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Lessons from the top: Female business leaders share their success stories

Do you ever look at successful business leaders and wonder what they did to get there? At our Women in Business network event in Birmingham, hosted by Jessica Quinney, we wanted to explore what lessons could be learned from those at the top.

Knowing that women make up less than a third of the most senior positions in the UK, we invited three female leaders to share their experiences and how they successfully broke through the glass ceiling.

Over 30 senior women attended the breakfast event to hear from our panel which included Sarah King, Founder and CEO at We are Unstuck, Violetta Parylo, CFO and Exec Director of Corporate Services at RICS and Carol Rosati, Director of Harvey Nash Board Practice & Global Head of Inspire. The event was a continuation of the fantastic discussion held in the summer of 2016, where we launched our first Women in Business event with HSBC, focusing on how the Banking industry is driving gender diversity and what initiatives HSBC are implementing to achieve a 50/50 gender split in hiring.
The head of the Midlands chapter, Jess Quinney, Business Manager at Harvey Nash, welcomed guests and introduced the speakers and theme. She shared that feedback from members of the network had been to create more opportunities to hear stories from other senior women in business and learn from their journeys.

The first of these women was Carol Rosati, a Harvey Nash director who was recently awarded an OBE for her role in founding Inspire, a global network for senior businesswoman and Board Directors. Carol talked through her career as a head-hunter within the executive finance space which uncovered her limited interaction with women during her role, a realisation that fuelled her to play an acting role in challenging recruiters, businesses and the public sector to improve workforce diversity.

She offered three valuable lessons from her experience that could help women further their careers.

  • Time - It is important to take time out and reflect on your journey; 'Why wouldn't you have a route map that's reviewed on a regular basis?'
  • Visibility - She also emphasised the importance of telling people what you want; as well as the fruition that comes with being able to ask for help
  • Networking - Women fundamentally interact differently than men, arguably on a deeper level. Whilst men seem to be more open to new prospects, women tend to focus on building valuable relationships

Carol finished by discussing the impact of the being able to 'blow your own trumpet'; acknowledging the fact that the biggest difference between men and women is self-promotion. So how do we get there? She recommended you need three essentials, a Mentor to inspire, a Coach to educate and a Champion to promote you.

Our next speaker, Sarah King, CEO of We Are Unstuck, a Design Thinking agency, shared how her concept of a successful 'career' started at 10 years old - visualise a business woman in a power suit walking through an airport heading to an unknown destination. Years later Sarah discussed her vision with a lax lustre careers advisor who suggested she pursue a business degree, which at the time was synonymous with employment. Unfortunately, at the time of her A-Levels, Sarah's parents divorced which had a detrimental impact on her success.

Despite this setback, Sarah explained that pain exposes clarity. She eventually made it to university after learning to appreciate the conviction of her own ability, and continued to have an exceptionally successful career. Notably her career started on a graduate-scheme with British Airways, so she lived the airport dream after all.

One of the key disparities between men and women's approach to work that transpired through Sarah's talk was the unrivalled pressure that women place upon themselves. If both a man and a woman walked into a pitch and delivered a truly brilliant solution, a man is more likely to come out thinking 'I've nailed it' whereas, a woman will focus on what she could do better.

Sarah's three pieces of advice were

  • Be confident
  • Response to failure is more important than failure
  • Don't work hard, work passionately

She further added the importance of taking time out to understand your purpose; what am I passionate about? What do I care about?

The final speaker, Violetta Parylo, CFO and Exec Director of Corporate Services at RICS, opened by saying, 'No one grows up thinking they're going to be an accountant'. For Violetta, a lack of focus and some pitiful career advice meant that she scraped into university by the skin of her teeth. Following this, she completed her ACCA exams, before joining a small firm for a couple of years as a consultant. Yearning to be the other side of the table, Violetta made the choice to switch to a larger, more exciting brand, which allowed her to take on a new role every couple of years.

For Violetta, the most impactful actions that she believed powered her success were:

  • Always put your hand up
  • Learn to move on from mistakes, as women we punish ourselves
  • Importance of networking

Violetta did share how she overcame eight distressful years, during which she had three children under the age of 10 and three different Finance Director roles within organisations in difficult positions. This was a time where she felt the full brunt of responsibility; her choices determined whether an organisation existed in the morning.

She finally moved on to work with a dynamic and charismatic CEO, where she was given the freedom to be herself in the boardroom and stop behaving like a man and encouraged to emphasise her female attributes and perspective.

The Q&A followed with questions surrounding the value of a coach and how using them as a 'critical friend' is a fabulous opportunity to make you take accountability for your journey. We also discussed how we can nurture and motivate women in their roles, emphasising the importance of secondments to showcase talent and the invaluable notion of women as aides to other women.

We would like to thank all who attended, as well as our brilliant speakers for what proved to be a truly thought provoking and energising event. If you would like to learn more, or have any suggestions on topics for upcoming WiB events please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.


Pippa Hawker
0044 121 717 1910