Tammy Willson

tammy wilson

It was inspiring to chat with Tammy Willson who has forged a successful career in the media world, either side of establishing, running and then selling her own wedding planning business. An exceptional and authentic leader, Tammy is both driven and humble in her approach to life, getting involved in activities that play to her strengths; that she is passionate about; and that make a positive difference to the many lives that she touches. 


What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

I have bought copies of Untamed by Glennan Doyle for female friends quite a few times since I read it a couple of years ago. It’s about rediscovering your purpose during midlife and I think empowering the women I cherish to unleash their inner cheetah is always worth doing (IYKYK).

Books and reading have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Mr Onslow, my English teacher when I was 11, introduced me to Shakespeare and literature and opened up my world. ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier is the first book I remember really loving and there are still a couple of Shakespeare soliloquies I can half-recite.

I try to reread The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald every year. I was an intern on Capitol HIll during Bill Clinton’s first administration and I fell in love with the country then. This book beautifully captures the elusive, yet addictive, pursuit of the American Dream. 


What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? (Brand and model, where you found it?)

A pack of assorted sized cable ties in gold, silver and red leather – I love things to be tidy and organised and these are a simple, and aesthetically pleasing, way of doing that.


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

I am not a fan of failing but I’ve tried to train myself to see it as a great way to learn. I was brought up to believe that if you work hard you will always come out on top (which isn’t realistic) so, when I failed my driving test for the first time, it hit me hard. Not least because I grew up in the countryside and being able to drive yourself (and your friends) around was social currency. 

‘Fall down seven times, stand up eight’ – a Japanese proverb that reminds me how failing is moving forward and that often, what’s going on today isn’t the most important thing, but a step on the path to achieving your goals. It feels like a good lesson for life too as it can really help to defuse stressful situations by focusing on the long term goal.

I’d be lying if I said I had a favourite failure. But, a perceived failure – being ill and missing my A-levels felt like the biggest failure at the time – led me to the life I’m living now. I ended up going to a different university and studying a different subject which sent me in a direction that I don’t think I would have taken otherwise. So, I have no regrets.


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it —metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

So many quotes, how many billboards can I have!

Always be kinder than you feel. 

Kindness is always a good decision – you never know what someone is going through and how much of a difference a kind word, or just a smile, might make to someone’s day.. 


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

In 2019 I trained as a counsellor for Shout. Shout is the UK’s first and only free, confidential, 24/7 text messaging support service for anyone who is struggling to cope, and particularly for young people. 

I found it so humbling, and rewarding, to be able to support people when they need it the most and the training also gave me some valuable skills that I use in my day-to-day life, parenting two daughters. 

I also invested in some therapy for myself at the start of 2021 and now have coping mechanisms that help me reflect on how I’m feeling, be less competitive with myself and suppress some of my total control freakery.


What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

Watching videos of baby goats wearing pyjamas is pure joy! 


In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life? 

I haven’t always felt like this. I’ve been surrounded by youth – and the pursuit of it – throughout my career, especially when working in magazines. I am now a firm believer that getting older is a privilege. Not everyone gets to grow old – my aunt died young and I am acutely aware that life can change in a heartbeat. Remembering to be grateful every day and to tell the people I love – and who love me – that I love them, often, is always a good idea.


What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world”? 

Recently I have been involved in the recruitment and pastoral care of some of News UK’s apprentices. I recommend that they listen, watch and learn. That they ask lots of questions, take advantage of the experience and expertise they will come across and that they can be comfortable with not knowing everything. And that working hard is an important skill to hone.

Having said that, it is important to find balance and know that what won’t be written on your gravestone is how late you stayed in the office every night.

Try not to be wooed by job titles or pay rises – focus on your strengths, your values and find roles that inspire you to do your best work. I’ve seen too many people seek out promotions for the job title and salary that takes them away from doing what they’re best at, and it makes them miserable. I’ve done it myself, at least once.


What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

This is an industry forged in a culture of presenteeism and it is still ingrained in many leaders. Years ago I was ‘trained’ to never leave the office until after my boss did and the idea that our best work is done sitting at a desk just to be seen, is outdated and will not attract or retain the best talent in the future. But it’s a hard habit to break and requires a conscious effort and constant reminders that work didn’t stop during the pandemic when nobody was in the office (quite the opposite).


In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realisations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

“No”, is a complete sentence. 

When I ran Magic Dust – my wedding planning business – I used to prioritise work by asking myself a simple question, “Will it make me rich or will it make me famous?” In other words, will doing this piece of work, going to this party, taking on this client or being interviewed for this publication generate revenue or positive PR for Magic Dust. If the answer was no, I could give myself permission to say no.

And it’s a mantra that is still helpful today. Time is precious, spreading myself too thinly is not good – for my work or for my home life. I’m conscious about focusing on what’s important and doing it really well.


What does a balanced life look like to you? Has a work or a project you have been focused on caused you to neglect other areas of your life?

I thrive when my life feels balanced. When I’m fulfilled at work, spend quality time with my family and friends and get time to myself, I am happy.

There have definitely been times in my working life when I neglected other areas and I’m not proud of it. I’ve worked in high-pressure sales environments, I’ve worked on the launch of magazines, I’ve run my own business – none of these things were easy or part-time. 

I am very lucky that, for the last 22 years, my now husband has been a partner in the truest sense of the word. We are very different but we complement each other well. We give each other space, we don’t sweat the small stuff and he makes me laugh every single day. He thinks I’m a control freak and I think he’s addicted to golf but we’re a team and it’s been us against the world since November 2000.


When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

I write lists and then I write some more lists. I focus on the end goal, break it down into tasks, and I enjoy every single ‘tick’ for a completed task.  

I try to be kind to myself by making time to read a book, listen to a podcast (I LOVE a podcast) or declutter a cupboard. And if I can convince/bribe one of my daughters to hang out with me for a bit that’s the best reality check.


What does leadership mean to you?

It’s definitely not about a job title. A good leader is someone people want to follow and, for me, that starts with an ability to compellingly communicate a clear, uncomplicated and unwavering vision. It is someone who knows that the people in their business are the most important ingredient for success and who prioritises looking after them, and looking out for them.  A great leader lifts up the people around them and lets them shine bright.

I love Brené Brown’s power of vulnerability work and often rewatch her TED Talk. I firmly believe It’s ok – actually, it’s more than ok – to show your vulnerability at work. It’s powerful for leaders to be able to admit that they don’t always have the answer, if they’re willing to listen to people who might. That’s empowering for the people who work for those leaders and it inspires great work.


Which people have most inspired you in your life and why?

My English and History teachers at Middle School – Mr Onslow for introducing me to great writers and teaching me how to learn speeches, and Mr Hughes for inspiring a curiosity that led me to study history and politics at university.

My sister, a phenomenal actress, who followed her dream, is incredibly talented and has the most infectious laugh. The fact that she now lives around the corner from me is an absolute joy!

And my husband, Matt. For his calmness, his unwavering support of me and for his wicked sense of humour. 


What do the words principles and values mean to you?

My principles and values are the things that guide my best decisions and, when ignored or sidelined, result in frustration, overwhelm and a loss of purpose. 

Taking time to remind myself of my values regularly – and doing everything I can to align my role at work to those values – is time well spent. I always end the year with an exercise in reflection and planning and every year it’s an excellent reminder that I do my best work, and am most fulfilled at work, when my values are front and centre and my principles aren’t being compromised. 


If you had a forum to speak to 50 leaders, what question would you pose to them, to get them thinking about and being better leaders?

How could you be better at communicating who you are and what you stand for, consistently and passionately, to the people who work for you?


What one thing could you do that you aren’t doing now, that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?  What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

I play tennis once a week (badly) and I love it. It’s the only exercise that I truly enjoy and I have tried everything over the years. I would love to play tennis at least three times a week because I think it would make a real difference – to my health (physical and mental) and to my chance of getting a wild card for Wimbledon next year!


Have you ever engaged with self-help, mentoring or coaching? If so, how?

Yes, all the time.

I had some great mentors – formal and informal – when I joined the industry fresh out of university. I now mentor industry talent through NABS and I am responsible for the pastoral care of some of our apprentices at News UK.

I had a business coach when I was first promoted to Sales Director of The Times and The Sunday Times and that was invaluable. I still keep in touch with Richard (Coombes – founder at Edgesmiths) and will always be grateful for the opportunity to work with him.

As for self-help, I’m a sucker for it. Podcasts, books, TED Talks, therapy, journalling, reflection, time spent with good friends and family – anything that allows me to take charge of how I’m feeling and work my way through it.

To become a volunteer Shout counsellor find out more here.

Topic: 50 in 50