11 Inspirational Lessons From Powerful Female Leaders

3 minutes

The journey up the career ladder often looks different for men and women. Globally, only 29% of all senior management roles are held by women – this number was the same across 2019 and 2020. While this is the highest in history, there’s still a long way to go.

But the statistics are on the rise. There are 114% more women entrepreneurs than there were 20 years ago. Bearing in mind women receive just 7% of venture funds for their startups, this is an incredible feat. (Source). The global economy is relying on the flourishing female-owned business market, and a number of studies have proven them to be better performing than male-owned businesses.

In honour of International Women’s Day 2021, we spoke with female CEOs and leaders across a range of industries to collect inspirational lessons and shine a light on their experience and achievements. Women face a number of challenges in their careers that their male counterparts do not experience. With the IWD theme this year being #ChooseToChallenge, it’s vital to raise awareness of these different experiences and encourage more people to speak up against normalised inequality.

Huge thank you to all our contributors for sharing your stories, lessons and tips with us.

Emma-Jayne Gooch – Chief of Staff, Sellafield Ltd

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

During my career and as I moved further into leadership and more senior roles, I learnt a really important lesson, and that is the importance of being your authentic self. To some people this may sound normal, but many people who were like me, will spend so much time and energy trying to be what we think everyone expects us to be. We think that we have to be superwomen and can’t show any sign of weakness or vulnerability. I remember when I was running my own business and as a single mum, I felt I needed to work even harder to prove that I could still complete with anyone else in a similar job position. I had a client who wanted to meet me at the exact same time I was meant to be going to watch my two girls in a play. I felt that I had no choice but to see the client because I didn’t feel I could tell them I needed to be with my kids. I often missed out on time with the children to keep up the persona of having all my sh*t together and being able to balance everything. A friend gave me some advice and told me to call the client and ask them to rearrange. I called them thinking that I would lose their business, and actually it was the complete opposite. They couldn’t believe that I was considering missing something so important when our meeting could be held at any time. This made me re-consider the balance of trying to be a perfect 24/7 available person, and the need to not miss out on those key life events. In addition, this new vulnerability led me to be true to myself. I always wear my heart on my sleeve and tell it like it is. I spent many years biting my tongue and enabling people within business to speak down to me and treat me like the little girl, but now I have empowered myself to be an equal by believing and seeing that I am.

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

My top tip would for women aspiring to leadership roles is to be kind. Too many people think that they have to be cut throat and to trample on their own grandmother to get to the top and that just isn’t true. Yes you have to be strong, yes you have to overcome adversity and yes you sometimes have to make difficult decisions, but if you always do it with a kind heart, and give people a hand up rather than a kick down, you will get to where you want to be. And you will have people around you who trust you and who will always have your back.

Powerful Female Leaders: Emma-Jayne Gooch, Sellafield Ltd

Jennifer Unsworth – Founder & CEO, Tidy Tot

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

Leadership has absolutely nothing to do with job role or hierarchical authority, it’s all about attitude. I’ve had that lesson reminded to me twice in my career – most recently from our freelance PR Manager.  She’s not employed by the business, she works on a freelance basis but her commitment, tenacity and enthusiasm on our behalf is palpable.  She reminded me “I don’t do this for the business, I do it for you”.  Leadership is about hearts and minds – to have your team want to succeed for you; to push themselves because they know if will make a difference for you – it’s an incredible feeling to get there and one I never take for granted. 

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

 Be true to yourself.  Vulnerability and honesty are an asset in leadership; without them you will never be able to influence others around you.

Leadership opportunities cannot really be sought or delegated – you have to create them. Even the most junior of roles present opportunities to show leadership skills; it just requires finding a problem (and let’s be honest – there are never shortages of those in business!) and guiding yourself and others out the other side.

Powerful Female Leaders: Jennifer Unsworth, Tidy Tot

Leanne Case – CEO, Vzir Consulting

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

Be you, be bold and be brave… But back it up with substance. Be yourself, never imitate even those you admire, instead make it your practice to learn, to be active in your own personal and professional development. Be clear about your strengths and weaknesses and develop both. Focus on your own development and on building a strong network. We all need support to achieve progression, but also learn by helping others! Seek mentors, people who you can learn from and sponsors, people that will champion you.

Powerful Female Leaders: Leanne Case, VZIR

Virginia Stagni – Business Development Manager, Financial Times 

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

Coming from a low income family, working 3 jobs at the same time while studying with a scholarship both at Bocconi and LSE university, I always had to have an entrepreneurial spirit. I think it is key to be smart in finding your way. But I also learnt that it is also important not to forget where you are coming from. 

My lesson is then: there is nothing more powerful than being able to give back. When you land in a leadership position, try to recreate the opportunity you got when you landed in that role. Offer opportunities to other women and always give credit to the younger self you are going to meet in the workplace. It is fundamental to support and recognize other women in the workplace & in life, and take as your personal responsibility & mission to create an environment where women are supported and empowered.

Powerful Female Leaders: Virginia Stagni, Financial Times

Lucy Aylen – CEO, Never Fully Dressed

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

I’ve learnt that you can learn just as much, if not more, from the people and teams you are leading as they can learn from you. 

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

Women tend to have more of a humble approach but should believe and be confident in what they have to offer. Women have something so special about them which they can bring to the table in leadership roles.

Powerful Female Leaders: Lucy Aylen, Never Fully Dressed

Sarah Walker-Smith – Chief Executive, Shakespeare Martineau

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

Leadership isn’t about a job, a role or a status. It’s about having something you believe in and using it to inspire others to want to be the best they can be whilst creating the environment for them to do so – individually but more importantly, together. To do this you have to be authentic and consistently so! This needs to apply to words and actions; to the good times and the bad. You need to be comfortable with the concept of being marmite. Not everyone will like you or what you do, but that’s easier to bear if you stay true to your own values and know you are doing the right thing aligned to your purpose. That purpose can be altruistic , artistic or business focused – even better, one which delivers a combination. But until you know what it is you will be only be managing, however effectively. When you find it you lead. And when you do it AS yourself but NOT FOR yourself, you truly lead.

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

Fight your own demons not other peoples. If you can ensure you have the right mindset for success you are more likely to achieve it. That means sorting out your own self-belief and nurturing it. Surround yourself with those who support this, and believe that you aren’t aspiring to be a leader, you already are. And you are entitled to be. A few years ago a male colleague said to me ‘your problem is you want to lead’. I spent a few years chastising myself, holding myself back and trying to deal with ‘my’ problem before I realised actually it was his issue that he struggled with seeing women like me as a leader. I now tell myself ‘yes I do want to lead’, I’ve as much right to as anyone else… and that’s NOT a problem.

Sarah Walker-Smith, Shakespeare Martineau

Natasha Makhijani – CEO, Oliver Sanderson Group PLC 

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

The most important lesson I’ve learned is that to be a good leader you need to empower your people. Provide your team with the tools and the trust they need to perform to their full potential. This will instil confidence and belief in your leadership. Lead by example, and empower your team.

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

Believe in yourself. When someone tells you you can’t, you can! But be open to constructive criticism – use it to learn and grow. Always remember, doubts and setbacks are part of everyone’s journey – the road to the top is never simple! So be resilient, and never give up. I have been doubted in the past, but I used those doubts as fuel to fire me on to greater successes. You can do it too! 

Powerful Female Leaders: Natasha Makhijani, Oliver SandersonKaren Jackson – CEO, Locala Community Partnerships CIC

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

I would say listen – really listen. It is so easy to hear a lot of noise and shouting and posturing and let it colour your judgement. If you really make yourself listen there is something to be heard in every conversation, no matter how difficult it is and always something that can be learned and worked on.

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

Never give up – work hard, be enthusiastic, be open to every opportunity and don’t let anyone or anything put you off. But remember this is not blind ambition leading to trampling over people – always, always be kind.

Powerful Female Leaders: Karen Jackson, Loala

Norma Gillespie – CEO, Resource Solutions

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

My career in recruitment has spanned over 20 years of both dizzying success and keen challenges, not least the financial crisis of 2008-9 and the unparalleled events of 2020. And what all the ups and downs have taught me about leadership is that it needs to be honest. If you have to make tough decisions, make them in a transparent, fair and objective way. And, when you’re able to celebrate success, do so sincerely and with genuine warmth. You won’t always get it right – none of us ever will, whether we’re leaders or not – but what people want to see from their leaders is that they’re decision-making is built around a core of integrity, objectivity and honesty.

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

It’s very simple, and maybe even trite – but just believe in yourself. You won’t get everything right all of the time, or make all the right decisions. But you lose 100% of the races you don’t take part in, and you learn more from failure than you ever will from getting things right. Leaders who act differently at work than they do at home are disingenuous and can quickly turn people off. Embrace your strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, triumphs and failures. We all have them. If you accept yourself, so will your staff and your stakeholders.

Powerful Female Leaders: Norma Gillespie, Resources Solutions

 Emily Hill – CEO, Ghyston

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

Earlier on in my career I assumed that it was the people who wanted to be leaders who became leaders. They were the driven, confident people who naturally took control and could hold the attention of a crowd. I surprised myself (and others!) when I stepped up to run Ghyston, the bespoke software house which my husband and I had co-founded. I felt passionate about leading the business, but I did not fit into my own image of a leader at all! I was even more surprised when I got to know other business leaders and found that, just like me, they had insecurities and doubts and areas for improvement. I’ve learnt that there is no one character mould for a great leader. The important thing for me is to stay focussed on the business and not myself, and to always be keen to listen and to learn.

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

My top tip would be to find a mentor or manager who believes in you and can help you make the most of opportunities when they come around.

Emily Hill, Ghyston

‍‍Sarah Thomas – Global Executive Director, Culture & Engagement, Landor & Fitch 

Share a lesson in leadership you’ve learnt during your career:

Put your own oxygen mask on before you try and help others. In other words, don’t let your batteries run too low and make sure you take your holidays or the down time you need to recharge. Easier said than done I know. I personally always struggled with asking others to pick up work for me while I was out of the office, until I was given this additional context by another former mentor who told me, “When you take time off, it is an opportunity for two people. Firstly, you get the chance to relax, switch off and recharge. Secondly, a member of your team will get the opportunity to step up, walk in your leadership shoes for a while and gain valuable experience”. Just changing the lens through which I looked at things really helped me see my time off as an opportunity rather than a burden. So, take your time out or downtime when you need it. It not only sets a positive example to your team. but it will give you fresh energy and perspective and your team members a chance to step up and shine.

Share your top tip for women aspiring to leadership roles:

Be deliberate about networking inside and outside of your organization and building supportive connections. For example, think about who you would like to meet within your organization who may be able to positively influence your career. Then map out who they are and how you might have an opportunity to for example, meet them, ask their advice as a mentor, work with them or even impress them in a role. Revisit the networking plan through the year. Be deliberate with opportunities or activities that allow your paths to cross; that may mean volunteering for an initiative, seeking advice or a mentor relationship, or introducing yourself at an event.

Powerful Female Leaders: Sarah Thomas, Landor & Fitch
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