Lessons Learnt from a Labour of Love

This is me holding the very first copy of my first book. What the picture can’t communicate is the overwhelming sense of relief I was feeling, the rush of euphoria that had just hit me, and the complete and utter joy in my heart.

On September the 20th Superfast: Lead at Speed was published in the UK by John Murray Press (part of Hachette), and this week it has been published in the US.

To be honest, I was expecting publication to be a bit of an anti-climax after the years of work involved. There are hundreds of leadership and business books published every year and I had no money to PR or publicise it. But in the first week of publication it went to No. 1 in the Amazon Bestseller charts for Business Books Change Management and across the last few weeks, hundreds of people have sent me pictures of Superfast arriving and positive reviews. It’s been an incredible start, a fascinating experience and now on US publication day, I’m pausing to reflect on what it’s felt like.
This is my first book and my third ‘baby’. I have learnt so much in the research process and learnt a lot about the publishing process. I’ve also learnt that writing a book has extraordinary parallels to another process.
Here’s why writing a book is similar to the experience of becoming a parent.

The start of the process is rather fun

Coming up with the concept of the book and researching it was glorious. I interviewed 100 incredible leaders, all with different personalities, all with differing organisation challenges (including, for example, how to help a hyper-growth business grow up without slowing up, how to make a global supertanker move at speed, how to save the world from terrorism).

Fascinating people who were all extraordinarily generous with their insights. Everyone immediately understood the importance of the topic and they wanted to share what they’d learnt about dealing with the pressure of an accelerated world, and how to inspire the right velocity in an organisation.

Even if not one person had bought Superfast: Lead at Speed it would have been worth it for the experience of meeting so many intelligent people, all talking openly about the challenges of being responsible and responsive in a Superfast world.

Bringing it to life is extraordinarily painful

You know that giving birth will really hurt. Everyone knows it. Still both times I have a clear memory of saying afterwards ‘It was so **** painful’ in an incredulous, slightly aggrieved way to my husband, parents, friends as if it was a surprise to me (even second time round).

For perspective, I had two straightforward water births, minimal drugs, no complications so I think I had it easy compared to many, and still… it wasn’t easy. #Understatement. Writing a book was the same.

I remember having lunch with the incredible Carl Honoré who has written several insightful books urging the world to slow down (In Praise of Slow and the Slow Fix) and him saying charmingly, politely, “You mean you’re really not taking time off work to write it?” I am a fast person. I read quickly. I write quickly. Blogs and articles don’t take much time for me. So why would a book be any different I thought with a shockingly arrogant air that I look back on with ruefulness.

Writers know it takes time to bring a book to life. Publishers, of course, also do. In the process of bringing the book  I met lots of positive publishers and editors who were overwhelmingly supportive of publishing the book (I chose to go with John Murray Press in the end partly because they published Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking which is one of my favourite books of all time). Nigel Wilcockson from Penguin Random House was a hugely impressive editor I met on the journey (he edited Alistar CampbelI’s Winners which is also a cracker of a book). He firmly and gently urged me to be more realistic with my deadlines on writing and publishing (“Sophie, this isn’t a software programme you can update – you need to be happy with it when you publish it. The process will take time.”) Reader, he was so right. I wanted to make it happen at speed (because I like making things happen at pace).

Writing a book you feel proud of is a great example of ‘thinking slow’; you need to put the ideas together, let them percolate, and take time writing, editing, making them make sense to people. I had assembled a huge number of stories and ideas I wanted to share. They need to be curated to make them as useful as possible. I wanted a book which was accessible and enjoyable to read. That requires thought, crafting, endless rewriting, looking for phrases which would sum up the point as pithily as possible. Doing this around a full-time job where the needs of clients, my team and the business were more immediately urgent was challenging.
Writing a book like this is ‘a labour of love’ and as hard as the labour word implies; it hurts, it’s hard and sometimes you think it will kill you. And it takes thought and that needs time. Especially the editing… oh, the pain of the editing…

Last but not least, you can’t do it alone

I’m not naturally good at asking for help. Having my first child totally transformed my relationship with my parents and my in-laws (for the better) as we asked for and needed support from them. They gave love, help and babysitting with huge generosity and it made everything easier. Becoming a parent brought me closer to those around me going through the same challenges and to the grandparents and godparents we roped in to help us worry, guide and care for the children.

Writing this book tested the patience of those around me – my incredible team at Caffeine who were never anything but supportive and enthusiastic and helped so much, my husband and daughters who knew that holidays included me disappearing from 6-30-8.30am every day, my editor Jonathan Shipley who got email after email from me (mainly about the cover but also about the constantly changing publication dates – not ideal for someone who was keen to give birth as early as possible).

The book also made me realise how fundamentally generous people are by nature. I was overwhelmed by all my friends and contacts who responded to the simple question ‘do you happen to know any inspiring leaders I could speak to?’ and promptly introduced me to a stellar list of interviewees who were also generous. I had only 3 ‘nos’ and 100 ‘okay, then’ responses to my requests for interviews.

Becoming a parent made me feel closer to my family. Becoming a writer has led to some incredible friendships with the warm and helpful people who made it all possible. This includes the interviewees who are some of the busiest people in business but still responded with superfast, short, helpful responses to the inevitable ‘please can you confirm that you’re happy with what I’ve said you’ve said’ and have given unstinting support for the book.
I’m optimistic about the future of the businesses I’ve featured in the book because they are lead by people with smart brains, generous hearts and good consciences.

My experience of publishing a book has taught me that becoming a parent and becoming a published author have many things in common. Some fun involved, much pain and hard ‘labour’ but all in all, leading to an optimistic view on the brilliance of people in this complex world. And with both experiences, without any doubt, despite the discomfort, the hard work and the pain… it’s completely and utterly worth it.
Want to see what I’ve brought into the world? Here’s more on Superfast: Lead at Speed. I’d love to hear your thoughts @s_devonshire on Twitter, @ms_speeds on Instagram or

And I’d love to ask for one last piece of help – can you help me?  I’m proud of being a female business author, of the messages in the book and want to introduce people to its thinking on leadership to stimulate debate in a broader way.I’ve been speaking widely on the future of leadership at events and inside organisations about how leaders transform their businesses at the right pace.  If you know someone looking for a (female) speaker on the leadership implication of technology or role of people understanding in a Superfast world, please do let me know.  Thank you.

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