’s image (usually that’s our best friend) and build our own viewpoint on subject.

Phanella: “How can I find the confidence to…. go back to work/find a new job/ask for a promotion?” At both our events and in my coaching work, confidence is the issue I most often address and even affects some of the most outwardly successful women I work with. We know there is a confidence gap but there is less information out there about how to tackle it. That’s why I am so excited for our next event and that we have been able to address it so practically in the book.

Name a woman who has really influenced your career

Alice: Probably my first boss Lisa Armstrong. Not only does she possess the broadest cultural reference of anyone I know, she is able to play music with words and her expressive story telling inspires me to try harder – or try less hard, as the case my be.

Phanella: My mother in law is my career role model. She has had a huge career whilst being very involved with her four children. She is a voice of reason and reassurance when I need advice about work. If I can be as successful as her in both arenas, I will be thrilled.