“At Sandhurst I really was a woman in a man’s world” Leona Barr-Jones, founder, Focus7

Leona Barr-Jones trained as an Army officer at Sandhurst in the early 1990s when women officers were paid less than men, being gay could result in a court martial and getting pregnant wasn’t an option. Following high-profile roles inside and outside the forces, she became a Fellow of the IoD and now runs a successful brand-led marketing consultancy with her wife.

I am a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, so I like to think I am a role model for quite a few groups facing discrimination. As an officer in the 1990s I was a woman in a man’s world but despite the obvious difficulties around inequality, diversity and inclusion, I loved it. Of course, everything has changed now. The Navy, Army and RAF are all widely recognised as being positive examples of diverse and inclusive organisations.

I benefitted from the Army’s commitment to continuous professional development which began in my officer training and continued with qualifications in leadership, people and management at Cranfield School of Management, Manchester Business School and King’s College London. As a Major in the Army, I travelled the world and lead people and training teams in the UK, Germany and South Africa, as well as on operations in the Balkans. Later in my career I moved into senior roles with the Ministry of Defence where I was regularly briefing ministers across Whitehall.

As I transitioned from the Army – 20 years after I completed training – I looked for organisations that could help me move into civilian life. The IoD recognises the talents and skills officers can bring which meant I was eligible to join. The connections and networking opportunities I experienced at the IoD contributed to me being able to set up as a management consultant; I then joined Capita and worked with TFL on the London 2012 Olympics. My current business, Focus7, is an award winning brand strategy and marketing agency and many of my IoD connections have become clients.

My involvement with the IoD reflects my passion for good leadership and building diverse and inclusive organisations. I have been an IoD Director of the Year for Inclusivity, the IoD Ambassador for Diversity and Inclusion and the Armed Forces and I am proud to be an IoD Fellow. Many of my old military colleagues ask me about it and I always recommend membership. I haven’t found time to do the Chartered Director Qualification yet, but I certainly would like to.

The IoD is in a unique position to raise awareness of the positive impact running diverse and inclusive organisations can have on business and I am proud to be part of this role model campaign which shines a light on both my differences, and my profession. I love speaking about leadership, culture  and diversity and inclusion and I know without my more unusual career choices I wouldn’t have had these opportunities today.

When I talk to businesspeople, I emphasise the need for authenticity and inclusive leadership. People should be able to bring their whole, authentic selves to work, be respected for who they are. I am passionate about diversity on boards and would love to see more promotion around the increased efficiency and effectiveness of boards which represent people of different genders, ethnicity and thinking. The statistics are highly persuasive.

Although I am no longer a full-time officer, I have remained connected to the military as an Army Reservist and I love my current role as Colonel Cadets for East Midland and I really believe in the values, standards and respect we teach our young people, setting them up for lifelong success and to become better citizens. This year I was hugely proud and honoured to lead a group of Cadets and Adult Instructors from all three services on the 50th Anniversary Pride in London March – quite a turnaround from my training days when it was illegal to be a gay soldier.

In March 2022, the IoD launched ‘The Future of Business: harnessing diverse talent for success commission’, to examine the key barriers to the recruitment, retention, and progression of individuals from underrepresented groups, with specific reference to disability, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Join us for the Summit on 19 October.

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