After handing over the reins, Rich, our Group CEO suggested that I take a moment to process my achievement; what it meant and the journey I had been on to get there. As I did that, I thought back over the duration of my career to date and the people who’ve played such an important part in it.
Early in my career, when I was asked who my role models were, I looked to the women in my life. The first was (and still is) my mum. Fiercely intelligent, hard-working, and ambitious, she has always shown me that if I put my mind to something I can achieve anything I want. Frequently I’m told I’m my mother’s daughter – something that may terrify others but which I’m incredibly proud of. The second was my Business Director who was passionate, owned every room and meeting she was in, and juggled everything, at work and home, with determination, humour and resilience.
It wasn’t until I joined Cohaesus, hitting my milestone of Client Services Director, that I began to reflect more on my experiences. A new member of the team had started, and we were discussing how to ensure female team members were speaking up more. As we talked, this person put forward the view that women cannot change the environment they’re in themselves. We need male team members to drive and support that change.
This made me stop and think. I knew the people I’d worked with were brilliant, I respected them hugely, and I had learnt a lot from them. But I hadn’t necessarily recognised the role of both men and women in helping me see and reach my potential.
In my first role, I had three extremely supportive male directors from different departments who gave me coaching, direction, and guidance. I was given exposure to a vast variety of clients, projects, and responsibilities because they wanted to support and develop me. Every time I said “I’m bored, what’s next?” they found something new for me to do.
I later joined a start-up where I was not only the only female on the team but also the most junior in the company. The CEO of that company made sure that in every meeting before anyone else spoke that he asked me to share my opinion to encourage me to speak up and to have a voice.
At a point in my career when I was made to feel like my success was dependent on my ability to behave like a man and I was beginning to lose confidence, it was two senior male members of the team who spoke up for me, helped me see my differences as strengths and begin to forge the path I am now on.
When I think about this year’s theme, choose to challenge, I feel both confident and inspired by the team that surrounds me in Cohaesus. I see the team being actively aware when planning social activities that no one is excluded. I see team members promoting events such as TEDWomen not just to female members of the team, but to everyone who’s interested in what industry leaders have to say.
Coming to our blog soon is a piece about our ways of working through the pandemic. One of the reasons it didn’t affect us in the same ways it did for many agencies was because we’ve always had things like remote working and flexible hours. Not because the team didn’t fancy going into the office, but because the leaders were very aware of how traditional agency structures and processes often made it unviable for a whole range of people to work in that environment long term. People who had many years of experience, but agency culture didn’t work with having a family life or other commitments. People who might miss out because of factors such as location, age or gender.
Stepping into a role like MD is pretty nerve-wracking. Being handed the keys to a company that a team of incredibly passionate people has nurtured for a decade and all the responsibilities that come with that is a nail-biting moment. But one of the things that has made it less daunting was knowing that all the important foundations of respect, inclusivity and acceptance are already there.
With the ‘chalice’ firmly in my hands, one of my reasons for being within the agency is to protect this legacy and continue to build upon it. When I spoke to one of the mentors I mention in this post and told him what I had realised, he said “great, so how are you going to pay that forwards?” It’s now my responsibility to lead, coach, and mentor anyone that I can and support them in the same way that I was to reach their full potential. And part of that responsibility is creating an environment that’s fair, removed of bias, inequality or stereotyping where every individual can flourish.
More broadly than that, my mentors also remind me I have a responsibility to create greater visibility. Not just of women in tech, but women in senior roles. One of them recently sent me a screenshot of a zoom conference they were attending where the only woman in the room was the person running through the agenda. Where was I, they asked. I then thought back to that time where I struggled to see where I could go because I couldn’t see anyone who represented who I was. I need to change that, and I’m grateful that the people around me challenge me every day about how I can do better and make a difference.
I’m so glad that Rich prompted me to just have a minute and draw it all in. If I hadn’t, would I have truly absorbed how much hard work, commitment and time I had put in to reach my target of MD? Would I have reflected and looked back at the highs and the lows? And would I have made a point of reaching out to all those mentors and role models to let them know what a difference they made to me then and how they continue to support and inspire me now?
I’m only about a third of the way through reaching out to people (so don’t feel outraged if you haven’t heard from me yet!). But I feel incredibly fortunate that along the way I was supported by a huge group of people who chose to challenge and create an environment that supported me succeeding. I’d love for more women to be able to look back through their careers and wholeheartedly be able to say that the people around them #chosetochallenge rather than hoping for a future where one-day people might #choosetochallenge. So here am I with my hand up saying I #choosetochallenge and there’s a whole team at Cohaesus here doing the same.