Women in Business Q&A: Christine Townsend, Founder and CEO, MusterPoint

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Christine Townsend

Christine Townsend is Founder and CEO of MusterPoint, a social media management system that was created after her experiences in the emergency services as a crisis communications specialist. She has a background in managing the media for the police and Central Government and spent ten years as a Special Constable. She now runs MusterPoint whilst advising organisations around the world on managing challenging public engagement situations. Her experiences include working on high profile events such as the funeral of Baroness Thatcher, the London riots and the Queen's Diamond Jubliee. She set the company up whilst working full time and recently secured second round funding which has enabled her to grow MusterPoint in the UK and Europe. She's passionate about providing support to the public sector as well as enabling stronger relationships with the private sector for better collaboration.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
It would be fair to say that I've lived an amazing life already. Whether through chance or design, I've experienced so much and witnessed the human condition at it's best and worse. Only by exposing myself to risk and challenges have I truly been able to see what I'm capable of. I've taken in everything and tried to learn wherever possible from these situations and people that may not realise the effect they've had on me.

Spending time as a police officer you see the most amazing, life changing scenes and it makes you aware of your own mortality, the chances you have been given. To waste that would be, pardon the pun, a crime. Yes, I've made mistakes but I'm happy to admit that and take anything away from those mistakes that ultimately helps me lead the life I am happy with.

A combination of naivety and enthusiasm got me so far and then I realised I had to sharpen my focus and work hard to make something of it. I think that if you can show determination, ambition, humility and pragmatism then you can be a leader. It's lonely and it's hard, but when you can see your leadership help someone else and see them shine, it's worth it. I don't think I'm scared of anything now. I'm cautious but I'm definitely not scared. The more you push yourself and realise that things are never as bad you thought they would be, then you can crack on. You never know, it might turn out to be something amazing.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at MusterPoint?
I learnt that nothing is easy but that if you're creative and push the boundaries you can achieve amazing things. I always felt that there was nothing particularly for the emergency services and public sector so it was out of frustration that I created MusterPoint. I think many feel second best when it comes to procuring services and that some companies aren't that bothered. I could see how unique the environment was and that skilled and experienced people were being let down by poor tools and support. I've been there, I know how it feels to be awake at 3am with the burden of national media scrutiny on your shoulders. This is invaluable experience that I will always be grateful for, regardless of how stressful it was. Being criticised by the public and the media at large is hard and it takes a certain type of person to deal with that. I wasn't that person at first, but I learnt hard and I learnt fast.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at MusterPoint?
Highlights have been getting funding, seeing the first client we had use MusterPoint in an emergency situation, sharing my experiences with emergency services from around the world and being able to create a living for others. Actually, just doing it. Taking something from my head and making it A Thing. I did that and occasionally I allow myself a moment of pride.

The challenges are that you are where the buck stops. The work never stops so it has to be something you love. Personal relationships go out of the window and there is no stability. I've had moments late at night wondering what on earth I was doing - I could have a decent paid job with decent hours and holidays, but I chose not to. When you're tired and alone and only you know in your heart of hearts why you're doing something, you do get doubts but then you realise that you're on the verge of something brilliant. It's a powerful feeling.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Be prepared to change the way you live - and be prepared to lose many people in your life. You need to be self-assured, resilient and flexible. There's no doubt about it, you will be in the minority. Always learn. I used to scribble words and phrases down that I didn't understand in meetings and spend hours reading, researching and learning. Be aware of who you are and never lose that. It's hard when you're being pulled in all different directions but your identity is key so protect it all costs. Don't feel you have to fit into a mould.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
That you never stop learning. I've just turned forty and know there's at least another forty years of learning left.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I love to travel so whenever I go anywhere for MusterPoint I try to take a couple hours out to explore, but it's simple things like going for a run when I can or mucking about with my Lego (my second biggest indulgence after flying). I always have breakfast on my own and read the paper. I love fencing too, so for one hour a week I get to leave everything behind. I've learnt it's important to spend time with people that count. My best friend and I meet every fortnight. She keeps me grounded and I entertain her with my adventures. I genuinely love what I do so I can get a bit over excited, but as long as I give myself a little time to myself then it's fine. I can never have a strict routine as i'm often all over the place, but I listen to my body and take time out when I need to.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Lack of confidence. I know so many amazing women who I would love to see start out on their own, but they lack the confidence to do so. Some of them have awards for bravery, or have managed complex political situations yet don't feel they could do it. I think the context gets lost because they see that as their job and so just get on with it. I would love to be able to reframe things for more women. I have few qualifications and I've done some awful, terrible jobs that I've been useless at but I wouldn't give up. I've lost everything in the past, yet I'm still here. I believe women can thrive and they don't have to compete with men or be fearful about if they are up to it. They are, they just need a little more support.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have a business coach who has totally reframed the way I see things and the progress I have made in the past year or so has been unbelievable. Having someone you can talk to without judgement who also applies logic and reason to your thoughts and fears is invaluable. I also had a mentor when I was in the police. Seeing a woman do as well as she had in a challenging environment was so helpful to me. She told it like it was and wouldn't let me get away with being self-indulgent but the best thing was I saw her walk the walk. She was a great leader and I was lucky to have that time with her.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Many of my experiences come from policing and politics. Lynne Owens who is the Director General of the National Crime Agency is a real inspiration - grounded yet determined. Hampshire Police Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney was always excellent in the way she listened to people, regardless of rank, yet was firm when she had to be. I think what's happening with Theresa May is interesting and regardless of your views, she has what it takes to lead in very difficult circumstances. Not all leaders are high profile. I've had an amazing Sergeant when I was a special who was courageous and fantastic to look up to and I've also seen women like Brighton Labour Councillor Emma Daniel take risks for the good of others. Then of course there's my best friend who as a teacher and a mother is the ultimate leader, surely? How anyone can be a mother is beyond me! I'd fail miserably.

What do you want MusterPoint to accomplish in the next year?
We have some new tools being integrated in MusterPoint that I think will go a long way to helping the emergency services manage their risk around natural disasters but also provide the public and other agencies with the information they need. I want to take this to the US and also strengthen the products we have around managing the media and public engagement. Ultimately I'd like to give some of my colleagues the opportunity to really make the most of the skills and abilities they have. All I ever wanted to do was have ideas and make them happen. I'm very lucky to be able to do that.