#choosetochallenge / #difficultwomen
To celebrate International Women’s Day I wanted to share my story and my journey to C-Suite! The title of this blog is taken from the wonderful book Difficult Women by Helen Lewis, which was given to me by a friend and colleague, for taking the plunge into being a founder and business owner last week!
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.George Bernard Shaw 1903
or WomanHelen Lewis 2020
It all started by being a difficult child
I was very privileged to have a wonderful childhood, raised in a very loving family. I think my dad found his first grey hair the day I was born and by the time I was a few years old he had turned completely grey! You see I’m very different in my family, I’m outgoing, creative and energetic. I’m also very inquisitive and curious – always asking questions (hence the Miss Chatterbox jumper!). Growing up I tended to find myself in one or two scrapes due to my strong sense of justice and courage. I wasn’t very academic and school for me more about socialising than learning… this is where my problems started. I didn’t fit into the academic mould – my ideas, creativity, sense of fun and social skills counted for nothing. Having opinions and viewpoints were not encouraged. I vividly recall getting a detention for expressing an opinion about women having to do housework. I also remember my mum being called to the school because I had dared to ask the relevance of what we were learning in Geography. Unfortunately, rather than teachers entering into a dialogue with me, I was punished and told to be quiet…. which for ‘Miss Chatterbox’ was an impossible thing for me to do!
I want to be a lorry driver
When I was growing up, I was often asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and my answer was always – ‘a lorry driver’. Whenever I said this, people laughed. I didn’t really understand why. The reason I wanted to be a lorry driver was because my Grampy had driven lorries and often told me tales about his adventures on the road. I remember my uncle turning up at our house in one of his lorries and being amazed at its size and all the gadgets. I also recall my Grandma excitingly popping round after a WI (women’s institute) meeting to tell me all about a female lorry driver who had spoken to the group.
So when I reached the age of making careers choices and exploring work experience, I told my form tutor my career ambition… I was told in no uncertain terms ‘girls can’t drive lorries’. When I tried to explain that was not true and my Grandma had met one, I ended up in detention for ‘back chat and an attitude problem’ (it seemed to me any view expressed that was alternative to a teacher’s view was deemed an attitude problem). I persevered for a bit longer and confided in the independent careers advisor that I wanted to be a lorry driver… but she laughed, tutted and said ‘a girl like me (who didn’t want to go to University) could only be a secretary’. Turns out the same advice had been doled out to all the girls in my year who didn’t see University as something they could or wanted to do. We were all completely desperate about the prospects that lay ahead after school. So I left school having been voted ‘Class Clown’ and the inspirational words of advice from my form tutor ‘Good luck Kathryn, you’re going to need it’.
I lasted one year at college on the secretarial course. Most of the tutors spoke down to us like idiots. However, there was one tutor Peter Reynolds, who was the first teacher to show respect and spoke to us as real people, on the same level. He encouraged discussion and debate – it was great! He helped me decide to leave college and go into work – it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
(Shout out to Pete Reynolds – I love how fate works, 15 years later I met Pete again as Chief People Officer at the Catapult and he was so proud of me, it was hard not to cry! He is still doing amazing work encouraging young people to pursue their dreams and I now sit on his advisory board at Activate Learning).
Into the world of work I go!
At the age of 15 I started working, I had 3 part-time jobs (Tesco, Catering Assistant in a Hospital and Dinner Lady at a Boarding School) so I had work experience but it was when I entered the full time business world that I flew! I did a couple of years at a Removal Company as an Admin Assistant and quickly moved to Oxfordshire Registration Service (births, deaths and marriages) and it was here that my life was transformed. I was surrounded by confident and inspirational women. It was my manager Wendy Morgan-Brown who said to me ‘Kathryn you can’t sit on reception for the rest of your life’ and she worked with me to start my career in HR. She encouraged and supported me to start night school, which following my experience with education I was dreading. But as soon as I started, I turned into the biggest nerd – I could see how the learning could be directly applied in my work and my thirst for knowledge and learning started! I now have a First Class Masters in Human Resource Management – not too bad for the ‘class clown of 2000’.
My career in HR started to flourish and I have purposely worked in a variety of industry sectors and kept very generalist as I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed. I wanted a breadth of experience, which I have gained, and it has given me the confidence to develop a progressive and innovative approach to HR. The sage advice to not specialise too soon, was from another of my champions David Sibbet, who has been a fundamental support throughout my career (thank you David for always being on hand to chat through my challenges and coach me through my career!).
Stop laughing at my ambition!
When I started working within business I realised very quickly how utterly rubbish the careers advisor was. She could have spoken to me about a career in logistics, secured work experience in a distribution centre to see the wonderful world of logistics! But she didn’t, she laughed and I did two weeks “work experience” on the checkouts of Tesco (even though I worked there already on Saturdays).
So this experience taught me not to let anyone laugh at my ambition again. So when I was early in my HR career, I met with the HR Director of the company I worked at, to talk about my career and to understand what it takes to get to director level.
Now I’m no spring chicken, but we are talking 2009′ ish which isn’t that long ago…. So when I shared with him my ambition to get to the top of HR, I was shocked at his response. He laughed at me, proper belly laughed! Then noting I was not joking, he said ‘there are not many women that are HR Directors and certainly the women who get to that level are, somewhat larger (I am 5 foot nothing) and more masculine than you are. Sit tight and stay at advisor level’. I remained professional and ended the meeting, but rightly or wrongly this was a key driver for me in getting to the top!
Other pearls of wisdom I’ve received along the way are =
- Careers are made in the pub, you need to learn to drink beer
- How good is your golf, your career will go nowhere if you don’t play
- Stop smiling so much
- Start smiling more
- You are too silly, you need to be serious to hold more gravitas
- Always wear heels, you are too short to be taken seriously
- You need to be a bitch to succeed at the top, toughen up
- Make sure you stay thin, overweight women don’t get taken seriously
- Be careful of your Oxfordshire accent, it’s very farmer’ish
- Why are you having a baby in your 20’s? Your 20’s are for making your career!
Throughout my journey I have had to call out being called a ‘good girl’, being asked to be the note taker in every meeting, being asked to make the tea in breaks. I’ve pointed out language that people have used i.e. ‘when we recruit the next XX, he will be’, I’ve not laughed when sexist jokes have been made and I’ve expressed my uncomfortableness with it. I’ve been called the ‘PC (politically correct) Police’ and a ‘fun sponge’.
The hardest to deal with in my career was being called a bully, over business decisions that had been made. These decisions were difficult, but they had not been made in isolation. However my counterparts were not subjected to the same vitriol – this was really tough to deal with.
Being a working mum
You enter a whole new ball game when you become a working parent. There are a lot of social norms and constructs to navigate. It’s hard work balancing the two, getting home in time to do the bedtime routine and logging back on, to work late into the evening. Then getting up at the crack of dawn to get everyone dressed, fed and to childcare. I remember turning up to a meeting and a manager ‘congratulating me’ on being ‘mum of the year’, by having time to make scrambled eggs for breakfast. I wasn’t sure what he was taking about, then he reached across and wiped what he thought was scrambled egg from my suit jacket. All I could do was smile and nod, as he had just wiped my daughter’s sick off me!
The biggest issues I had being a working mum, came from my daughter’s school. I was really surprised by their outdated views on working mothers and the many micro-aggressions directed at me. One memory was arriving to parents evening, after a herculean effort to extract myself from work and commute from London back in time. I was met with sheer distain ‘well thank you for showing up, we didn’t think you would spare us the time from your important “job”‘ (they actually did the air quote finger thing), another time I had “where is Lacey’s mum, you are not the person who picks her up after school?” My small win was getting the school to implement an electronic method for working parents to book parent’s evening slots after I complained about the paper sign up sheets outside of the classroom.
I have to take a moment to thank my sister-in-law and mum for all their support with Lacey, they have been fundamental to enabling me to have a career and a child – thank you so much!
So having worked so hard and been driven to get to the top of HR, what did I do once I reached the top? I decided not to sit there comfortably. I decided to challenge myself again and take another career turn and start my own business. Societal norms dictate that my next career move should have been HR Director within a larger organisation, leaving this coaching malarky as a hobby for when I retire. But I’m not one to do what is expected of me and I’m always up for a challenge.
I also strongly believe this ‘coaching malarky’ has the power to transform organisations and the lives of teams and individuals. My mission is to change the world of work, working in partnership with businesses to co-create solutions that enable them to transform into 21st Century Organisations. I want my legacy to be creating a world of work that means my daughter and her friends don’t have to experience the same challenges many of us have endured.
I want to run my business using all the leadership skills I have learnt along the way, but in my own way, with sparkle and flare. The days of squishing myself to fit the mould of other people’s expectations are gone – I’m me and I’m much better at what I do when I’m completely the brilliant, unique person I am!
IWD 2021 #ChooseToChallenge
A challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we’re all responsible for our own thoughts and actions – all day, every day.
We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world.
From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.