The leadership lessons of Kathryn Parsons

Kathryn Parsons founder of Decoded

In 2011 Kathryn Parsons co-founded Decoded with a credit card and spent £27 on marketing. Today it has 150 staff on three continents, she chairs the UK Institute of Coding Advisory Panel and Whitehall seeks her advice. The champion of technology education shares what she’s learnt so far

Try to get investors engaged in your product. That’s my tip for anyone raising money in any form, no matter what stage you’ve got to with your offering. It’s hard for people to buy into a vague idea, so you need to put the product in their hands and make them part of your journey. Decoded obtained funding from Guardian Media Group. Its chief exec at the time, Andrew Miller, was passionate about education and believed in what we were doing. More crucially, he experienced our product.

Barriers to entry need to be lowered. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t had a business idea. The entrepreneurial environment in the UK is better than ever in terms of the access it offers to supportive networks such as the IoD, venture capital and so on. But we still need more of a culture that makes people with commercial ideas feel safe enough to take risks with them, fail and learn. This would make entrepreneurship something that anyone would feel they have a chance to explore.

You have to make mistakes. Anyone who says that they haven’t gone wrong is definitely lying. So many brilliant business ideas don’t realise their potential for many reasons – internal squabbles, insufficient finance, spending on things that aren’t right for consumers and so forth. You have to test out many ways to execute your ideas. We talk to about one million people face to face each year and millions more online.

Stay true to your principles. There are three core principles of Decoded that stay the same in everything we do: “no talk”, as action speaks louder than words; “make it fast”, as people want to learn in a day, not a year, because they don’t have the time or money; and “decode it” – ie, take away the clichés and never use geeky jargon.

Learning is the job. I heard Beth Comstock say this when she was vice-chair at General Electric. It resonated with me. There is a global need for digitally literate business leaders. All boards should be able to say that they are 100 per cent confident about the tech trends that are likely to affect their companies: big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and cyber security. The employees of business are the economy, so business leaders need to take everyone on that journey with them, creating cultures that enable people to learn throughout their lives.

Create an environment where brilliant individuals can thrive. The way people envisage their work and life differs greatly from how they saw it 10 years ago. You can’t say you want entrepreneurial staff and then not let them be entrepreneurial. Employers that are embracing the future of work are lean and agile. They’re using new tech tools to help their staff work smarter. It’s all about trust and measurable results here, not about hanging out together and eating avocado on toast – as some people imagine we all do in this industry.

Find someone who’s already done what you want to do and talk to them. Before I went to the US, I chatted with Sarah Wood and Richard Moross, the co-founders of Unruly and Moo respectively. They had already launched their businesses in America and were able to tell me all about the pitfalls of this notoriously difficult process.

Creating something that changes lives is rewarding. We are driven by our mission at Decoded, but I never expected to be working with the government. Collaborating with a community of people campaigning for coding to be put on the national curriculum, we persuaded the government to make the subject mandatory from the age of seven. Does that solve the need for an educational revolution? No. But are primary school children being exposed to something they might be phenomenal at? Yes. And I think that’s amazing.

Great leaders are human, but driven. I’ve been inspired by the leaders I have met on the board at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. ITV’s Carolyn McCall, for instance, is very positive, human and empathetic, but she also has an impact and gets results. You need to have both to be a great leader.

We need to ask “what can we solve next?” What are the grand challenges we could be solving in the UK? What’s going to make our lives amazing and how can we harness the most innovative minds to tackle issues posed by our ageing society, pollution and so on? In this country we have brilliant problem-solvers, grit and entrepreneurialism, but how can we focus everyone and work together? Technology has a big part to play in this. It’s something I’m really excited about.

Kathryn Parsons bio

Parsons started tech education company Decoded in 2011, promising to teach anyone to code in one day. The business is now active in more than 85 cities, offering courses on topics ranging from blockchain to AI and providing training for global businesses such as ING and Qantas.

In addition to her role as co-CEO, Parsons chairs the UK Institute of Coding Advisory Panel and serves the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as a non-exec. She also sits on the mayor of London’s business advisory board.

About author

Hannah Gresty

Hannah Gresty

Until she left the magazine in August 2019, Hannah Gresty was the assistant editor of Director. She previously worked on a local news website and at a fashion PR company before joining the Director team as editorial assistant in 2016.

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