Ellie Hearne, Founder of Pencil or Ink, is combining the power of practical communications skills with attributes such as trust and accountability to support leaders in mastering the “human side” of work.
After leaving a job she loved due to a misalignment in culture, Ellie knew she wanted her next endeavor to be sustainable as a working parent as well as a match for her personal values. Rather than waiting for an opportunity to come along, Ellie decided to create it for herself. Thus, Pencil or Ink was born. At its core, Pencil or Ink uses a culture-first approach to help businesses and individuals lead effectively and ultimately improve how their teams operate.
We asked Ellie about how she found her way into entrepreneurship, the misconceptions she’s noticed around leadership, and what sets Pencil or Ink apart from companies in a similar vein.
Q: Tell us the story behind your company’s founding. How and why did you start working on Pencil or Ink?
A: The story of starting one company is often the story of leaving another. I loved my last job—the people, the work, and the work ethic—but the culture wasn’t right for me. Blurred lines between life and work proved unsustainable when I became a parent. But culture didn’t just drive me to leave that organization; it prompted me to start my own—a leadership consulting firm that approaches everything through the lens of communication, and, of course, culture.
Q: What problem does Pencil or Ink solve?
A: How often do we join a company due to a misreading or misrepresentation of the culture? It’s so often the reason we leave—micromanager, poor work-life balance, or a fall-out from a missed promotion. But learning about these things in exit interviews and Glassdoor reviews represents a missed opportunity for leaders. By paying attention to culture and actively working on it, you can tap into the benefits of an engaged workforce and a culture-savvy strategy. We all know that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” But done well, I can attest that culture brings strategy to life.
Q: What makes your company different from others?
A: We connect the dots. Perhaps your corporate value of “collaboration” inadvertently leads to a search for consensus that stifles innovation. Perhaps your underperforming employees happen to share a mentor. Perhaps the aspiring leader who purportedly lacks confidence actually lacks the opportunity to speak up in meetings because a board member told her to “be seen and not heard.” Perhaps your organization purports to foster candor, but the performance reviews don’t reflect reality. These dynamics can be all but seen and touched by a workforce, but are often invisible to leadership.
We don’t just seek out dysfunction, though. We pinpoint what works about your culture and work to scale that in situation-appropriate ways, addressing the weaker spots along the way. If you seek us out for leadership coaching, offsite facilitation, or a series of skills workshops, we first learn why and about how your culture plays out in practice before determining the best approach. Sometimes that’s a bespoke Pencil or Ink engagement; occasionally it’s a referral to a different vendor. Fit is everything, so we prize candid communication from the very start.
Q: In what ways has your upbringing or past experiences contributed to how you operate as an entrepreneur?
A: The higher education system I grew up in valued independent study and grit over participation grades. That ability—to motivate oneself—is vital to early entrepreneurship. To put that another way, when you lose the structure of employment, it helps to be able to create it for yourself.
As a first-generation college student, observing and learning from my hard-working parents was vital to shaping my own motivation and working to realize my professional and financial ambitions. In parallel, as a tour guide and assistant at a Scottish castle in my teens, I quickly learned the value of communication skills and diplomacy.
But I’m not a natural leader or entrepreneur—few people are. Rather, very often, I have had to prove my own assumptions wrong.
“Introverts play background roles.”
“Only people who went to private school can thrive academically.”
“Ambition is for others.”
“Working parents tend not to grow businesses.”
These are myths, and my success thus far has lain in recognizing them as such and figuring out ways to counter those beliefs, with a little bit of good fortune along the way.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
A: No. I had never considered it. Like a lot of people, I sought out roles that provided some combination of stability and interesting projects. It’s only looking back that I can connect the dots that brought me here. Moreover, beyond mental boundaries, structural ones also come into play. As a U.S. visa holder for much of my career, I couldn’t easily have become self-employed. And maintaining access to healthcare absent a traditional employment arrangement is notoriously hard. When these things fell into place, and it struck me that being a stay-at-home-parent wasn’t for me, the path got a little clearer. Encouragement from those around me helped, too.
Q: Have you discovered any underappreciated leadership traits or misconceptions around leadership?
A: When it comes to leadership, misconceptions abound. Part of my work involves assessing communication preferences. I can’t tell you how often I’m asked if brash, extroverted types make the best leaders. Answer: not necessarily. Leadership is all about self-awareness and balance. Self-awareness, as in, “What are my strengths and what happens when I use too much of them?” Balance, as in, “How can my strengths counter those weaknesses?” In other words, don’t assume that you can be a leader if you don’t conform to a dated stereotype, and if you’re focusing more on yourself than on those you lead, you might be missing the point.
If you’re naturally more introverted, recognize your ability to quietly build relationships, perhaps, and challenge yourself to speak up a little more in group settings. If you’re more extroverted, supercharge that ability to make a quick decision or think out loud by challenging yourself to speak last in your next team meeting. Everything is situational, but these trends tend to persist.
Q: What have you learned about building a team and a support network around yourself?
A: Give more than you get, particularly when supporting people trying to tread a similar path to yours. Share openly and ask questions, even if they feel vulnerable. Know that advisors can pop up in all areas of your life, and that, whether you succeed or fail, everything is an opportunity to learn.
Q: What’s next for you and your company?
A: Growth—professional, personal, and developmental. I’m working to find new ways to reach people with my work, though referrals happily keep me busy. I value the autonomy I have over my time and the ability to spend much of it with my growing family, though any parent will tell you that this is always a work in progress. In terms of my own development, I enjoy teaching part time at the University of Oxford’s business school and look forward to applying the strategic innovation techniques I teach to my own business—it’s already been a delight sharing them with client companies. The challenge and beauty of growth is that none of us knows what’s coming next.
Ellie is a member of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.