“I now call my mistakes ‘recalibration opportunities’ and I would like the power to turn words into tiny shards of ice…”

Published on 27th April 2016

Sarah's photo






Sarah Smith – Professional Coach

Director of Indigo and a board member of the London region of WISH, Sarah was a pioneer of leadership coaching in the 1990’s at The Woolwich and one of the first in the UK to be accredited as Professional Coach by the International Coaching Federation.  She has twice been voted Chartered Institute of Housing Trainer of the Year.  This year Indigo are sponsoring the Women in Housing Best Female Coach/Mentor Award.

“I now call my mistakes ‘recalibration opportunities’ and I would like the power to turn words into tiny shards of ice so when people are speaking rubbish their words would shatter when they hit the ground….”


If you weren’t in your current role what would you be doing? 

My pipedream job would be a wardrobe mistress in the theatre or dance.  I love the whole spectacle, seeing how beautiful materials and imagination can transport us out of our everyday lives.


What was your first ever job? 

A Summer job as a student in the staff canteen at Tip Top Bakery in Orpington.  On my second day, the frothy coffee machine broke.  There was almost a walkout by those thirsty bakers at tea break.


How did you end up working in Housing Sector? 

My English degree qualified me in 1983 for anything that appeared in Monday or Wednesday’s Guardian.  A Housing Management Trainee role at the London Borough of Greenwich was offered first.  I thought the Revolution was just around the corner, the days of the GLC suited me well.  I could, though, just have easily worked in Marketing, PR, or Publishing and as it was, once I’d started training women in the Housing Department in Assertiveness Skills, I moved quickly into learning and development.  Things came full circle in 2008 when I started running programmes for the CIH.


What’s on your list of things still to achieve in your life/career?

Travel wasn’t something I was bold enough to do when I was younger.  In the next couple of years our youngest will have flown the nest and it will be our time to explore.  India is first on my wish list


Which 3 people living or dead have influenced you most in your life? 

Dad always come to mind first.  He’s dedicated to his family and shows his love through service, not words.  He taught me little things, like looking up at the tops of buildings when I am walking through London. He also taught me about the big things like politics and power.  He’s 92 now and cares for my Mum, who has dementia, resisting as much help as he can.  I still talk through my worries and ideas with him.

My headmistress, Miss Pipe; she used to sweep into assembly in her academic gown each morning.  She announced Mrs Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservative Party with a beaming smile, even though Mrs T was busy wiping out her beloved Grammar Schools.  It was a landmark event, one that we as pioneering women needed to note.  She encouraged us to be among the first engineers or first girls to read Chinese at Cambridge.  I didn’t like Mrs Thatcher’s politics, was hopeless at Physics and wasn’t clever enough for Oxbridge.  But I got the point.
My husband Barry is my best friend and a great mentor.  He drives me crazy for being such a cliché when he doesn’t put out the bins, leaves his socks on the floor and retunes my car radio to Five Live Sport (where even is the MW button?).  However, he offers advice, calms me down, and gives me a hug when I need it.


What’s the superpower you would most like to have? 

The power to turn words into tiny shards of ice; so that when people are speaking rubbish, their words freeze as they leave their mouth and fall to the ground and shatter before anyone can hear them.  I’d use that power if I could get anywhere near Donald Trump.  I’d also use it on my youngest daughter if she gave me lip.


What are the qualities that you most admire in others?  

I like people who do amazing things and still seem down to earth.  Barak Obama strikes me like that every time I hear him speak, from singing Amazing Grace at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney to teasing the press at the White House Correspondent’s dinner with his Anger Translator.  Barak and Michele Obama seem to be working with their own innate sense of authenticity and this works for me.

Carol Matthews at Riverside Housing came across the same way at Women in Housing Conference last year.  She talked openly about the menopause, “the last taboo”, and I wanted to cheer.


What’s on your desk?

Aside from my laptop, phone and some papers, it’s pretty dull.  However, I’m privileged to work from home and am by a beautiful bay window that streams with light in the late afternoon.


What would be your perfect day away from work?

Rooting around a market or junk shops, buying something quirky and stopping somewhere for tea. A place near the sea would be best. There’s little better than the sound of sea on shingle and walk along a long beach.


What’s the best thing about your job? 

Meeting so many different and interesting people who trust me to work with them and then make the most incredible difference, often achieving things they had no idea they were capable of.


What was your worst mistake and what did you learn from it? 

Where do I start?  Did you know that when they analysed one of Matisse’s giant collages, they found 1000 pin holes where he made so many mistakes positioning his giant leaves before he was satisfied with the result?  I call my mistakes “recalibration opportunities” now.  However, since you ask, my most embarrassing mistake was to say that I had been sick rather than admit the reason why I hadn’t turned up to observe a Housing Management Committee when I was a trainee. The door was already closed when I arrived and I was too scared in that echoing Town Hall to make a late entrance, so I went home.   It seems completely ridiculous now.  The old fear gremlin got me in its grip.  My Area Manager obviously didn’t believe me and it taught me to be less of a coward.  I’m a hopeless liar anyway and I missed out.


What single thing would make your life easier? 

A cleaner.  Having someone, maybe with a magic wand so that they were barely in the house.  It would stop the low level grumbling I find myself engaging in whilst I clean.


Which 3 celebrities/Politicians would you not want to be stuck in a lift with and why?

Donald Trump because it would be embarrassing to stare (but it would be fun to try out the frozen words super power)
Daniel Craig because it’s not big and it’s not clever when a grown woman swoons
Jeremy Clarkson because he’s got too big for his boots and there wouldn’t be room for mine.


What advice would you give to someone starting out in their career in Housing?

Always remember why you came into Housing in the first place.  Most people I meet have a strong sense of vocation and a passion for making a difference.  Make sure you have a strong network who will keep you sane in the difficult times and cheer lead for you in the good ones. And finally, don’t say you’re sick if you’ve missed a meeting.

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