Katie Litchfield is executive director of the Financial Times’ The 125, a forum providing FT curated events for senior executives. Since 2013, Katie has driven the prestigious international media organisation’s exclusive FT 125 Forum and later initiated the incredibly popular FT 125 Women’s Forum for mid-level career women. Some of the past speakers at Katie’s events have included Bill Gates, George Osborne (while still Chancellor of the Exchequer), Kofi Annan and Mark Carney, and up and coming speakers include Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president for EMEA for Facebook.
“…My biggest advice is to go with whatever you are passionate about because it will feel less like work…”
Falling in love with newspapers
During my final year at university of a photography course, I realised that I didn’t want to be a photographer but I knew I loved pictures so I investigated what I could do out there. As part of my research, I got work experience at the Daily Mail, Cosmopolitan and Elle to see if I wanted to work in newspapers and magazines. Then the Daily Mail offered me a job and it was there I fell in love with newspapers. I loved that I could choose pictures for publication one day and then the next morning I would see my work everywhere.
From the Daily Mail, I branched out to the national dailies. And then I landed at the Financial Times and it was the experience of working with these incredibly intelligent people who worked with such integrity that made me realise that there was no other publication like it. I’ve been there ever since.
Transitioning from a role managing pictures to running events
I got promoted to deputy head of pictures just before going on maternity leave. I had always had a burning desire to organise events but it was not something that I had ever done before.
While on maternity leave, I decided to work on my organising skills through charity work. I became the chair of the National Childbirth Trust and I ran that for two years with 600 members in Croydon. I put on my first event, which was great, but I forgot to publicise it.
You learn pretty quickly and on the next event publicised and also got Cerrie Burnell (the former CBeebies presenter) to present it. We made a lot of money and that gave me the confidence when I returned to the FT to volunteer to organise a charity auction. That became the platform for the FT to see my new skills and offer me a new role in the commercial department.
My role on a day to day basis
My day as executive director for The 125 and the Women’s Forum is always full. Often, I need to sit down with editorial about the programme of events we have on the schedule and brainstorming new event ideas. Then there is identifying potential speakers – we are always looking for world-class talent to speak at our forums – and tracking them down and persuading them to appear.
— The 125 (@FT125) September 15, 2017
I run a small dynamic team of eight people, so I meet with them regularly, both one to one and as a group, to keep us moving forward as a team. And then I am out meeting potential new members: we are in the business of bringing in new members.
Stepping out of my comfort zone and moving from one area of work into another
It was a massive transition from editorial to commercial. I had worked in editorial for a decade and I had built up a good reputation. Nobody really knew who I really was or what I was capable of in commercial. So, I had to start again and prove to them what I was about. I had to prove that with no financial experience at all I could start a business and make it work.
I decided to stay close to my editorial contacts. So, for the first two years, I stayed on the editorial floor even though commerical were paying me. Now we are up and running, I am up with commercial.
Carving a new role for myself and proving the doubters wrong
When I was given the role of organising The 125, my first event was with Mark Carney (the Governor of the Bank of England). It was his first speech in the role, which was huge for the FT, and it was organised to kick-start the celebrations for the newspaper’s 125th anniversary.
There were CEOs, senior executives and Chairs of boards in the room, along with VIPs. They wanted it to be live streamed and organise a press conference. This was huge and I hadn’t done it before professionally and certainly not at this level. So, you can imagine the pressure was on for a former picture editor with no experience being trusted to pull this event off. But I thrive under pressure and I did have a lot of help. The event was a massive success and it really was a great way to launch my new career.
The changing way the media is portraying female leaders
There is still a fair way to go in how women of substance are portrayed. I mean, a recent picture comparing the legs of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon (who is speaker at The 125 next month) on the front cover of a national newspaper was in poor taste. But there have been advances.
Men in corporations are waking up to the fact that there is a problem. That women in business are being told that if they want to progress in their chosen field they have to wear heels is not acceptable. Reverse mentoring is helping because it is opening up the eyes of senior executives. There is change happening.
It’s not just about the number of women on boards anymore – having clarity on the gender pay gap next year, for example, is definitely a step forward. The media is now being helpful in opening up people’s minds to the fact that there is a problem and it still needs to be addressed.
Advice to others looking to transition into a new professional field
My biggest advice is to go with whatever you are passionate about because it will feel less like work. Then find a charity in this area – they are wonderful places to hone your skills and they are more than happy to have your help. Being able to learn about a skill will give you the confidence to go out and become a success in the business world.
Coming up next for me and The 125
So, The 125 has its first event outside London where the Financial Times editor, Lionel Barber, is interviewing Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh next month. And The 125 Women’s Forum is welcoming Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president at Facebook for EMEA. Rather excitingly we have some very big speakers close to being confirmed, but it is a little too early to name them.