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Achieving your potential

What are the obstacles to women’s career success, and how can they surmount them? The recent Women in Finance event on the subject provided invaluable advice for use by both women and men. Helen Fearnley reports.

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Achieving your potential
Do you have a clear idea of what success means? Have you yet attained it? Thanks to practical and pertinent advice from the three inspirational speakers at the faculty’s recent Women in Finance (WIF) ‘Achieving your potential’ event, a significantly higher number of attendees could answer ‘yes’ to both questions by the end of the evening.

We know this thanks to the electronic poll taken at the beginning and end of the proceedings (after a warm-up with somewhat easier issues such as ‘Do you prefer tea or coffee?’). Following the three speakers’ personal revelations and advice about the real nature of success and how to achieve it – skilfully mediated by Helen C Stevens, co-chair of the WIF steering committee – it emerged that the proportion understanding what success is had almost doubled, and those considering themselves successful had increased by 40%.

As their male peers might say…’result!’

Eliminate your barriers

Everywoman Ltd training director Toni Eastwood kicked off the event. With some 20 years’ experience working in business development in the UK and US – the past eight spent specialising in women’s development – plus an OBE (2007) for her contribution to equal opportunities, she is amply qualified to speak on the subject.

Everywoman’s mission, she explained, is ‘to raise the profile of women in the UK economy, helping them fulfil their potential and understand what success is about’.

So to this end, she first presented the audience with what could be judged the ‘bad news’ – a list of potential ‘barriers’ to that success.

Based on a raft of feedback data from both those involved in recruiting (HR departments, gender diversity experts, and ‘hiring’ executives) and from women seeking advancement, these possible barriers are as follows:

  • inability to manage performance – has difficulty in managing staff and delegating;
  • aversion to risk – finds it hard to make tough decisions;
  • lack of confidence and self-esteem;
  • difficulty in coping with conflict and criticism – tending to take them personally;
  • feelings of in authenticity – of a need to ‘leave her real self at the door’, abandon any
  • femininity, become ‘one of the boys’;
  • uneasiness with power – will shy away from the opportunity of a more senior role; and
  • difficulty with ‘the vision thing’.

All of these are cited as barriers by women themselves, she stressed, as much as by those responsible for promoting and hiring. And whether or not a true reflection of women’s general or individual work abilities, the knock-on-effect of such barriers is evident in, for example, the dearth of women on the boards of FTSE100 companies. Eastwood advised some honest self-appraisal to determine whether or not you are ‘blocked’ by such barriers – and then taking steps to overcome them. However, she also suggested that you might simply be in the wrong job – if you answer yes to any of the following questions:

  • do you feel there should be more to life?
  • do you sense you are working below your potential? and
  • does your lack of enthusiasm make you feel guilty?

The ‘good news’ was her list of five top tips on how to succeed (see Box 1, following page).

Discover your passion

Vicky Annis, speaking next, gave the insider’s perspective on career success in finance, having gained over 20 years’ experience in various not-for-profit (NFP) organisations – most recently, as FD at Trinity College – before taking her current post of FD for the emergency aid organisation Merlin in 2008.

Like Eastwood, Annis firmly believes in having a ‘vision’ of what you want to do. But for her ‘success’ is less about attaining personal goals, it seems, and more about ‘the contribution I can make to the success of the business in which I am working’.

Such a selfless attitude is perhaps more understandable when that business is concerned not with the bottom line as an end in itself, but (as is the case for Merlin) with funding 180 projects taking aid to 17 disaster-struck countries.

This is an extract from the Finance & Management Magazine, Issue 187, April 2011.