Starting form finishing University, you had an amazing opportunity in front of you regarding a career in finance. You worked for Apple, Deloitte, Ernst & Young. What changed that caused you to change the path of your life – from global advisory director to motivational speaker and business consultant?
This is such a great question to unpick the myths around career decisions and change. I had dedicated the greater part of my life studying intensely to get into the right University, graduate top of my class in Finance and qualify in the top 10% in my country (Ireland) as a Chartered Accountant, while working in Corporate Finance with Deloitte.
This all prepared me to create an incredible career path working within the global finance industry, travelling the world and advising on multi-million-dollar deals. I had created a career for myself, that the University version of me, could only have dreamed of.
However, as we grow and learn, and most importantly, learn about ourselves; what we value most, what drives us and our definition of success, changes.
It is the very reason that when I share career advice to young professionals I say; go all in on what you think is the best path for you now; but understand that this may, and likely will, change.
I had created the definition of success for me in terms of working with the best companies, getting a lucrative salary, travelling the world meeting and working with some of the best people in business. However, when I was about to enter a new decade in my life, that definition of success had radically changed.
I had spent many years being the only woman in the boardroom and despite the work I was doing to promote more women in business, which is what had led to my awards with the Financial Times and Yahoo! Finance, I still knew there was a bigger, more meaningful impact, I could be making.
When I took the time to reflect on my values, the impact I desired to create and the type of life I wanted for me and my family, I realised it was time to change everything and take that leap of faith to start all over again; relaunching my career and building my new business.
In one interview you mentioned, that even at the beginning of your career, there was some imbalance regarding man/woman ratio in the workplace. When did you start noticing it and in what way did it affect you?
There was an imbalance from the beginning, but often I didn’t even acknowledge it. When I began my journey studying Finance in University, I was one of 8 women in a class of 60 men. Yet I was still the Class Representative and still graduated in the top 10%. When I accepted my first post University position working in Corporate Finance with Deloitte, there were no female Partners. However, I was still quite naïve to the tangible imbalance that existed. I was an ambitious young professional with a strong desire to succeed. The fact I was a woman never entered my mind as a benefit or a hindrance; I was there to do an excellent job and I believed at the time that would be enough to succeed in my career.
It wasn’t until I moved to London to further my career, that I realised the extent of gender imbalance in the industry, and the impact it was having on the careers of women. I distinctly remember the moment it happened; I was attending my first ever Women in Finance event at Bloomberg.
For 8 hours I sat there and listened to these incredible, accomplished women share their stories and challenges of navigating a successful career within finance, law and business. Then one woman, who I know dearly now; Amanda Pullinger, CEO of 100 Women in Finance, took the stage and shared a statistic that fundamentally changed my life forever.
In that moment, I knew I had to do something to be a part of creating significant progress and change. I knew I could not just sit back and enjoy the success I was experiencing, I had to step up and ignite change for all women.
Despite not having any children at the time, there was something in me that knew I could never bring a daughter into the world and look at her to say that I did nothing to change the inequality she would otherwise inevitably face.
That moment changed the trajectory of my life. Up until then, I was content in my career plans to rise to the top of my firm.
This moment spurred me on to become a visible and vocal force for change. I co-chaired a new gender equality network at EY, engaged with our senior leaders in the firm about how to create real meaningful change for women in the business, I mentored women across my firm and industry and became an ambassador for gender equality, speaking at events and appearing in global campaigns to promote more women. It was not always comfortable, and there were many times I faced push back, but I knew that we needed to see more representations of women succeeding in business, and I knew I had to lead by example.
When your “WHY” for creating change is big enough, then anything is possible.
You started in a competitive environment, some of the best brains in the workforce are drawn to these firms. How was that experience for you? What were your strengths and what is something you couldn’t change about yourself but these companies still “asked of you” to succeed? (time, long hours, competitiveness etc)
Often times when you are working in a big company, the expectation is to maintain the status quo. So, to be someone who challenges that; in the way you conduct yourself as a woman in business, or your ambitions for advancement in your career, or the way you speak up and seek out ways of doing things differently; can cause a certain level of disruption. Especially amongst those that have worked in the firm for many years.
Of course, there were times that long hours were required, last minute travel meant cancelling all personal plans, and you had to navigate working with certain people that were not team players…but the biggest challenge was staying true to myself and not becoming another man in a dress, meaning, not trying to imitate the way many men were succeeding.
I didn’t want to conform to the idea that I needed to “be serious” in order to be taken seriously, nor did I want to fall into the trap of believing that somehow I was disadvantaged because of my career. I had studied enough about the mind and success to realise that those thought patterns would be simply destructive.
My core strengths, and what I believe was responsible for success in climbing to the top of my career so quickly, centered around 3 key areas.
- Relationships and networking.
I read the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” while at University and had been applying the techniques shared by Dale Carnegie ever since. I had learned how to effectively build rapport and positively influence people. That was instrumental to my progression and gaining access to some of the best opportunities in my career.
2. Say “yes” before you feel ready.
Richard Branson has a famous quote “say yes and figure it out later” and that is a way of living that certainly resonates with me and has supported me in my career and business journey. There were several significant moments to which I said “yes” that transformed my career. For example; being asked to join the Board of an international shipping company and despite some internal hesitance; saying yes. The truth is, we all know a lot more than we give ourselves credit for, and it is only by staying open to opportunities and taking leaps of faith, that we will witness our full potential.
3. Personal Mastery
Emotional awareness and personal resilience supported me a great amount in advancing my career. I had personally invested c£150k in my own personal development; working alongside great leaders such as Bob Proctor and Tony Robbins, to deeply understand the mindset and strategy of incredible personal success. This level of deep personal awareness and understanding enabled me to thrive in the most challenging of environments and overcome challenges by being able to reframe them as opportunities to drive myself forward.
For example. When I arrived to my first pitch meeting at a major oil and gas company and was assumed to be the secretary of my colleague. I chose to use this occasion to express how capable I was, as a woman, and not let it shake me. Another example that comes to mind, is a senior partner trying to take me out of the promotion process due of his own personal agenda. Although it was very upsetting when it was brought to my attention, I chose to reframe the situation and use it to energise me to prove just how capable I was. I went on to not only get promoted, but become one of the highest paid managers across the firm.
I love that you said “Being a woman is an incredibly powerful thing and I see it as a real gift. It’s not something that is a disadvantage”. Can you explain what way you mean by that?
Knowing what I do about how our minds work and the interplay between our internal thought processes and our external success, I know how important it is that we reframe the narrative about what it means to be a woman in business; and any associated connotations around “disadvantage”.
If you look at the research and statistics, you would be completely discouraged to even enter the workforce, not a mind striving for the top positions within business. Statistics like “120 years until gender equality is achieved”, are relevant to know and can drive you forward in a positive way. However, these statistics can also be very discouraging and should not be held onto or over emphasised as you look to rise up the corporate ladder. Otherwise, it could cause you to negatively frame situations or potential opportunities that arise for you.
I believe the past does not equal the present. So, if we can shift our focus from what has been, to what can be, we will be in a much better position.
To succeed, one must feel empowered and confident. If you live your career feeling constantly disempowered, or disadvantaged, your chance of fulfilling your true potential will always be limited. I believe we should study the work of great women, past and present, that have created significant change and success across a range of industries. It is time to rewrite the narrative of what it means to be a woman in our world, especially within business. It is time to realise that being a woman is part of your unique set of superpowers. Use these examples of what other women have achieved, to realise what is possible for you too.
When you walk into another boardroom as the only women, or maybe the youngest, you get to choose what meaning you attach to that. Is it “this is another example of women not being supported in the workplace. I don’t belong here. I don’t fit in here” or is it; “I have an opportunity to stand out here, to be memorable, to bring a new dynamic to this environment that many may find incredibly refreshing”
It is not about ignoring the facts. There is still a big disparity amongst gender, I know this firsthand. Instead, it is about choosing the narrative you tell yourself everyday. Because that narrative will become your reality. If we want things to change, we have to begin seeing things differently and creating that change from within first.
You work with some of the most successful women in the business. What would you say it’s the thing most of them have in common? What are the reasons they are in these positions and what are the reasons why they call you for support?
The truth is there are highly successful people all around the world that will display a range of conflicting attributes; some highly intelligent, others not very much, some incredibly amiable, while others are loathed. However, when we deconstruct it to the key principles of success, there are certain traits that most successful women, and men, will likely display.
- A high level of self-belief and confidence.
Whether you are aiming for a promotion or selling to a client; the first person you must sell, is yourself. You have to believe you are capable of achieving your goals and more. That is key.
2. Hold a clear vision in your mind of where you want to get to.
If you do not know where you are going, the likelihood is you will not get there. Clarity around your goals, developing a vision that inspires you to take action and having a bigger mission at heart to spur you on to do the difficult things, even when you don’t want to, is another common theme amongst the most successful people I work with.
3. Resilience and perseverance.
Challenges are inevitable and failure is a part of your journey to success. You cannot be afraid to fail, otherwise you will be paralyzed from making any decision or taking any action. When I was building my corporate career, there were many moments I stepped far outside of my comfort zone and the risk of failure was tangible.
Again, coming back to that personal development work, you must have a set of tools to support you move through that terror barrier and keep moving forward. Even today, as I grow my coaching and online education business, there are many examples of things I tried that did not work initially, but when you realise, that if you can learn from the “failure” and not repeat the pattern, then it is not a failure, but rather an opportunity for change and improvement.
The type of women I work with do not lack ambition or ability; it is those very traits that cause them to contact me and get the type of coaching support I provide. The women I work with have big goals for what they want to achieve in their business, they see themselves creating a massive impact in their life time. Their biggest fear is not failure. Their biggest fear is that they do not fulfil their full potential. They seek my support to ensure they can fast track their results and do not waste time trying to figure it all out themselves.
I support my clients in establishing the mindset for extraordinary success, and then we delve into their business growth strategy so we can implement or update the systems and structures that will support them to scale exponentially in their business.
The interview is continued in Part 2 – In conversation with Grazia – Imposter Syndrome, Gender Equality and Success in Business
This was first published in Grazia Magazine March 2021 issue.
Watch the associated Art of Feminine Leadership workshop here: https://youtu.be/aXNwwPlSOhM