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Why Listening is Leadership

Interview with Jennifer Murphy, Private Investigator

Photo Credit: Robyn Twomey

A few months ago, we featured a brilliant poet named Felice Bell as one of our Inspiring Interviews. Well, low and behold, we now have the privilege of featuring Jennifer Murphy who collaborated with Felice in an amazing TED Talk too! Jennifer is not only an inspiring leader, but she also is a curious, creative and committed woman dedicated to really honoring her own unique needs and desires and breaking molds in the process. Jennifer is also proof that leadership is about taking action and moving things forward – not just about titles or tenure too!

WeInspireWe: Thank you Jennifer for being part of our Inspiring Interview series. We are so thrilled to have you here. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.

Jennifer Murphy: Sure. My name is Jennifer Murphy and professionally I am a Private Investigator which I’ve been doing for the past 14 years. I run an investigations and crisis advisory firm that I started about 6 years ago called Galore Consulting – and on top of that I also am an author and volunteer as an EMT too. At my core I am a writer and storyteller, meaning that’s what I most wanted to be when I was a young girl, and when I have any time whatsoever, I choose to spend it reading and writing. Perhaps you’re hearing my reticence to define myself as one thing because I am many things. I am passionate about creativity, service, meditation, literature, travel and fitness.

WIW: What an interesting combination of passions and professional endeavors. Tell us a little bit about the path that has led you to be the strong, female leader you are today.

JM: My big, beautiful life is largely a result of persistence, passion, and failing at various junctures of my investigations and writing careers. I think one of the things that has helped me tremendously as a business owner is to be clear about who I am and what I want, and to organize my life – creative, business, and personal – accordingly to the motto “To Thine Own Self Be True”. I spent many years as an in-house investigator before breaking out on my own. The risk is obviously much higher when you run your own firm, but so is the reward. Taking the leap to establish my own company made me take responsibility for the types of cases I was willing to work, and also forced me to generate new clients and colleagues. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously and have also organized my business life so that I have the flexibility and freedom I need in order to write, travel, and learn other skills that make me feel enchanted and alive. I speak often at conferences and enjoy being on stage helping people understand how to work through complex issues.

WIW: How does your motto “To Thine Own Self Be True” tie into your personal leadership style?

JM: My leadership style is to embrace and move through fear in the interest of freedom and being of maximum service to others. When I hire employees, I always ask what they most want to do with their lives outside of work. How do they spend their free time? Do they want to work in an office or do they feel most productive when they’re at home, or on the road? Some people work best with loads of freedom. Others need structure. What makes that person tick? People will tell you if you ask. And once you have the answer, you can create an environment wherein they are encouraged to thrive not only at work, but also as whole human beings. That’s very important to me as a leader. To encourage others to thrive. The same philosophy holds true when I’m managing a crisis or working with clients. Deep listening is key: What is the real problem you’re trying to solve? How can I help?

WIW: So powerful. How has your style and approach evolved over the years?

JM: When I was younger, starting out as an investigator, I enjoyed being in an office and climbing up the proverbial corporate ladder. That was a tremendous amount of fun, and very rewarding from an ego perspective. But at a certain point, the daily humdrum of going to an office five or six days a week at the same time each day became rote, and I began to feel a certain sense of dread. I don’t love offices. I’m much happier if I can do my work while I travel or while I’m at home. I also found that offices, while they cut down on human loneliness, are distracting if you’re working on a big case, or need to unravel something complex. I’m not sure of the statistic, but I think it’s something akin to in an eight-hour day, people are getting three to four hours of work done in an office. In my sector you need to be quiet, to reflect, to think. I have colleagues who would go insane working outside of an office, but I find I’m more productive when I can work in intense bursts and then relax.

WIW: sounds like that was a big “aha” for you as you were figuring out what worked best for you. Any other “aha’s” along the way that has helped to get you to where you want to be?

JM: I had a major aha moment during the financial crisis in 2008. I was, at the time, living in Europe and working as an investigator for a New York-based firm that conducted financial services investigations – namely, investigating hedge fund managers. When the economy crashed, the Securities and Exchange Commission banned short selling, and that entire sector dried up. I realized then how vulnerable I was to the global market, as an investigator who specialized in one sector. That was a huge learning experience. After, I vowed to diversify my skill set, the kinds of cases I managed, and the sectors I was involved in from a business standpoint. From then on I made a point to advance my career so that I would be a bit safer should another downturn occur.

WIW: So true! While scary at the time, what a great opportunity to learn through a potentially difficult situation and use it to your future advantage. What else have you learned along the way, especially related to you personal leadership style?

JM: My biggest learning lesson has been that I need and want to do work that matters, and that I feel I can stand behind from an emotional and ethical standpoint. As an investigator, a lot of cases pass your desk and you can tell right away that if you take the case, you’re on the wrong side of it. When I started my own firm, I got to make the executive decision to restrict my work to cases that allow me to sleep in peace at night. That means sometimes I turn away giant projects. I would rather net less in a given year than take a high-risk case that keeps me up at night because something at the gut-level in me believes I’m on the wrong side. I also believe when clients come to me in crisis, my job is to get them healthy and self-sufficient, not to create an environment where they’re dependent on me or on my firm forever. I also think I’ve learned over the years to really know my area of expertise, and encourage teamwork and partnerships with other leaders and players if it would benefit the client.

WIW: So basically, an approach that aligns to your values and not just business drivers. Not everyone can say that. How would you like to see your leadership style evolve in the future?

JM: I would like to see myself scale a bit more in the next five years. I’m a hunter. I enjoy landing clients and taking calls and coming in on the big crisis work, and allowing my very talented employees to run the show operationally and pragmatically. One of the questions I ask myself lately on this front is: What can I do that only I can do? Refining my work to reflect the answer to that question is my new goal.

WIW: that aligns so closely with leadership branding and the idea that only you can offer what special gifts and talents and offerings that you have. One gift that you have – of course – is being a female leader. Can you share an example of a situation you’ve had to tackle differently because you’re a woman?

JM: Years ago, I worked briefly for a specialized security firm that was almost entirely male. Like many security shops the office was paramilitary. The leadership team was certainly all male, and all white. Mainly former police and military. Within a few months of starting at the firm, the CEO eyeballed me and asked that I report directly to him. He saw me as a leader and change-maker, and he made the organizational changes necessary to reflect what he saw. The difficulty arose when he did not anticipate the level of (male) blowback that would occur if he shuttled me to the top, bypassing men who had been hoping for a promotion for years. It did not go well, to put it mildly. I realized then that in certain organizations I would be punished for being talented. If that’s the case, that firm is not for me. It also made me reflect deeply on what it takes to run an organization so that the talented people you have feel safe and free to excel, and rise to the top, and don’t have to play small or cower before anyone in order to do their work.

WIW: what a great example for you to take into your own business. Tell us more about what “women in leadership” means to you.

JM: My immediate internal reaction is “more, please.” I work in a male dominated industry, so encountering female leaders is rare. I think diversifying leadership with talented women and people of color is essential to creating a viable business. It’s advantageous to any organization to have different types of leaders in the room.

Speaking for myself, and having close relationships with other female leaders in various industries, I can say that it’s helpful to find your people and tie yourself to them with rescue rope. There are women in the investigations and crisis business I trust with my life, and work with frequently and happily. The main qualities of these relationships are teamwork, collaboration, deep listening, reflection, trust, and admiration for each other’s work. When you’re the only woman in the room and another woman enters, a spirit of competitiveness can also enter the space. I work against that. I grew up as an athlete, and athletics really teaches you the power of the group, the wisdom of collaboration, the interest of the team. I’m happy to inspire women to start their own firms, to work in male-dominated fields, to rise in the ranks. In order to truly support others, you have to feel secure in your place in the grand order of things. And that also takes internal work: developing a sense of security in who you are as a professional and a valuable human being.

Creating a space for women in leadership is important, as is understanding and encouraging different leadership styles too!

WIW: What do you believe are the biggest challenges that female leaders face today and how should they approach solving for them?

JM: One challenge I’ve seen again and again is how to address burnout. As a woman you’re working so hard to prove you belong in the room, once you get in the room there can be a deep fatigue that sets in: for instance, women spending all their time at work at the expense of their emotional and mental health. For me, that’s where self-care has to play a larger role in becoming an effective leader. I’m highly productive and wear a lot of hats. But I also meditate, exercise, travel, spend time with my friends, take loads of naps, enjoy nature, and wake up each morning and read for an hour or two in the quiet before I begin work. We are a 24/7 shop, but unless I’m on a crisis if a client emails me on Saturday, they can wait until Monday to receive a reply. Like farmland, it’s helpful to let the soil regenerate before you plant another crop. If you’re always growing crops and never let the land lie fallow, the land itself begins to retaliate and die. Again, as leaders I believe we are trying to create lives that reflect our values, not become robotic doers or achievers who wind up in the corner office at the expense of our personal and emotional lives. Bringing my whole self to the table is important, and I encourage my colleagues, employees, and peers to treat themselves well to stave off burnout and also just to enjoy being a human being. Balance, balance, balance. I think a lot of it for me comes down to that.

WIW: Balance is so important, but so hard! Kudos to you for sharing that and demonstrating that to your team every day. Sometimes we have to see it before we can figure out how to do it. Do you have a role model that you emulate your style after?

JM: Yes! One of my favorite arguments I had with a former boss was about leadership style. He was leading a group of men and asked me to go home and watch Twelve O’clock High, a war film about aircrews that flew bombing missions. Throughout the film the leaders have to make ghastly decisions about how to lead their men so they won’t die. It’s a good film and has a lot to teach. That being said, I watched it and thought: this is not my leadership style so I sent him the link to Buck, which is a documentary about Buck Brannaman—one of the world’s leading practitioners of handling horses. Buck is my model for leadership, which involves deep listening, clear communication, compassion, reverence, and being firm but loving with trainees: whether you’re teaching a horse, or a human.

WIW: Isn’t it fascinating where we can find inspiration? As you think about inspiring the WeInspireWe audience, is there any advice that you’d give to a young female employee beginning to develop her leadership style.

JM: Find great leaders—male or female—that make you feel inspired and encouraged, ask how they live their lives, and if you like the answer, emulate them. One of my writing professors, Nathan Englander, once said, in approximation, If you’re honest with yourself, you will not work in the wrong direction for any length of time. It takes a long time to find your voice. Once you find it, use it.

While there are many, one of our biggest takeaways from Jennifer Murphy is to listen to yourself and what you need – and then find ways to honor that. That includes understanding your core values and ensuring your work aligns to that – as well as understanding who you are and what you want and going after that. Such a powerful lesson to learn. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your wisdom with us!

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