Flexible working is not just for parents

02 December 2015

  • WBS Alumna Lizzie Penny is an advocate of flexible working
  • She believes everyone, not just parents, can benefit from the way of working
  • Her firms have moved away from the established 9-5 culture
  • They take a meritocratic approach to reward success

It is sometimes difficult to juggle the daily grind of nine-to-five work and being a busy parent.

For Lizzie Penny, however, raising her son and continuing in a top executive role were not seen as mutually exclusive.

Already running her own marketing agency, Futureproof, she set up Huckleberry Partners to promote true flexible working, not just for parents, but for anyone talented, ambitious, and keen to work in their own way.

Now she wants to champion true flexible working for everyone held back by what she thinks of as an outdated system.

Ms Penny has built a community where everyone works to a timetable that suits their needs, whether it be around raising a family, looking after elderly parents, doing philanthropic work, simply just enjoying a hobby or even not liking early mornings.

“People should be judged on their output not where they sit to work or what their individual work style is,” says Ms Penny, originally from Somerset but now residing in Shepherd’s Bush in West London.

“It’s crazy more people aren’t already working in this flexible way. Nine-to-five was a system established during the industrial revolution and is a 200 year-old convention. With the technology available now we should all be able to unshackle ourselves from this outdated and unproductive practice.”

Lizzie Penny image 1
Image: Georgie Clarke
Leading the way: WBS alumna Lizzie Penny is a firm advocate of flexible working for all staff including: parents, hobbyists and even those that are simply not very keen on early morning starts

Ms Penny began her working life as a Scholar at Arthur Anderson, an accounting firm. While she enjoyed her time there, the role made her realise she was not excited about a career in accountancy, so instead she embarked on a BSc International Business and Spanish degree.

It was while in Madrid on the third year of her course and working for Mars she really got a flavour for marketing. She was in sales but was really jealous of the marketing team next to her as they looked to be having “all the fun”.

A varied career involving roles as Assistant Brand Manager for the Be Good to Yourself range at Sainsbury’s and a number of roles in Diageo as Brand Manager for Guinness, Pimm’s, and Smirnoff as well as a move to their innovation team ensued.

It was while working on the Pimm’s brand that it dawned on Ms Penny that marketing agencies were never fully delivering the goods and focussing on what she saw as a proper return on investment.

She says: “I’m a big believer that marketing should be seen as an investment not a cost.

“What I was really after was an outsource marketing agency capable of taking care of Pimm’s Winter in its entirety.

“This was my first eureka moment and the reason for setting up Futureproof. I found nobody was an ex-client in the agencies I’d seen, so there was a gap in the market. At Futureproof our fees are connected to the effectiveness of our work and this sets us apart.

“Many of these agencies seemed to be just in it to win awards rather than fully aligned with what I wanted to do, so I left to start Futureproof.”

So in 2009, at the age of 26 and with the backdrop of a major financial recession, Ms Penny decided to establish Futureproof.

Some might question the wisdom of launching a new company smack bang in the middle of the deepest UK recession since the second world war, but Ms Penny saw it as a blessing rather than a curse.

“I actually think we’re better as a business as we set up in a recession,” says the 33 year-old. “If you can survive that, you can survive anything. You know how to thrive if you can survive and grow in the hard times.  Certainly at the time I wouldn’t have said that, as it was tough for my first venture, but equally looking back now there was absolutely nothing wrong with doing it that way.”

Lizzie Penny image 2
Image: Georgie Clarke
Work-life balance: Ms Penny balances her role as CEO of Futureproof and Huckleberry Partners with raising her young son

After starting without any founding clients – after all she had worked client-side all her career – she created a business with 30 members of staff and a turnover of more than £1.5 million annually.

“While I had never run a business before, my degree at Warwick helped set me up,” says Ms Penny. “I had an applied understanding, but also I think the hands-on experience is the best way to learn, it’s so practical to learn through trying to set up a business. We really learnt from the ground up about all the different aspects of running a company.

“We grew Futureproof with no investment to the company it is now.”

After having her first son, though, Ms Penny’s priorities changed and work-life balance moved to the top of her agenda.

“Though called Futureproof, we felt our operating model was still traditional, it wasn’t actually as progressive as we wanted it to be. This was partly driven by me having my son and increasingly wanting to work flexibly, but also meeting incredibly talented people who didn’t want to work nine to five every week.

“These people were compromising their careers in order to get a flexible working arrangement that suited them.”

So earlier this year she launched her second business, a virtual community called Huckleberry Partners, establishing itself rapidly as a thriving group of talented individuals who wanted to work flexibly without compromising their careers.

In six months it has had over 250 applications to join the community and now has 100 Associates, a number which is growing every day.

“We haven’t done any marketing for ourselves, and yet here we are with Associates in 12 countries,” says Ms Penny. “We wanted to try it first to test the model, but we found everyone we told knew someone who wanted to work in this way.”

The core belief of Huckleberry Partners is a meritocratic approach.

“People are traditionally judged on presenteeism, where they are at their desk more than they need to be to prove how hard they are working. We don’t believe in that - everyone should be judged on the work they deliver, regardless of where, when or how they choose to deliver it,” adds Ms Penny.

This approach could go a long way to driving diversity in the workplace, as well as addressing the gender imbalance on company boards and Ms Penny can see the way Huckleberry Partners operates shifting the dynamics of the boardroom in the next five years as more companies adapt to such a method of working.

She adds: “With a focus on empathy it will be interesting to see how that changes the dynamic in the workplace, if people can pick their own work style, I truly believe there will be less of a gender imbalance and bring more diversity generally.”

Lizzie Penny is Co-Founder and Joint CEO of Huckleberry Partners, and Founder and Joint CEO of Futureproof, as well as a Non-Executive Director at the Ethical Fashion Forum. Find out more at www.huckleberrypartners.com and www.futureproof.co.uk.

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