Last week, on Wednesday 8 March, women across the globe celebrated International Women’s Day, applauding their achievements and highlighting the talent of inspirational figures respected and admired in society today.

On London’s Southbank, the Women of the World festival played host to a plethora of high profile female speakers, ranging from interviews between journalist Jennifer Nadel and actor Gillian Anderson to Q&A sessions with Green Party member Baroness Jenny Jones. Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly launched her TED talk on the power of female storytelling and a particularly provocative discussion was held between rape survivor Thordis Elda and her rapist Tom Stranger as part of the launch of their new collaborative book, South Of Forgiveness.

At Continuous Improvement Projects Ltd, we are continuing to explore the journeys and inspirations of our colleagues, our friends and other inspirational business women. Our first article looked at the background of these individuals and their views on how their respective industries have changed since they started their careers – how did their past shape who they are today.

We continue the conversation by looking to their inspirations, their family and their futures. It is important to keep looking forward and continue to innovate, push boundaries and challenge preconceptions, to act as role models for future generations of women to come.

Who are your role models?

No-one can truly achieve success alone and each of the individuals are inspired by people that have influenced their careers and lives for the better. Whether it be friends, family, or work colleagues, it is important for everyone to create a strong support network that can help them celebrate their achievements but equally continue to provide encouragement in times of hardship or difficulty. No successful person, man or woman, has got to where they are today without experiencing their fair share of challenges and knock-backs.

Supportive colleagues & friends – a powerful network

Benedicte Cormier, Project Manager at CI Projects Ltd, has worked with a number of people that regularly inspire her:

“Many junior designers and account handlers have inspired me, both for their creative mind and for their lack of need for standards & rules which make them think freely. One of the few to hold a senior role was my manager whilst at Ogilvy [where I worked for six years]. She was the only female high ranking manager within the business, oozed confidence, inspired her teams and commanded fairness & respect from all. She gave me a great opportunity by testing me and pushing me to my limits and this helped me to grow, learn more about myself and how to become a motivator to others.”

Many others have colleagues that have inspired, mentored and guided them to achieve the success they now celebrate. Yue Kendall, Head of Audit in Asia for Tesco, looks back at two such people:

“There are a couple of people – one man and one woman. The woman was my first boss in Tesco, and what’s really inspiring about her is that she was quite a serious character on the surface, very firm about what she said and always had a voice in any situation. However, in private when she dealt with people she had a more humane side – I think that authenticity helped to build trust. As a woman, I thought she was inspiring because no matter how strong we are, we all have emotions and that’s ok. Just because you are a strong career woman, that shouldn’t mean you can’t show any vulnerability.

Another is a male leader in Tesco who I have worked with for 8 years. Again, he’s one of those resilient and serious characters but he always has time for people. He can be confrontational in meetings but when it comes to people it doesn’t matter that he’s senior, he will give you his time. That is so rare these days because of business hierarchy and is what makes a leader inspirational. At the end of the day, you are the leader of people, not tasks or activities. Have time for them and they will follow you; work hard for you.”

Radio, TV and fashion presenter Arzu Qaderi doesn’t look to one person in particular, but is inspired by her entire industry, despite it being perceived as such a tough and demanding sector:

“The fashion industry is very tough, but there are also nice people in it – you accept the reality. It’s very competitive, and sometimes you have to put a thick skin on. If you take everything personally you’re not going to succeed. You have to be very strong.

In the end, the fashion industry helps women to express themselves. On International Women’s Day on 8th March, there will be a lot of fashion shows as it empowers women. Women can express themselves in the fashion world – the way someone dresses reflects their confidence. Being able to wear beautiful gowns, or a swimsuit, shows that a woman feels good within her skin. Others see the pictures and feel inspired, it shows that the world is actually very connected.”

Salini Raveendra, a doctor with the NHS, remembers the advice a childhood friend gave her to keep her motivated every day:

“So many have helped me stay the path throughout this quite convoluted journey of chasing both my professional and personal dreams. However, on reflection, I realise that it is the words of a childhood friend that tends to echo in my mind, when I find passion alone doesn’t suffice to keep me pushing through the harder times;

‘Remember why you want to achieve your goals – don’t forget what motivates you, what drives you’.

This simple reminder has kept me reaching higher throughout my life, so that I will hopefully not have any regrets at the end of the day.”

The Family Unit – looking out for each other

Every single woman I interviewed had a clear focus in their mind – work is not everything. Balance is key to achieving both what you want in your career and what you need to keep you energised, inspired and passionate. For many women, the balance to their career is as a mother, a member of a family unit that nurtures and supports each other.

Director of CI Projects Ltd, Kiran Kachela, was unsure of how becoming a mother would impact her career:

“Entering parenthood brings with it excitement but also a fear of the unknown. I had no idea what to expect and was unsure of how having a child would impact my career. But when I had my first child and returned to work after 6 months, I immediately realised that having children didn’t need to affect my career. If anything, it’s helped me achieve much more. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy juggling so many commitments and achieving a good work-life balance. Working mothers wrestle with guilt on a daily basis; but research shows that having a job gives children a strong role model. I believe that the hardest job in the world is being a ‘Mother’. Realising this has given me more confidence in the workplace because when you put everything into perspective, no job is more difficult and everything is possible when you work hard.

Being a mother requires resilience, strength, tact, negotiation, persuasion, patience, confidence, leadership, structure, organisation, attention to detail, discipline, role modelling, change management, clear communication, integrity, coaching, and so much more. As a mother you have to apply these skills from the minute you wake up, when you assert authority and leadership to ensure your kids are dressed smartly, fed substantially and out of the house in time for school; through to bedtime when you have to maintain routine and consistency in getting the kids to bed on time whilst preparing for the next morning. Skills that I never realised I had have been discovered and these have been translated into my working environment.”

For Gráinne McCoy, Professional Makeup Artist and semi-finalist on The Apprentice 2016, having children at a young age completely re-evaluated both her career and her life choices:

“I had to think of not only myself in my career decisions but my son and how it would affect him. I became pregnant when I was 15 and had Ryan at the age of 16. But I knew what I wanted to do – I gave birth in August and then went back to repeat my final school year 4 weeks later.

You hear so many ladies say you can’t go back to work until 6 months, but of course you can, it shouldn’t be frowned upon. Working long, long hours on film sets and sometimes not getting back home every night was tough but I was lucky having such a supportive family to help me get to where I am today. Everyday I get up to work I am doing it for the exact same reason I started 16 years ago – my son.”

Elisa Allsop, General Manager with Bouygues Energies & Services, recognises that the skills she has learnt from being a parent as well can now carry into the workplace:

“By learning empathy and patience, I really do now understand the impact I have on others. Having to deal with a difficult situation or the most difficult people at work is nothing compared to dealing with a 3-year old that has had their sandwich cut the wrong way, believe me. 

I am a huge ambassador for parents that want to do well in their careers. It isn’t easy but as a generation we are so much luckier than our parents or their parents – we live in a connected world where you don’t have to be sat at your desk for long hours. You can go home see your children and do your work after they have gone to bed if you need to. Flexible working is the norm and anyone who doesn’t support that isn’t getting the best out of their people. It’s vital for us to support each other, be an ambassador for success, connect your friends, help each other; business culture stops with us as individuals, how we treat each other and understanding the impact we have by driving to be better or seeking out opportunities. I’ve certainly realised your career isn’t a ladder – it’s more like an assault course.”

Salini concurs with Elisa, understanding that the desire to maintain a work-life balance is a constant struggle in her job as a doctor:

“Patience; true empathy; setting boundaries; having two young daughters (currently three and four years old) has been a complete game-changer. Their ability to reflect to you so clearly both your strengths and weaknesses drives you to keep chiselling away at yourself until you are best ‘you’ that you can be.

The skills and qualities I developed through becoming a mother translate invaluably to working as a doctor. I have undoubtedly gained confidence in handling unpredictable situations and have learned through practise that stepping back and taking a moment helps me do so without being hindered by the anxiety of the unknown. Unfortunately, work-life balance remains a struggle, but setting boundaries at work for myself, just as I do with my children at home, has inevitably helped with this.”

For young professionals, the reverse is also true. Laura Buntine, Business Analyst at the Financial Conduct Authority, cites her parents as her inspirations, both professionally and personally:

“My parents inspire me tremendously. They both work professionally with each other in a very demanding field [equestrian eventing]. My father in particular is a visionary and has done miraculous things with his career. He came to the UK as a groom in a show jumping yard and has built the second biggest company in equestrian sport. He’s known all over the world for what he does – it’s a tale of doing whatever you want to do. He left Australia as a teenager and worked his way around Europe, creating his own opportunities – a very charismatic man, once he gets a foothold in, he can easily make something of that.

The work my mother does within the company holds it all together, it wouldn’t go anywhere otherwise.”

Look To The Future

After talking about their own role models, it only makes sense for each of these influential women to look to the future and the next generation of businesspeople looking to emulate their success. The advice they give ranges from practical to inspirational – keep a clear head but reach for your dreams.

Staying Sensible – Keep Your Feet On The Ground

Becs Jeffrey, Marketing Partner at Fi and Becs and The Apprentice 2016 candidate, encourages those with aspirations to start their own businesses to get on with it

“All that energy that you’ve got, that impetus to start your own company, don’t spend six months deliberating about it and writing a massive business plan. I know that goes against all of the marketing theories you get taught, but put your energy into starting and moulding it [your business] as it goes along, then you already have a business rather than the thought of a business. Don’t hang around and debate it too much, start your social media (you don’t have to have a website to start it), build up an audience and then when you launch you have an audience to launch it to. It’s about trying and seeing where it goes, evolving as it goes along.”

Arzu advises caution when starting out, keeping your friends close and staying smart:

“Be careful. I know it sounds a bit negative, but don’t believe everything you hear. Don’t believe everything people tell you – I truly believe that easy will never last. If I hadn’t worked so hard and had just taken any opportunities out of the blue I wouldn’t still be in the industry and have the right people around me, feeling that I’ve accomplished something. It’s a matter of being professional – this goes for any industry. When people see all the abilities and skills that you have, they will respect you more.”

Danielle Reece-Greenhalgh, Criminal Solicitor at Corker Binning, similarly advocates self-awareness and knowing what you are letting yourself in for. The best route into her sector is not always the well-trodden path:

“Go into criminal law with your eyes open. Too many people have gone straight through after university, settling in to whatever jobs are offered because they are thin on the ground. Don’t be afraid to follow a path in law that isn’t necessarily conventional. Be prepared to put some grunt work in, get to know how the process and a law firm works – it stands in much better stead to understand what goes in to making a success of cases and case management.

Figure out whether it’s right for you – after some experience you might find it’s not really the place to be and that’s ok too.”

Have Confidence – Run For Your Goals

Becky Kendall, Senior Programme Manager with CI Projects Ltd, pleads for women to get into the FM and IT industries, never believing that they should behave and act like their male counterparts:

“Please do it because you’re needed! I’ve seen some advice out there that women should learn to think like men. That’s rubbish, and implies that all men think the same, which of course isn’t true. For me, the reason why having more women in any workplace that is under represented, apart from the equality impact, is because any form of diversity is a good thing. Having people whose ideas, thought processes and working styles complement rather than replicating each other can only add to problem solving and the creative needs of any IT project. I would say to a young female professional, be who you are, recognise and be proud and confident of your strengths, be aware of what you’re not so good at, and find a team where they are strong on your weaknesses and need your strengths.”

Benedicte advocates self-belief and self-confidence for women:

“Believe in yourself. If you have an idea or opinion, share it; don’t stay quiet. if you want to move up the ladder to consider a senior role, learn the tricks that the men often display – be “part of” something, find a way to belong but remain confident in who you are and what you can do for us women in a workplace.”

Yue echoes Benedicte and cautions against self-doubt – a key driver that hold women back from achieving their goals:

“Never have that inner voice in your head that says you can’t do it as well as a man. You are as good as everybody else. I think self-doubt is the most important thing holding back women. My advice is to believe in yourself and go for the things you want to pursue. If you don’t get it fine, but if you don’t try it you’ll never get it.”

Fiona Daly, Director of Sustainable Business Development at ADSM, quotes the current President of Liberia, Ellen Sirleaf, to encourage the next generation of female engineers:

“There are two things I live by in business – I will always ask questions even if I look stupid; I’ve never been afraid to say I was wrong. It’s really important to admit when you’re wrong, when you’ve made the wrong decision. We’re human beings, we get it wrong sometimes. People need to be more candid and honest about their experiences and failures. Not everything works.

Be determined, be ambitious, be inspirational, never take no for an answer. Practically I would say find a mentor and a coach, be unapologetically yourself and never ever give up. To borrow a saying from Ellen Sirleaf;

‘If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough’.” 

What do you think?

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