Becoming a Rockstar unicorn: learning to recognise and prevent burnout #LeadersWithValues

Leah Steele, a self-confessed reformed stress addict, talks about the importance of setting boundaries

I stumbled across Leah on LinkedIn when one of her posts really grabbed my attention. A quick Google search threw up her website Searching for Serenity. I quickly fell down a rabbit hole and spent my lunchtime reading her blog. I could personally relate to a lot of what she was writing about and was intrigued enough to ask her to meet me for a coffee, so I could find out more about exactly what it is she does. SM: Can you explain what you do in under 20 words? LS: I mentor and train professionals who are exhausted, overwhelmed, and burning out. I help them love life and work again.   SM: I think you might be the first person to have done that so confidently. Now we have an idea of what you do, tell me a bit more about it, who you work with, and how you help. LS: I’m a former lawyer, but I work with any professional or aspiring professional who feels that my blogs and videos resonate with them. Past clients have included lawyers, medical professionals, teachers, students, business analysts, tech and design professionals. For the most part I work with women who have been in their careers for 10+ years, who love what they do but are slowly drowning under the Shoulds, Ought-Tos, administration, and other bullshit. My clients learn not to take themselves and their work quite so seriously; a group of them now call themselves ‘rockstar unicorns’. My favourite clients have a dark and sharp sense of humour, just like me. We might be talking about difficult topics, but we have an uproarious amount of fun doing it.   SM: How did you end up helping women beat burnout? LS: I started my very first job at 13 years old: preparing documents for microfilm! I remember one of the managers chiding me for working through my break, with the words “don’t do that, no-one here appreciates it”. Looking back, it feels like eerie foreshadowing of many of the people pleasing, overachieving behaviours I deal with now. From there I got a few big breaks, including the associate who helped me develop my specialism in law and the partner who I convinced to help me qualify. I spent a decade of working 70+ hour weeks to progress and gain recognition and respect, without stopping for breath. My resilience waned and I started isolating myself from my friends and family, to the point that my health collapsed. Since then, I’ve rebuilt my personal and professional life from the ground up.   SM: Can you tell me more about what you’re currently working on? LS: I move quickly in my business and rarely advertise a product or service for more than two weeks. That’s how I’ve launched dozens of home study courses in the past three years. Currently, I’m inviting new members of my monthly membership programme The Resilience Academy, which blends home study, live (online) training, a Netflix style array of past trainings to dip into and 1:1 support. It costs less than £1.25 a day and is insanely good value for anyone who feels that my message resonates with them. I’ve also just written a book on how to identify, manage, and reverse burnout, which will be published on 1 August. You can order your copy here.   SM: Reading your website, it’s clear that you’ve learned from some of the mistakes you’ve made, but which one taught you the biggest lesson? LS: My biggest regret is working 50+ hours in 4 days, thinking I’d take the Friday as holiday to do Christmas shopping, relax and recharge before calling my mum. That Friday night the police knocked at the door. My mum died that morning.   SM: I’m so sorry to hear that that must be crap. I had more warning before losing my dad as he had cancer so I spent a lot of time with him. I have to say Osborne Clarke was really supportive of me doing so.   SM: Do you think the business world is finally starting to wake up to the importance of mental health and wellbeing? LS: My concern is that it’s being approached in such a superficial, tick box way. Firms and companies think having one or two mental health first aid trained individuals is going to cut it, but we need more than signposting and shovelling off issues. We need a wholesale change in the way we view work and life, and integrating the two in a supportive and healthy way. There is more of a conversation about mental health, but in the professional world, I think it is still a taboo.   SM: Does that tie in with the biggest challenges you face in your own business? LS: Somewhat. It’s about helping people get over the fear that they shouldn’t need help. Ego also has a lot to answer for, for a lot of people. Much as I want mental health and resilience to be open topics, there are plenty of my clients who are scared of their colleagues finding out. It goes without saying that no matter how glittery the title, my clients are as anonymous as they choose.   SM: What can older business people learn from younger business people? And vice versa? LS: I’ve so many brilliant stories of working with older lawyers and my biggest take away has to be the pace. We might be constantly connected, but more established lawyers have learned to work at their own pace and not be at the mercy of every client with ‘an urgent issue’. The market has opened up greatly even in the time I’ve been working, and adopting new technology and new ways of delivering what the client wants in a way that works with the employee’s life? It’s an untapped goldmine still.   SM: And finally, what gives you the greatest buzz? LS: That moment when my client calls me to tell me that they had a problem…. and how they resolved it and are celebrating! The day I do myself out of a job I’ll be a very happy woman.   And that’s it, our coffee break is over and Leah is off to share her wisdom with another professional struggling with burnout. Reflecting on our quick chat, I’d say that:

  • Leah wants Searching for Serenity to give women the opportunity to pause and take back control of their personal and professional lives
  • Our egos often prevent us from asking for the help we desperately need
  • If employers treat mental health as a tick box exercise, the real problems will only be buried even deeper
  • Setting and respecting boundaries is the key to work-life balance.


Leah in a nutshell

She’ll no longer sacrifice anything for her core values: time, space, and laughter. She uses the sale of her jewellery to support her local food bank (you can buy some here), and has plans to grow more support for women’s charities. If that’s not enough, she also dreams of being an ethical landlord, so she can provide long term, secure, affordable lets to the people of Bristol. Her partner and closest friends are her biggest cheerleaders. You can find Leah on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  

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Freddie Starr ate my headline

Aaaaahhh headlines. The joy of drafting a hilarious opening, the desperation of the editing process. I love headlines. I hate headlines. I jump out of bed to read headlines. I work hard to combat the wrong kind of headlines. Headlines are a major part of my working week.

They should be a major part of yours too. Headlines are now everywhere: beyond newspapers and magazines, radio and TV, you’ll find them in subject lines of emails, on blog posts, and as social media statuses and posts.

How hard can it be to write a headline?

When I was working on a website project a few years ago, I was asked to re-write the headlines for several hundred blog posts because the new web agency had (sensibly) put in a character limit on the headline of some 300 characters. That’s around the length of this paragraph.

No word of a lie, I had to edit down several headlines which had over 300 words in them. Three. Hundred. Words. In a headline. For days, I hacked away and revised them down using intuition, experience, keywords and optimising tools. To do that, I also needed to read every post. It was a long week.

Over recent days, I have been optimising headlines again for a top-secret project that I am working on that’s going to make all your lives’ better and save business and the planet. Obviously. And it brought me to thinking again about a separate, upcoming writing course that we’re running. That course will, in part, cover headline writing and why it’s so important.

Testing, testing…

In the spirit of testing and refining the content for that course and this blog, I asked some Twitter friends this morning to name their favourite headlines of the past few days. Here’s a selection of the best:

£A.I. recognises and locks out murder cats” is clearly a genius headline from Hackaday as nominated by #SheBreaksTheLaw co-founder @cguimond11.

£The $50k an hour gate agent” – Seths blog as nominated by professional services marketing and pricing expert Richard W Smith

£Post Brexit news to be available on Ceefax page 555” is a brilliant one chosen by marketing genius Helen Burness from the Dailymash.

£The time-travelling semi” nominated by reputation supremo Chris Scott (surely relying on the public interest defence) recalling a story from last week’s Sunday Times’ Homes section which manages to couple both sci fi and porn.

£The BS-Industrial Complex of Phony A.I. (How hyping A.I. enriched investors, fooled the media, and confused the hell out of the rest of us)” was #bringbackboring’s cheerleader Alex G Smith via Medium

And, courtesy of some Facebook contacts from the Freelance Heroes group:

£Megan, America Great Again” – Guardian on Football weekly podcast

£CCHQ desperate for Boris bounce back balance boost” by Guido Fawkes’ Order/Order.

‘They said we used cheddar!’ – in The Guardian about a restaurant that asked to be removed from the Michelin guide.

And finally… £Queen reproves offer of help to plant tree, saying ‘no, no, I can still plant a tree’” which appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

What can we learn from the above headlines?

First, that although the people I’ve asked are all highly qualified and incredibly busy professionals, they all recall a great headline from this week. That’s something to think about when you next draft a story, a blog or issue a press release.

Secondly, that humour is regularly used even in national and broadsheet papers. However, it needs to resonate with the audience of the title (and so be inclusive). If it alienates anyone, then you’ll quickly lose readers. This is why Christmas cracker jokes are always groan-worthy because everyone £gets” the joke and so has a collective experience. If cracker jokes were actually funny, someone would be left thinking or saying £I don’t get it”. So use humour carefully in headlines.

Thirdly, that a pull quote is often a great way of dragging in an audience. Everyone wants to read the story based on the cheese quotes above, right?

Fourthly, that a call to action can make for a great headline. Think intrigue and the sidebar of shame. £Who’s dating Taylor Swift?” Click.

What is the point of a headline?

Arresting people. Grabbing their attention. Pulling them in. Making them read on.

That’s it.

No, really.

The purpose of a headline is to wake a reader from their mid-commute slumber, or make them laugh on a Sunday reading the Home section of The Sunday Times and pay attention. And to drag their sore, tired eyes to the next line in your piece. That is all. It’s a bonus if it makes you or your editor/sub editor/marketing director laugh. Even more of a bonus if it’s so memorable that it gets quoted at you later in life.

How long does it take to write a good headline?

Seconds, minutes, hours, days, and a sprinkling of hindsight and a smidgen of regret.

Who knows? The answer is: spend some time on it.

Why spend time on writing a good headline?

Only die-hard fans are going to read your piece if you don’t give them a great headline.

Headlines can double or treble your audience. Maybe more.

How do I write a great headline?

I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t.

Have I written great headlines? I hope so.

Did I know that they were great at the time? No. And I don’t get to say that they were great anyway. Feedback and data are all that matters: Recall, readership and reshares.

Fine, then. How do I write a *good* headline?

Now that’s a question I can answer. I can also answer the question ‘How do I improve the headline I have written?’

First: ditch your ego. Every writer for a magazine or newspaper or online has had ‘their’ version of the headline dropped in favour of the subs’. Subs care about readers reading things, and they’re there to optimise readership and ensure consistency across the title and remove duplication.

The first rule of marketing is: You are not the client.

The first rule of marketing writing is: You are not the reader.

Draft the headline for the reader every time.

(Somewhere, I hope Mark Ritson is quietly nodding his approval of me using this mantra).

Secondly: If you’re writing for your own blog post (like I am here) then you have to consider the headline a separate piece of content generation. Sometimes it gets written first as a guiding light for the piece. Sometimes it gets drafted last as a summary of what else has been covered. Do whatever works for you, but please do remember to review that it works with the final draft.

Thirdly: You need to write something that alludes to the content and draws people in. It doesn’t need to cover all the elements of the piece (see the headline for this piece) but it does need to be something that people would grasp what the likely content would be about.

Fourthly: Sometimes, the author feels they need to add a sub-heading to explain it. In my experience, if you’re writing for European audiences, don’t use a sub-heading as the audience isn’t expecting it. They detract from the European headline humour. If you need to explain a joke, well…

Americans, however, love a sub-header. When used correctly, they perform a role similar to what we do in the first paragraph in Europe, which is another point we cover in our writing training. Americans are more used to them, and their readers expect them, so that’s when to use them.

Finally: Headlines need an emotional pull to be good/great. Tools exist to help you improve your headline to make it good enough. Maybe even great.

You want one? Okay, try using this headline analyser tool (£EMV”) which tells you the emotional pull of your headline.

Testing the EMV tool

I found this headline this week: £Employment law updates: important changes for employers”. It scores precisely 0% on the EMV rating tool. There’s nothing to pull you into the piece. Nothing to distinguish it from the several hundred other similar articles issued this week by other firms.

Perhaps, in light of the thoughts above, the author could try:

£What are the latest important employment law changes for employers” which at least has the decency to score 20% on the EMV rating.

Or, better still…

£Why do employers need to know about Restrictive covenants and covert recording today” 38.46% (both these points are covered in the piece and will differentiate this edition from prior editions.)

Or £Are Restrictive covenants and covert recording permitted today” which rates as 37%

Or even better… £Do you need to stop covert recording” which scores a whopping 71% on the EMV score.


Ed Goodman, the co-founder of Freelance Heroes, names this classic from The Sun, after Celtic were beaten in the cup by minnows Inverness Caledonian Thistle. It read £Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious”

My personal favourite of the week is one that one client knows about and hopefully thinks it was worth the effort that went into it.

My personal greatest of all time is this, which Mike Gutsell of Osborne Clarke first introduced me to:

I’ll explain.

The headline appeared in a Somerset newspaper with a circulation of around 30,000 (from memory).

It’s a valid local story. People want to read about the plans.

Everyone (and I mean everyone) gets the joke.

Everyone will read at least the first paragraph because of the headline.

And it travelled around the world. The last time I looked, it had been read by millions.

Now, that is the power of a headline.

Want to make your own headlines?

Want to hear more about the writing course for you/your whole team? Get in touch.


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