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Lessons I learned from being the only female at the top

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WE SPEAK TO ONE OF THE WORLD’S LEADING BUSINESSWOMEN IN THIS MONTH’S EDITION OF OUR ANONYMOUS COLUMN, EVERYWOMANINCOGNITO.

Her career has been spent at some of our best-known financial corporations - often as the only female member of the leadership team. She has encountered sexism, culture clashes and the challenge of simultaneously raising children and failing organisations. Here she shares some of the lessons she’s learned from her many successes - and her biggest mistakes…

As the youngest of six children I grew up in older company. My father was in banking and he had lost his sight, so I’d read his board papers to him before his meetings. When my mother hosted dinner parties for dad’s colleagues, I felt completely at ease in that world.

Possibly too at ease! In one early job I sent a memo to the head of the company. He swung by and complimented my ideas, which came as a surprise to my boss who didn’t know what I’d done. He sat me down and pointed out that it might be a good idea in future to copy in the people in between. That was an early lesson in the fact that every organisation has rules. You don’t always have to live by them, but it’s really important to be cognisant of how cultures like things to be done.

These days the gender diversity conversation is out there in the open. When I was starting out, the fact that I was one of the very few women in the financial world simply wasn’t discussed. I was so very fortunate to find myself working for a CEO who was a huge champion of women – probably something to do with the fact he grew up with sisters and has daughters of his own. He was to become – and remains to this day – a fantastic mentor; I never make a big career decision without talking it through with him. I tell everyone I mentor: choose the right organisation; choose the right sponsor. Someone who’s willing to vouch for you and allow you take the glory occasionally – letting you go and present your own work to more senior figures, for example - makes all the difference in the world.

 

One early mentor told me that your twenties are for making a lot of mistakes; your thirties are for understanding all of your strengths and weaknesses; and your forties are about capitalising on your strengths and neutralising your weaknesses.

I’m not necessarily that rigid on the decades but I do think that one of the keys to my success has been my willingness to learn from failure.

To enter a male world and thrive in it you have to really like working with men – I always did, and never felt uncomfortable. But that’s not to say there haven’t been times when I’ve felt discriminated against or that I haven’t been valued simply because of my gender; I’ve worked overseas in cultures that don’t necessarily respect anyone who isn’t of a certain age or male. Sure it’s very frustrating, but what that does is foster you to become a really avid listener. Before you can command respect, you have to sit back and be very attentive, taking in everything around you, so that when you do find space to make your point, what you have to say is absolutely insightful.

I recently visited with the CEO of an international bank, and I made sure to fly in early so that I could visit as many branches as possible. I knew that our relationship would benefit if my contribution was more insightful, and to do that I needed to really tune in to his business. When you’re around the boardroom table you might only get one chance to impress, and the more considered your contribution, the more likely that the attention you get will be from the top guy. He’s the one who is looking for real insight for his business, rather than looking to impress anyone else.

 

Sometimes all the great insight in the world isn’t going to prevent you getting talked over.

If you’re going to be in a roomful of men you have to work really hard to get cut through. Sports are a great way to build rapport quickly – I always try to find something in common on a human level that will help a connection. That means sometimes you have to get knowledgeable really quickly about a topic. But it’s important to do so authentically – and to take a genuine interest. 

And if you’re still faced with an unenlightened attitude, that’s when a healthy dose of humour can come in really handy, as can having facts at your fingertips. I’m very vocal about the gender imbalance and to this day I still come up against comments like: “Well women just leave to go have babies so why should we hire them?” That’s when it’s really useful to have some statistics at your fingertips – that approach is much more likely to change minds than a more emotive response.

Where emotions are concerned it’s really important to be aware of how you operate your own and how others like to operate theirs – and adjust accordingly. If you’re a very emotionally extroverted person, then you need to modify your interactions with a more analytical, introverted individual. That requires a healthy dose of emotional intelligence but also self-confidence, something you have to work really hard to establish in yourself. It’s so crucial in business; to instil confidence in my children was the number one thing on my parenting agenda.

In any new intimidating situation I’m mindful of the fact I may fail. Successes are great, but failure is the real opportunity to try again and be better – when a business plan just isn’t sticking and you simply can’t figure out why, you have to dig and dig to find a new solution.

 

It’s rare for a woman in my position to have a lasting marriage and a happy family – too often it’s one of the first things that gives under the pressure.

 

The key to that success is really the same as the key to success at work: you have to prioritise, you have to delegate like crazy, and when the going gets tough you have to just cling on, stick to the plan and keep going.

A leadership programme I once attended threw together 100 executives in a room with a flashlight and a piece of paper and we individually had to concoct a plan to ‘get out of the jungle’. 99 of us died in that jungle. But when we formed teams of ten, we turned things around. Nine out of ten of us made it out alive. To survive then, we need diversity – a whole bevy of different perspectives across age, experience and ethnicity. And then you just have to dig in and hold on.