How do you get to the top? What do you do with your career?
How do you decide where to go and what are the stepping stones that you are going to need to get there?
In the second event of the Inspiring Women talent development series, Associate Dean Kathy Harvey invited Claire Davenport, CEO HelloFresh UK, Celia Francis, CEO Rated People and Ariane Gorin, President, Expedia Partner Solutions (Expedia Management Board) to share stories and learning from their own career journeys and give students the advice they wished they'd received along the way.
In a wide-ranging discussion, several pieces of advice stood out.
Make your leadership ambitions clear
Students in the audience may have taken some heart from the fact that none of the speakers claimed to have recognised their leadership ambitions particularly early. Gorin said that she returned to consulting immediately after completing her MBA because ‘I didn’t really know what I wanted to do’. Francis said that she had originally wanted to be an artist but became interested in new product development which led her to pursue her MBA. However, it was during her first couple of years as a Product Manager, while she was enjoying being the person who could ‘invent the products we were going to sell’ that she realised ‘that I should probably be the CEO because I could see how it wasn’t just the product. It was the entire organism of the company that I needed to be in charge of.’
She said she made her intentions ‘clear quite early’. This was something that resonated with the others. Davenport said, ‘once you articulate what it is you want, and you’ve said it to a few people, it’s then a thing. And then a lot of people say, “Oh, yeah, I can help” “Oh, do you know so and so.” Or “You should meet so and so.”’
All the speakers agreed with Harvey that three key skills for a CEO or Board Member were people management skills, analytical or technical skills, and sales or business development. As they described their own career journeys a clear theme emerged of seeking a range of experiences and seeking to fill specific gaps.
With five years’ experience in consulting, Gorin decided to look for a role in a company because ‘I didn’t really know what I could do operationally’. She set her sights on two large technology companies which had their European headquarters in Paris (where she was living at the time) and thought. ‘I’m going to do whatever I need to do to get a job in one of those.’ She took a 30% pay cut to work at Microsoft but, she thought, ‘It’s the company I want to be with. I’ll be able to grow and I’ll just see from there. And over the next ten years, I’d say every couple of years I changed roles.’
Don’t rush it
Davenport made the point that gaining this experience was also about ‘learning your craft’, which is something that should not be rushed. As Francis observed, ‘You don’t want to be a fool as a CEO, so it’s going to take up some experience to really understand what it takes to build a company … because otherwise you’re not going to be very good at your job.’
And that sort of experience is best gained in a large company rather than a start-up. In a start-up you can make progress quickly and acquire an impressive-sounding job title but, as Davenport said, ‘If you don’t learn your craft from people who know what they’re doing … when you go somewhere else you don’t know your craft very well. So you have to stay on this amazing trajectory where you don’t actually know how to do anything.’
Think about how you might approach mentors
Career advice, especially for women, is full of talk about mentors and sponsors and how they will help you to get to the top. It was therefore slightly surprising to hear that Davenport had not had a sponsor, although she had people she felt she could go to for advice. ‘I went to a networking event and everybody was talking about how great their sponsor was and how much they relied on them and how it had been great for their career,’ she said. ‘I realised that I was without one.’
It was even more surprising then to learn that if someone asked Davenport now to be a mentor to them, she would say ‘no’ – and she was not the only one. As the conversation developed it was interesting to see mentorship from the perspective of the potential mentor, and to realise that there is not necessarily anything in it for them. It requires a big commitment of time (if you do it properly, which clearly all three speakers would feel an obligation to do), and can be forcing senior people to choose between many very talented people.
Davenport cared about people’s careers and was nurturing towards her team, but as Gorin advised, ‘It’s unlikely that asking somebody to be your mentor is going to be successful. It’s a natural dynamic situation.’ She herself would be willing to mentor someone for a specific project or period of time, but, like Davenport, would not undertake to be a general mentor.
Be careful about Board roles
Rather than treating a Board role as the prize at the end of a long career path, the speakers were keen to emphasise that it is a huge responsibility. ‘You have to be there if the company is facing some kind of financial challenge and you’re really held responsible for malfeasance,’ warned Francis.
While Gorin admitted that being on the ‘other side of the table’ had helped her in her executive role, Davenport had declined requests to join more boards because of the time commitment: ‘You have to be prepared for the Board meeting. What I bring is strategy, digital probably, so as a strategist you know that there’s going to be a good week of a strategy at some point where they want you to get together, probably in June at the same time as you have the write the strategy for your own company.’
Don’t dwell on gender-based barriers
Although this event came under the ‘Inspiring Women’ banner, it was striking that the ‘gender question’ came up only right at the end. All the advice the speakers gave was equally applicable to both men and women. They themselves were distinctively female – it’s difficult to imagine three male CEOs talking and presenting together in quite the same way – but, until they were asked the question, they were talking as CEOs and not as women CEOs. It was possible to infer that at least two of them had children, for example, but when one talked about how her employer had dealt with a period of extended leave it was to do with the serious illness of a family member.
So when asked whether they had encountered barriers, their first instinct was to say that they had not. But, as Gorin then went on to say, ‘I was on a panel a couple of years ago internally at an event and someone asked me the question and at first I was thinking, “Well, hey, I’ve never experienced that.” And then I thought back to a lot of different times where I’d changed jobs twice because my bosses were making passes at me. Or when I discovered that the whole exec team went on a ski trip and not me. So there are a lot of different things I can say that happen, but at the same time I make a serious point that you just get through it because you are determined that nothing’s going to stop you.’
And this is why they came to Oxford, Davenport said. ‘It’s so important that people get to see that women CEOs are a thing. Whether we are speaking to women or whether we’re speaking to men, it’s more important, in my view, that we get out and talk to people and make sure that people just see it as normal for us to be running companies.’