In conversation with… Emma Gervasio

I first met Emma, Chief Operating Officer at Papirfly Group, about 9 years ago at one of those random networking things. We hit it off immediately and have stayed in touch ever since. If you’ve not met her, you should. She’s got such incredible energy and passion.

She’s three months into a new role at Papirfly (an incredible marketing technology company based in Norway and UK), where she’s the COO – so we thought it was time for a chat.

What was your first-ever job?

It was at Cooper’s & Lybrand in Leeds, years before the behemoth of PWC was a gleam in anyone’s eye. I worked during the summer and a bit during Easter for a few years. It was in their corporate recovery team – so I ended up with surprising familiarity with insolvency regulation…

When I think about it now, it was a different world. People smoked at their desks! Email was a novelty and vastly entertaining – such a new thing cobbled together with bits of chunky code. I’ve got a stack of printouts of the ridiculous emails people used to send back then.

Who would you most love to share a coffee with / go for a drink with?

My mum… She died a few years ago – as a result of her being ill, I got involved with a charity called The Eve Appeal which fundraises for prevention, early detection and risk prediction of gynaecological cancer and I’d encourage everyone to take a look at their work.

But in terms of big names, the first person that comes to mind is Neil Gaiman – who I love. He’s so clever and the way he writes and the scope of his creativity is astonishing. He speaks so magically when he reads aloud, I could happily listen to him for hours.

I would love to talk to Jamaican writers and artists – I was born in Jamaica, and I adore it – but I don’t go back there as much as I should, and I don’t know as much as I’d like to about the history and culture of the island. So, if I could sit in a cafe in Kingston and drink coffee all day with whoever walked in, I’d be very happy.

Then, the all-for-nothing option would have to be Bill Gates. I love the fact that he’s so determined to do good with the vast sums of money he has. That he’s not content to sit out but needs to keep working at it.

Highlight of your career (so far?)

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in a lot of fabulous organisations as I’ve  moved around so much. The role I’ve started recently at Papirfly is certainly the pinnacle in many respects – I’m delighted and continually interested in helping to lead such an ambitious marketing tech business, it’s a superb product which I can really get behind, and most importantly lovely smart people with a great culture.

Much earlier in my career I worked at the contemporary dance centre ‘The Place’ – it’s gorgeous and their dance education and performance work is fabulous.

My career at Accenture was a turning point in many respects, I learnt so much and worked with outstanding clients and colleagues, and I was lucky enough to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company – which was another real highlight.

Doing my MBA was wonderful. It’s what helped me get into Accenture and created so many opportunities to work with some amazing people. I’m a huge fan of business school education and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

Nature or nurture?

You’re asking an undergrad Classics student here, I spent years studying Aristotle and Plato…

It’s both, of course, but if pushed, I’d come down on the side of nature.

Best advice you ever heard or received?

Life’s too short to drink bad wine – a simple truth which I strongly advocate.

One of the most senior business leaders I’ve met said to me “you’ll get more done with a twinkle in your eye than banging on the table”. Be kind to people. If people like working with you, you’ll be much more effective and you’ll all have more fun.

What talent do you yearn for?

I have a trapeze in my house and I wish I was better at it. I’d like to be better at circus skills generally. Would love to be able to do the silks.

My family think I’m mad and certain to break my neck. But, it can’t be that difficult, can it? My kids are always on the trapeze, they’re much more proficient at it than I am. I’d also like to be better at languages. I speak reasonable French, and terrible Italian. I’d be very happy if they were both much better.

What is your favourite brand and why?

I’m going to go for Wyatt & Jack.

They’re a tiny business, based in the Isle of White and make beautiful bags out of plastics (think old bouncy castles, deckchairs, life rafts) to stop them from getting into the ocean or into landfill.

Look at Wyatt and Jack’s Inflatable Amnesty – where people send in unwanted vinyl or inflatables and they turned them into fantastic bags.

It’s just such a good example of taking the supply chain in the right direction, and there’s massive opportunity to scale this work to really make a difference.

What book do you most recommend to others?

The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

He’s a genius, you should listen to his Reith Lectures.  Actually, listen to an of the past Reith Lectures, they’re always worth it.

The Checklist Manifesto honestly change the way I think.  He pulls in learning from so many different places – construction, aviation – distils it all down and simplifies it.

The checklist is 10 questions that are used in hospitals around the world. It’s about finding those fundamental, simple things the people need to make sure procedures are always conducted safely and correctly.

I’ve seen it in action when both my child and I were in hospital.

Then, if it was fiction, it would be anything by Angela Carter, especially her fairy tale retellings. Or as we talked about before, anything by Neil Gaiman.

What last impressed you at work?

I’m perennially impressed by people’s ability to innovate and achieve – if they’re given the space. If they have a clear purpose and a mandate to get there, they usually do.

I’m most proud of the times when I’ve been able to help people move out of one role into another where they have scope to grow and be recognised.

Which lesson has been the hardest to learn? What failure did you learn the most from?

I think I’d say – listening. The most important lesson. Letting people feel they’ve been heard. I’m getting better at it but it took a long time for the penny to drop.

I still find it hard. I have to force myself to listen properly. I’m always trying to jump in – racing on the next thing. It’s hard, but I’m getting there.

I’ve also learnt something from every job I didn’t get. I tend to only regret things I’ve not tried.

What do you want to do when you retire?

I’ve always said I don’t want to be doing something that makes me feel like I want to retire.

I always want to be doing something – side hustles, advisory roles, running my own business.

We’ll all be paying mortgages off into our 70s so it has to be something more than just paying the bills.

I know people in their 70s and even 80s who are still working doing amazing, portfolio work, research, directorships. I hope I’ll be like that.

I like more time to travel and live in other countries. I didn’t expect to spend my working life in the UK.

My mum travelled all her life, including travelling around India in her 60s, so I’m sure I will too.

What would you say you need to do to think you’ve arrived?

Ha! Being invited to be on desert island discs… I always keep my playlist up to date…

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