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January 22, 2020

From Circus Performer to HR Professional!

Laura Kelly

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Here's a curious observation: like many of the HR experts I meet through my work, I am a middle child. There must be something about the peacekeeping, compromise and negotiation skills middle children must learn that prepares us for a career in HR! But I used to perform in a very different arena – the circus!

I grew up near London, and my family was a little untraditional in that dad was the stay-at-home parent. He'd been a school principal but chose to reduce his hours and look after my siblings and me while mom worked full time.

She was a very successful project manager at a multinational investment bank, and she was a massive inspiration to me.

Her degree was in computer science, and dad's background was engineering and science. But the family has a creative streak, too. My sister is an artist and my brother is a baker who has made many a fine wedding cake!

Catching the Circus Bug!

Nowadays, I share mom's fondness for business and spreadsheets, and I'm at my best when I'm working with technical types. But, as a teen, I chose an English degree and planned to be an English teacher.

I spent a summer teaching in an orphanage in India during my studies, and saw the passion those children had for learning. Suddenly, I didn't feel I could teach in the U.K. after all. It seemed to me that a lot of people in higher education didn't really appreciate what they had.

It was a chance discovery back home that set me on the path to a very different career. 

I'd enjoyed gymnastics as a child so, when I found out there was a converted church in my neighborhood that offered circus classes, I signed up and quickly "caught the bug." 

Trust and the Flying Trapeze

I started off learning the hula hoop, which became my ground-based act. Then I progressed to the aerial arts when I went to New York to teach circus in a summer camp. 

A lot of the team came from New Zealand and, when our U.S. contract ended, they asked if I wanted to tour with them for a while. I was four months out of university, with no commitments and no job –it was too much of an opportunity to pass up.

circus to HR career
Laura on the aerial hoop!

I learned aerial hoop, silks and, after a time, corde lisse – a single rope you climb up, tie yourself in, and roll back down again. During my time performing I found that some relatively simple tricks were real crowd-pleasers while the more technically difficult ones might not raise a response. So, I would save up my hardest tricks for the experts to appreciate. An approach I'm not ashamed to say I occasionally use in the office as well!

I tried flying trapeze for a few months – long enough to learn that I was happier trusting my own grip than trusting someone else to catch me. Some might say I've some trust issues there, but I don't think standard psychological assessments really come into play when you're 12 meters in the air!

Circus Skills Boosted My Self-Esteem

When someone asked me what I loved about the circus all I could say was that it made me happier than I'd ever been before. Looking back, I can see that circus helped get me over some quite damaging beliefs about my abilities.

I used to suffer from low self-esteem, despite always achieving good grades. But, in circus, I found I had full autonomy over what skills I worked to develop. I was constantly mastering new tricks or improving existing ones. And my purpose was clear – I was creating a beautiful performance that showcased my strength and skill and that made people feel something. 

Circus had certainly delivered Pink's Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose motivation model for me.

Believe it or not, I wouldn't consider myself all that adventurous. Despite the thrill of earning a living from performance, I always felt drawn back to having a regular job, a steady income, and something that challenged me mentally, not just physically. I get comfort from being able to think my way through problems, and there's not much call for that in the circus life.

So, when I found myself back in London, I switched to performing part time and working a nine-to-five office job for a recruitment firm.

I spotted a job advert for a little-known business called Pact Coffee, with just 14 employees. It needed someone to sort out its internal paperwork, and that someone turned out to be me. Turns out that being able to make it in the chaos of a circus is pretty good preparation for the chaos of a start-up.

Have a Passion Outside of Your Career

Years later, Pact’s CEO and founder Stephen Rapoport and I were talking about what made a good Pact employee. One of the key things that came out was people who had passions outside of their careers. Even in those early days, Stephen knew how important that drive is – and he confessed to interviewing me because of my circus background, but he hired me because of my passion for developing people.

Pact was a very steep learning curve into the worlds of finance and then HR. With its tech start-up culture, I was given a lot of autonomy and, not having had much experience with other HR professionals, I made a lot of early decisions based on just quick research and gut feel. 

Pact grew quickly, to 80 employees in three years, and my role grew in proportion. I loved bringing people into a workplace that made them feel motivated and energized. But there was a lot for us to learn, not least compliance, and the importance of training and support for managers. 

circus career HR
Laura swapped her hula hoop for a laptop!

I later moved on to my current position Senior HR Business Partner at Arkk Solutions, a SaaS provider from the Financial market offering a range of innovative tech to improve the reporting of Finance teams globally. In Arkk Solutions we’re incredibly focused on personal development, one of the small ways we’re committed to that is by giving every employee £500 a year for PD outside of their work-life. We’ve had people spend it on music lessons and design courses, and I of course use it for circus classes.

Arkk’s culture is built around the values of Winning Together, Authentic, Responsive, Positive and Aware and it’s a place where I feel very confident not only being myself but taking everything I’ve learned, from all parts of my life, and using it to help make people’s work-life that much more enjoyable.

Although each of these roles has been challenging and I’ve worked with some incredible people, I would have to say that the person who's had the biggest influence on my post-circus career has been my mom.

I didn't realize until I started in HR what a difference it made to me growing up with a very strong, intelligent and ambitious woman in the house. I often discuss issues with her to this day.

I believe that the confidence I learned in the circus, combined with her influence is why I’m so successful in my HR career. I’m able to bring the HR agenda to the table whenever it’s needed, I don’t shy away from difficult conversations and I enjoy challenging myself and others to be the very best version of themselves, no matter how hard the journey might be.

You can find out exactly what Laura learned at Pact, and how she uses Mind Tools to support her people at Arkk, in her Emerald Works blog. 

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