Women on Top

10 09 2012

In the last few weeks we have been treated to a seemingly endless parade of female high achievers. From Jessica Ennis to Sophie Christiansen, Ellie Simmonds to Victoria Pendleton. Female athletes delivered more than one third of the medals won by Team GB at the Olympics and are adding to that achievement daily at the paralympics. A brilliant effort, especially given that sportswomen receive less than one per cent of corporate sponsorship for sport and five per cent of media coverage.

It is fabulous to see women’s achievements celebrated in this way and to have a generation of young women who can act as role models for our young girls – a far better message to send out, surely, one that says that girls can be successful footballers rather than judging their success by marrying one!

While there isn’t a 50:50 male/female split the governing bodies do have significant input from women; UK Sport has two women at the top – Liz Nicholl the CEO and Baroness Sue Campbell the Chair, while 30% of the board of UK Athletics is female, including Sarah Smart, who is profiled in this issue of the3rdimagazine.

But what does it mean to be a Woman on Top?

In the Olympic arena it is clear. At the end of each event there is a podium with three platforms, the highest reserved for the gold medal winner, the lowest for bronze and the middle for silver medalist.  My youngest brother, a former PE teacher and semi-professional footballer, refers to second place as being the first loser.  He is now at the top of his chosen profession so you could argue that this philosophy works in getting you to the top. For those of you of a similar age to me, you may remember this attitude being displayed by Lord, then simply Sebastian, Coe who swiftly removed the silver medal award to him when he finished behind Steve Ovett in the 800m at the Moscow Olympics.

But is it really that clear?

When Rebecca Adlington won bronze for the second time at the 2012 games, having won gold twice in Beijing, she said,

“I am proud to get a bronze, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. I hate it when people say it is losing because you have not done my sport. Swimming is one of the hardest events to get a medal at. It’s not like other sports. Hopefully the public will be proud of me getting that bronze.”

Clearly she was proud of her performance but concerned that her achievement wouldn’t be appreciated or be given the credit that it deserved.

Earlier in the year I had watched the UK Athletics championships, which this year also served as the qualifying event for those seeking to represent Great Britain at the Olympics. Here just being the best in the UK at your chosen event wasn’t enough. An athlete could win the race, beat all the competition and still be labelled a failure as unless the victory was achieved in a time, or at a height or distance that would allow them to compete with the best in the world, the athlete would not be selected for Team GB. This happened quite a few times. Success dressed up as failure.

I think that these lessons of achievement need to be taken into our working lives. Not the striving for the top but in the need to consider what success looks like, particularly for women.

For example, I’m considered by many to be a successful woman whereas my hairdresser is a hairdresser. She hasn’t won any major awards, doesn’t drive a flash car, doesn’t have any of the “stuff” that we associate with success. However she employs several staff, treats them all really well, supports all her team to continue their learning and development and earns enough to keep herself and her family comfortably. Most women in business are like her and should, in my opinion, be applauded.

Getting more women on boards is all well and good – in fact it is essential if we are to change the whole nature of big business and I am actively involved in a number of projects to further this aim. But as Napolean said, we are a nation of shopkeepers. To paraphrase, we are a nation of small businesses, a lot of which are women owned and managed. Most women aren’t working in corporates and have no interest in being Chair of a FTSE 100 company.

While we need to support the women who do want a corporate career we also need to look at what we mean by being “On Top” and to think more carefully about what success really looks like for most women.

Leadership – and how not to do it

5 06 2012

If you type the word Leadership into the google search engine you get about 496,000,000 results.

Amongst the front page entries are definitions, training courses, news articles and an intriguing placement from christianitytoday.com.

Leadership is one of these topics about which everyone has an opinion and it’s a fair bet that every one is different. You’d think that this would make my task this month easy, but sitting here with a blank piece of paper in front of me and the requirement to produce a 1,000 word article the scope of the topic is daunting rather than comforting. What makes an effective leader?, discussions of leadership styles, gender differences are all interesting candidates but I have decided to take a sideways look at the topic and consider what happens in the absence of leadership.

I will make a confession here. I have never been a big fan of the vision thing. I think that this this is partly due to the 80’s fashion for posting fatuous posters all over the walls of every corporate office block with things like “Our vision is to be the global leader in customer value”, “Our vision is to be the best company in the world, in the eyes of our customers, shareholders, communities and people.” Aren’t these things true for most companies? Do the people who have to realise the vision actually read the posters? My thought had always been that if everyone knew what their job was, were properly managed and supported then the success of the company would tumble out without having to post some bland vision statement.

However, it’s never too late even for an old campaigner like me to acknowledge a mistake. While I still retain the belief that it is probably not necessary for a leader to post their vision on every free space on the wall, I am now utterly convinced that it is vital that they have one. I have seen what happens when there is no vision. What replaces vision is a wish list. An idea appears, becomes the most important part of the project but is quickly superseded by the next new thing. Each of the ideas may, or may not, be good ones; the problem is the shifting between ideas.

When this happens there is often no agreement on what the project is actually about. That is not completely true, actually people often do have an idea what the business they work in is about, but it is their idea, not a shared vision. Everyone one has a different idea about where the project should be headed and so no headway is ever made. There may be regular planning meetings where everyone agrees priorities, and tasks are created and allocated. The problem is that none of the tasks are ever completed as the priorities have changed even before the printer has printed out the latest task list. There is frustration and time is wasted in starting tasks that are never finished and in heading towards a goal that is always shifting. As Phil says in his <a href=”http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk/2012/06/its-not-your-money-its-not-all-about-you-you-dont-know-everything/&#8221; target=”_blank”>article </a>this month, you can run a hobby in this way but not a business.

The really odd thing is that the oft-stated reason given for why projects fail or stall is that the workers don’t share the owners/board/management vision. The unfortunate truth is that there often is no vision. People perform their tasks in line with the latest addition to the wish list.

So back to the vision thing and leadership. Put simply – the leader needs a vision.

That vision should be consistent, concise and clearly communicated. It should not change quickly and should not change without good reason. I don’t think it needs to be put up around the place on posters – these just become wallpaper. If the leader knows where they are going, keeps heading in that direction, communicates it clearly by word and action then everyone will be able to follow.

It really is that simple.

There is no secret

14 05 2012

Each time I log in Facebook the first ad that pops up encourages me to “Become an Entrepreneur”.  Apparently I do this by enrolling for a master’s degree at a top on-line university.

My thought is that this is the very worst way of becoming an entrepreneur.

I am, by all accounts, and unbeknownst to Facebook, already an entrepreneur. I know this because I’m often invited to speak about my journey to becoming an entrepreneur. My c.v. says that I am one of the UK’s 50 Female Entrepreneur Ambassadors. I mentor individuals on their business journey.

I mention these facts only by way of getting to my point – there is nothing special about being an entrepreneur and you don’t have to go to college to learn how to be one.

I was listening to a fascinating talk by Matthew Syed the other day. Matthew is journalist and broadcaster and was an international table tennis player. He was talking about our obsession with talent compared to endeavour; why we admire, for example, footballers like Ronaldo with their “effortless” genius but are rather less fond of the “workmanlike” Paul Scholes who has clearly worked to make the very most of a smaller amount of talent. He said that he became an international sportsman of outstanding quality by playing a lot of table tennis.

This struck a chord with me as the most frustrating thing I hear when I’m talking to people is, “I couldn’t do what you’ve done”. Yes you could – there is no mystery – there is no gene for enterprise – there is no God-given talent.

Matthew Syed went on to make the point that our focus on “natural talent” was destructive in that it led to those who were deemed not to have an innate gift to give up. How many times have you heard people say, or maybe said yourself,  “I have no brain for Maths,” or “I just can’t do it, my brain doesn’t work that way”.

Actually brains are really plastic and if you use bits they grow bigger. For example, the region of motor cortex that controls the piano playing fingers is larger in pianists and, crucially, it has been found  to expand in the brains of volunteers learning to play the piano.  Pianist were not born with a massive motor cortex which allowed them to become concert pianists, they practiced playing the piano and the more you play the bigger the area becomes. Practice not genetics – development not a gift from God.

To illustrate further, Mozart, a renowned child genius could play the piano like a master by the time he was 6. A genius, surely. Well no. Further examination reveals that he had been playing the piano from the age of 1 under instruction from his piano teaching father. Mozart had crammed in more hours of practice before the age of 6 than most pianists fit into a lifetime.

So what is this to do with enterprise?

Simply this. Just do it. It’s as simple as that. Like any new skill you will try and fail and learn and improve. There is no mystery.

One more thought. Up until my late 20’s I fancied myself to be an artist. I did the odd painting  and assured myself that my day job in medical marketing was really just a cover for the true genius within. In early 1990 I visited a Peter Howson exhibition. He is the same age as me. What struck me was not the quality of the work, which was outstanding, but the sheer quantity of these finished works. There were rooms full of canvases. He was an artist because he actually painted – that’s what he did. While I sold dialysis equipment he painted. I was definitely not an artist. 20 years later I gave up my day job and made sculptures – full-time, day in, day out. I got good and had my work in galleries across Scotland.

And a final observation. I was the salesman of the year every year for my company. I was not a great salesman. That is not modesty. As my manager observed, I simply made more calls than anyone else or as he put it, “the more raffle tickets you buy the more prizes you win.”

A perfect triumph of effort over aptitude.

Enough Talking

3 04 2012

I usually write my column by raising a couple of points that have piqued my interest over the last wee while and then musing out load, and on-line, then possibly, but not necessarily, reaching a conclusion.

Not this time. I’ll nail my colours to the mast straight away – we have to start doing something about the issues that, as women, we keep talking about. And furthermore, when we do talk, we have to include men in the conversation rather than just chatting amongst ourselves.

As a starting point I want to consider the continuing relevance of International Women’s Day (IWD). There are hundreds of events around the country based around the day. Every Women’s group seems to think that they have to have a flagship event on the day. My concern is this. Are these groups using the day to raise the profile of their own group under the guise of raising the profile of the issues that effect women around the world. I’ll give you an example. I attended the Scottish Women’s Convention Conference held to mark IWD, in the Scottish Parliament Building, Holyrood. It was a splendid venue filled with 150 women drawn from all walks of life. A splendid opportunity to engage with women, to share views and opinions. It was an opportunity missed. We heard very briefly from two interesting young women but for the most part were talked at by career politicians, reading from their prepared scripts and conveying their party line.

More concerning still, there was no “what happens next?” piece. We all just walked away having been fed, watered and talked at for 5 hours. And the audience was all women. The men in the room were porters and technicians and clearly not engaged by any of the speeches, but then again neither was I.

At the first Ambition Debate Karen Darby launched an e-petition which, if 100,000 signatures are garnered, will force a commons debate to get more women into the boardroom. Most of the over 100 women in the room indicated that they were going to go away and sign. Only 5 did.

So why the reticence to actually DO something? All these women were happy to to turn up to the debate, to see and be seen, to have lunch, circulate, listen to the views of the panellists and then wander back out onto the street and do absolutely nothing.

100 years ago suffragettes chained themselves to railings and threw themselves under galloping horses in order to secure the vote for women. Is it that we now think that they did all that needed to be done? That there is nothing left to fight for? Surely not. We can all recite lists of inequalities that remain, so why are we all so ready to turn out to listen to people talk about issues that need to be addressed but then don’t get involved beyond taking part in the conversation?

Women turn up in their hundreds to attend “self-help” workshops of all flavours, eat yourself healthy, make a million dollars, attract the perfect partner yet domestic violence charities struggle to raise funds and volunteers.

I regularly experience similar frustration, as many women contact me to say what a great job we’re doing at the3rdimagazine and asking how they might get involved – then do nothing. So, rather than ranting about my frustrations with women’s inactivity, passivity and willingness to let others take action on their behalf, I’ll give yo the opportunity to prove me wrong.

What do you actually DO to help change the world in which we live and to support women who are less advantaged? If there was one issue that you would be prepared to ACT upon, what would it be?

Usually when I finish a column I expect to have to prove I’m right in what I say. This time I hope that I am wrong.

The joy of small things long forgotten

15 02 2012

This morning I was waiting for the train as usual. Well, not quite as usual as I was leaving from Congleton station but that isn’t relevant for the current story.

As I sat in the cold waiting for the train to Manchester a small boy and his Dad came onto the platform. The boy had a huge smile on his face and, after a short time, he said, Dad, I’ve never been to a train station before”. A few moments later a Virgin express train sped past and made the whole station shake. The boys face lit up and the smile almost joined both ears!

Later on the train a second, slightly older boy, got on with his grandfather. They were travelling to Manchester and then were to catch a second train to the airport and then a bus onwards to his Gran’s house. They were going to go swimming in the afternoon and returning to Poynton in the evening. I know that as he was talking excitedly about this big day out – 4 trains and two buses!

In contrast, the prospect of 3 trains and a car journey over the next 6 hours in order to get back to Crieff had been unattractive to me. Had been.

These two small boys, their days full of new adventures had forced a re-think.

How many times have I travelled by train? Hundreds. I actually really enjoy train travel but confess that the pure joy of being transported from point to point with the landscape moving past the windows, the excitement of arriving at the destination, had been lost over the years. Now, I don’t expect to step on the Bridge of Allen to Queen Street tomorrow with real joy in my heart but my experience today has made me think.

Most of the things that we do everyday we have done every day; done them hundreds, maybe thousands of times before. We sleepwalk through much of our lives, never noticing the myriad of things that have become mundane with the days of repetition …. the emotionless mediocrity of day to day living. Seeing those boys getting so much joy from things that I hardly notice, and sometimes even resent, has made me think that it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way.

Remember that first train trip? For me it was travelling from Halton/Widnes (incidentally the station where Paul Simon wrote Homeward Bound) to Lime Street to see Father Christmas in Lewis’s, Liverpool. Remember the first time you picked and ate strawberries? They still taste that good if you give yourself chance to taste them!

So I’m going to try to reconnect with my younger self and fill my own life with the joy of small things long forgotten. In the words of the madly optimistic character from The Fast Show, “Int life brilliant?”

I have seen Boris Johnson naked.

12 02 2012

The new way to introduce yourself at business meetings seems to be “tell us an interesting fact about yourself that no-one would know”. This has happened to me twice in the last two weeks. I’m sharing this with you so that you can be better prepared than I was.

The first time it happened I learned that a senior colleague was addicted to angry birds and that another had skied for Scotland. I freely admit that I panicked and confessed to having a piercing. This revelation was greeted with a stunned silence rather than by the smiles of approval with which the other contributions were received.

I thought, hoped, that this experience was a one off. I’d never been asked to be interesting at meetings before and imagined that I wouldn’t be asked to be so again. I was wrong. Yesterday it happened again. I was third in line for this ordeal so had a few minutes to think. In theory. In practice I heard the first woman say that she was a fully qualified football referee and the second that the Beatles song, ‘I saw here standing there’ was written about her mother when she was going out with Paul McCartney! Follow that!

Actually, to digress, this isn’t the first time I have been upstaged by Paul McCartney’s girlfriends. In the mid 90’s I was a speaker at the International Womens Day Conference held in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. I was third up. First was Dame Jill Knight and second was Heather Mills, later to become Heather Mills-McCartney. She stood up and talked through her life to that point, including abuse, homelessness, amputation, failed relationships, all of it – warts and all. Bearing in mind that the conference was themed “Women in Business” her soul-bearing was not what anyone expected. When her talk finally came to an end there was what felt like a decade of silence before anyone clapped while we all gather our wits, un-dropped our jaws and decided how best to respond. My first thought was that she should probably be sectioned, the second was, “How am I going to follow that?” I am pretty sure that my talk on “Women in Technology”, thrilling though I had imagined it would be, paled in comparison.

To return to the point, all I could think of to say was that I had recently performed a stand up comedy routine and am seriusly considering a suggestion that I do so again at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. I agree, not that interesting. On my journey home I racked my brain to come up with interesting facts about myself so that I wouldn’t be caught out again and, since I suspect that this method of breaking the ice at business meetings might be flavour of the month, I suggest you do the same.


  1. I have sky-dived from 25,000 feet
  2. I designed my own celtic knotwork armband tatoo, which is now, permanently, on my left upperarm – much to the disgust of my mother
  3. I sailed a boat around the Mull of Kintyre in the midnight moonlight and saw the sun rise alongside two humpback whales
  4. The CEO of Microsoft bought two of my sculptures and they now adorn his house in Palo Alto

and 5. Yes, I have seen Boris Johnson naked.

What is being said is more important than the way it is being said

27 06 2011

As often happens with my blog, two things come together to make me think about a topic.

This week I read a piece in The Guardian that suggested that women “are held back from reaching the very highest levels in business because of the difficulties they find in striking the right tone of language during high pressure meetings.” and last night I watched the latest episode of The Apprentice.

I don’t really like The Apprentice but I am an addict, partly because I tweet, and viewing and dismantling the programme later on line is compulsory, but also because of morbid curiosity – it’s like watching someone walk into a lamp-post or ride their cycle into a bush. You don’t really want to watch but you can’t take your eyes off the impeding crash and can’t help laughing. Last night a young woman, I don’t know her name but she wears too much make-up and a permanent sneer, was in the boardroom with two men; the tecky one and the toffy one as it happens. She hadn’t done very well in the task, she made a few sales and spoke French, a useful but non-essential skill in Paris, but her overall performance was poor.

Her performance in the boardroom was the usual mix of petulance and finger-pointing, both literally and metaphorically, but it was Lord Sugar’s comments that made me sit up and take notice.  He commended her for being ruthless, for being prepared to eat people and spit people them out for breakfast, for being prepared to walk all over people. And Karen Brady said she had put the boys to shame.

So it would appear that the attributes more closely associated with men, aggression and ruthlessness, are what Lord Sugar is looking for.

To return to The Guardian article for a moment, women were seen to use phrases like  “I am probably speaking out of turn, but…” and “sorry to cut across you like that but…” but self-deprecation can lead to women appearing defensive and weak.

But surely it’s not about behaving as men do but about being  assertive without being confrontational.

My contention in the debate that continues about getting more women into the boardroom is that it is not about gender, it is about attitude. If we appoint women who act like men then we may as well just choose men! Even if we adopt a quota system to address the difference in numbers of men and women in the boardroom if the attitudes of the board memebers is just the same as each other then we haven’t truly tackled diversity.

What we need is a society  where what is being said is more important than the way it is being said.