“Own your career – invest in yourself” Fiona Hathorn, Chair, Women on Boards UK

Fiona Hathorn launched Women on Boards UK (WOB) in 2012 to support women to make the right connections and career choices to get to board level. She is an advisory board member of the Financial Reporting Council, Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and Spktral, a pay gap reporting consultancy. For the last six years she has been a judge for the Non-Executive Director Awards.

I’ve always had a strong sense of self. This was incredibly important when I first started working in the City in the late 1980s. Back then it was a heavily male-dominated environment, and some of the culture around me was quite shocking looking back now. Luckily, I was able to brush it off and get on with building a career I loved.

I believe much of this inner confidence came from my parents and how I was raised. They set very clear aspirations for what I could expect for myself and were able to offer practical support and exposure to get there. My father was a huge inspiration to me and would discuss matters of business around the family dinner table and even took me along as a child to various types of meetings. So, I understood from a very young age what went on in the boardroom and knew that it absolutely was for people ‘like me’. I also think back to the support they offered when my dyslexia was having an impact on me at school, to ensure that I didn’t let it affect my sense of self or belief in what was possible for me.

However, I strongly believe that you shouldn’t need to have this kind of unwavering support in your upbringing to be able to succeed in your career. It’s vitally important that we change our workplaces to become more inclusive; people should not need to be tough as well as talented. It’s also bad business. Companies miss out hugely when performance does not align with progression in their hierarchy and when staff can’t realise their full potential.

As a woman in asset management in the 1990s, I had to dig my heels in at times and had some extremely tough conversations with, almost always, male colleagues. That said, I adored working at Hill Samuel Asset Management (HSAM). I had huge supporters in their senior leadership an amazingly supportive and progressive (male) boss who promoted me to Head of Desk when I was eight months pregnant. He also gave me very practical help and encouragement. For example, clients would rarely appreciate that that I, a fairly petite woman, was actually in charge of the team of men surrounded me. My boss suggested that I always arrive late to meetings. Being very diligent, I was baffled by this advice until he explained that I could then breezily thank the team for ‘holding the fort’ until I’d arrived. It worked a treat!

When it came to having my children, I felt that I could only take a short maternity leave in order not to jeopardise my prospects for promotion. Returning early wasn’t easy, but with the support of my husband we made it work. In those early years, the Chair of HSAM made it clear to me that I was welcome to leave work early to be home for the kids’ teatime. Whilst the wider culture around flexible working wasn’t there at the time to make me feel secure enough to do this, knowing I had that support at the most senior level was hugely important to me morale-wise. I am mindful of this as a board member and CEO myself now – leadership matters.

I co-founded Women on Boards ten years ago as I am passionate about making sure that all types of people are engaged in making the big, strategic decisions that affect us all. Having different perspectives and diversity of thought around the table is not only fair but makes for better business. There’s a wealth of research out there supporting this view, but my personal ‘light bulb’ moment came a few years after I’d left the asset management profession.

I was involved in angel investing and had noticed how few female entrepreneurs secured investment. I was shocked when fellow investors explained to me that they wouldn’t invest in a female founder as ‘she might go off and have a baby’. This demonstrated to me the urgent need to eliminate unfair, and often unseen, assumptions and also how we need inspire and empower individuals to overcome them.

And that’s exactly what we do at Women on Boards UK. We bring predominantly but not exclusively women together to inspire and empower each other. We don’t patronise ambitious professionals by telling them how to run their careers but give them the information and practical know-how to apply themselves. It works. Eight of our members gain a new non-executive role each week (on average in 2021).

Many of those members are at a later stage in their career, who have or are building a portfolio of non-executive positions with large, complex organisations. But we also work with many women at early to mid-career stage. Exposure to the boardroom at a young age can be transformational to your career. I think back to my own experience, being taken along even as a child to my father’s meetings, and the confidence that gave me.

Now, I always ask very senior women when they first entered the boardroom. Almost all of them say in their 20s.  That may have been ‘just’ their sports club or a trusteeship of a small charity, but it gives you that strategic outlook and leadership experience. You can tell the difference in their approach.

A board position can also make a very practical difference by giving you an edge on your CV or additional examples to draw on at interview. This is really important as we know that clinching those ‘stretch’ promotions is a key stumbling block in many women’s careers. As many board roles are relatively low time commitment, they can also provide continuity through career breaks – which we know women disproportionately take.

In terms of my advice to younger women, or indeed, anyone from an under-represented group who may face unconscious bias or stereotyping, there is a lot of research out there into what makes the difference. My own personal ‘top tips’, drawing on both the research into proven strategies and my personal experience, are these:

1.     Make your achievements known – understand your personal skill set and let others know what it is. Getting comfortable advocating for yourself and championing your achievements is a crucial skill to learn. Having the experience and skills is important, but being able to articulate them in the language of leadership is a game-changer. We focus on this in our WB NexGen Leadership Programme, and over 70% of our alumnae go on to gain a new, more challenging role. It really does make all the difference.

2.      Maximise your performance in meetings – find your voice, make yourself clear and fake confidence if necessary. This is where you’re most visible and where people will remember you from.

3.     Understand influence – and how to influence different people. By listening to others, you can start to understand what they need and what skills they value and then respond to that. It will help you to get noticed and be front of mind when new opportunities arise.

4.     Own your career – invest in yourself and create career options. Make sure your ambitions are known and consider your potential, not just what you’ve done already. Don’t wait to be asked, do the asking.

5.     Network strategically – evaluate the quality, depth and breadth of your network. Read ‘My Personal Boardroom’ by Zella King and Amanda Scott – I can’t say it better than they do!

Finally, join a board as early as you can in your career. And, if you’re no longer at the early stage, I would also say it’s never too late! Women on Boards is here to help you understand how and what is involved.

The IoD is working in partnership with Women on Boards UK to support women achieve board room positions across business and not-for-profit sectors. WOB offers a discount to IoD members and the two organisations jointly host a monthly networking event on the first Tuesday of every month in the Champagne Bar at 116 Pall Mall. Find out more here.

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