Women in leadership: tips from the top

Posted 08 Mar 2021 | Blog

Every year when I see daffodils begin to poke through winter's coat, it reminds me that spring is coming. The electricity in the air changes, strangers on the street become your friends, and sombre tunes of gushing wind are replaced with birds chirping. The beginning of March brings more than lyrical fantasies of the first warm rays of sunshine, it brings the one day of the year where the spotlight is turned on women.

To celebrate International Women's Day today I wanted to share some tips I’ve collated from powerful women leaders at Pilotlight. I feel very fortunate to work alongside many amazing women every day: half of our leadership team is made up of incredible women, our Chair is a woman, and we recently welcomed three new women trustees to our Board. Furthermore, nearly half of our Pilotlighters sharing their expertise on the Pilotlight Programme are women, and we see many women charity CEOs working tirelessly to transform the world for the better.

Unfortunately, the grim reality in both the private and charity sectors is that women leaders are still few and far between, and the statistics are even lower when we look at women from marginalised backgrounds. However, hope isn’t all lost, as a society, we’re actively moving to better representation, and while there is a lot of work to be done, there are plenty of women who have made it to the top. I hope these tips from our women Pilotlighters and charity partners inspire you and help you along your own leadership path.


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Emma Bell, Executive Director, Innovations for Learning

Emma is the Executive Director at Innovations for Learning, a London based charity that helps struggling readers from disadvantaged communities. Its flagship TutorMate programme harnesses technology to enable volunteer tutors to give children vital reading support from their workplace using an online platform. Emma and her team completed the 10-month Pilotlight Programme earlier this year.

Emma first worked with IFL Inc, in the US, to launch the TutorMate programme in Atlanta, Georgia. She then returned to her native England to establish Innovations for Learning UK and adapt TutorMate for the UK English context.

What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions in the charity sector?

“Start with following your passion. If you work for a charity that has a mission and vision that resonates with you personally you won't mind going the extra mile when that’s needed (and it will be!). As a way of preparing yourself practically, consider becoming a trustee in a charity yourself. The insights you’ll gain into how boards function and how the CEO-board relationship works will be invaluable for your future CEO self. Finally, consider finding yourself an external mentor. It can be lonely at the top, or on the journey towards it, and it's refreshing and mind-expanding to share experiences and worries with someone outside your organisation.”

What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?

"Be inclusive. A great leader is an expert facilitator, able to draw out the skills and talents of their team. Take responsibility to ensure your teams include a diversity of thought and lived experience; it guarantees better decision-making. And, as an adjunct to this, learn to admit your mistakes. I always think it’s a mark of great confidence to be able to admit you’ve failed at something."

What advice would you give to the next generation of women leaders?

“Like many women, at times I’ve had to work to conquer my impostor syndrome (reading about it was a good first step). Do remember not to apologise for yourself when you’re saying something challenging. Too many of us still start sentences with 'I'm sorry' or 'It might be a silly question'.”


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Amy Malik, Director, Kalimia Consulting Limited

Amy has almost 25 years of IT and management consultancy experience. She’s currently a director at Kalimia Consulting, specialising in business and digital transformation, strategy development, transition planning, service proposition development, marketing and communications.

Amy is a trustee and Chair of the Development Board at Tender, a London based charity that works to prevent domestic abuse and violence in the lives of young people and adults through education and the arts. She’s also a Board member and Director of ella Forums, a social enterprise set up with the purpose of strengthening leadership capabilities in the Third Sector. Alongside that, she’s been a Pilotlighter since 2012.

Define an inclusive leader - what traits do you think great leaders possess?

"In my opinion, the main traits great inclusive leaders possess are empathy, courage, patience, open-mindedness, self-awareness and humility.

Empathetic leaders can really feel and understand how assumptions, prejudices and unconscious bias can affect an individual. Having patience allows leaders to take time to listen to and connect with others properly. I also believe great leaders must have lots of courage, so that they are not afraid to challenge negative and divisive behaviours that make people feel isolated and excluded. Open-minded and innovative leaders are full of intellectual curiosity and creativity. They value variety and diversity as a way to bring positive contributions. Those who are self-aware will take responsibility for their words and actions and the impact they may have on others. Last but not least, with a sense of humility, leaders are able to educate themselves to appreciate the lived experience of others."

What advice would you give to achieve inclusive leadership?

"To be an inclusive leader, we have to be honest and fair, and should lead by example in treating everyone equally. Respecting ourselves as well as others for who we are and what we can bring. Remember to practise reflective listening, so that we can gain true collective insights, ideas, perspectives and concerns."

How can leaders create inclusive organisations?

"For me, to create inclusive organisations, it is vital that leaders promote a sense of belonging for everyone. An organisation truly flourishes only when individuals feel valued, trusted and safe. Don’t treat diversity and inclusion as a 'box-ticking' exercise. I have seen organisations just going through the motions but not actively seeking ways to realise the benefits. Leaders must weave diversity and inclusion into an organisation’s fabric and make them part of the norm. It can be a significant cultural change for some. So, leaders must foster honest and timely communications to build trust in light of any differences. Moreover, a systematic approach to inclusion must be taken to acknowledge uniqueness as an asset and positively engage diversity through equality. I think we have made some real progress in terms of gender equality. As more women take on senior leadership roles, we can support others through mentoring and coaching to develop the next generation of great inclusive leaders."

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Fiona Rodford, Trustee, Pilotlight

Fiona has had many years’ experience as Chief People Officer working with large global businesses helping to transform business activity and create sustainable people and culture change. BAA, Alliance and Leicester, Thomas Cook and Booker are some of the companies she has worked with. More recently, she works alongside Boards and CEO's to help diagnose the business strategy requirements and to assist in the delivery.

She has had advisory roles and is a past Chair of the CBI Employment and Skills group, and was a committee member for over three years. Fiona joined Pilotlight’s Board in March 2020, and is a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion working group. She is also a Pilotlighter.

What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?

“Leadership for me is about clearly defining where we are going, allowing the team to help shape and being part of defining the journey. I’ve always felt, it’s important to give colleagues time and to listen to how they like to be led - each person is different. Leadership is not about the leader, it’s about encouraging and supporting people to be their best.”

What can leaders do to lift up the voice of other women?

“As a trustee and also a business leader, it's become clear that there is a lack of diversity in the pool of current leaders. While at Pilotlight, as part of our DEI working group, we are creating a more diverse culture and team for Pilotlight and the charities we work with. I think there are also things that we can do as women leaders to give a leg-up to other women to help them achieve leadership positions.

“One of the things that I really enjoy and get a lot out of personally, is mentoring women and helping them to achieve their full potential. I especially enjoy meeting women who have their career before them, but need a bit of help in negotiating the path. I have learned a huge amount from them. Looking back, I would have really benefitted from having a mentor and sponsor at an earlier stage in my career. It’s never too late. It’s an invaluable experience and one that I would encourage. For those of you who don’t have a mentor, act now and look for one.”

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Patricia White, Chief Executive, Suited for Success

Patricia is the Chief Executive at Suited for Success, a Birmingham based charity helping unemployed men and women with interview skills, and sourcing a suitable interview outfit to give confidence, make a positive first impression and get a job that could change their life.

After a career as a corporate IT trainer then 10 years working for the BBC as a journalist, Patricia took a sharp u-turn in her career to follow her passion for community outreach work including setting up the first Trussell Trust Foodbank in Birmingham. Patricia founded Suited for Success in 2015 as an initial pilot project working with businesses in Birmingham and became the CEO when the charity was registered in 2016.

She has project-managed several community projects over the years and has been an influential voice in citywide initiatives addressing social issues impacting the city from food poverty to unemployment.

Patricia and Suited for Success are currently on the second Midlands based Pilotlight Programme and previously completed our Conversation for Change initiative.

What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions in the charity sector?

"Traditional leadership skills in the charity sector can only take you so far, a love for people and service is a must.

"The charity sector needs pioneering female leaders who think outside the box, are willing to push boundaries, be a voice of influence, and choose to challenge injustices and inequalities.

"Having a balance of being both a relational and organisational leader is also a must, as well as being a visionary, hands-on, and someone who values innovation and creativity. These are great character traits that will help to lead a successful charity in an ever-changing landscape.

"Your WHY must also be your driving force as leading a charity can be very challenging at times, however, knowing that you are changing lives and making a difference in the world far outweighs the challenges."

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Shelly Johnson, Project Co-ordinator, Cloth Cat

Shelly is the project co-ordinator at Leeds based charity Cloth Cat, a grassroots music based organisation that supports people through a range of events, projects and music courses. Shelly has been with the organisation for 22 years and fell into the charity sector after managing a couple of bands in West Yorkshire.

Under Shelly's leadership, Cloth Cat is about to complete the Pilotlight Programme later this month.

As a trans woman, what has been the most significant barrier in your leadership career?

“I think the biggest barrier I've had since coming out as transgender, is the pressure I've actually put on myself, thinking and worrying about how society will judge you as a person. This can cause some level of anxiety and hold you back in some areas. People have known you in one form for many years, and the transition is something you know some might find difficult to understand. I’ve chosen to come out slowly to friends, colleagues and those we work with. You always feel anxious about letting the cat out of the bag each time you tell someone as you’re not quite sure how they will react and how it might affect your relationship with them. The last thing you want is for it to undermine your work.”

What advice would you give to a leader in a similar position?

“It was important for me to make a plan for how I was going to move forward in life. This involved finding as much advice as I could, and surrounding myself with a network of friends and allies who were sympathetic and happy to support me. Talking with relevant organisations and others who were going through similar experiences, I felt like I gained enough knowledge, insight and protection to go out into the world.

“Working within the voluntary and music sectors in Leeds, I’ve found pretty much everyone, without exception, to be incredibly supportive. Everyone at work has been fantastic and so accepting when I was so nervous about telling them. Personally, it’s been important to be very flexible, and certainly give people the time and space to come to terms with the changes I’ve made in my life. I understand that you’re called the wrong name sometimes, or use your old pronouns, but everyone makes mistakes and that’s fine as people have always showed willing!”


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Ewa Jackson, Director, Sustainable Investing, BlackRock

Ewa has over 15 years of finance and law experience and has previously held a number of senior roles in M&A and Strategy at Deutsche Bank and RBS.

She is an active advocate for diversity, co-leading the External Networks pillar within BlackRock's Women's Initiative in EMEA and as vice-chair of BlackRock's 100 Women in Finance Committee in Europe. She is also a member of several mentoring programmes, and a Pilotlighter.

What strategies can women use to achieve a more prominent role in their organisations?

“Women are still struggling to achieve more prominent roles in the workplace despite the recent momentum of organisational efforts to increase the number of women in leadership roles. Some of the reasons for this are systemic. However, there are strategies that women can develop that can help accelerate career progression. These are the three strategies that have helped me in my career:

  1. Be visible. Delivery at senior levels is assumed. To stand out and prove your worth, make sure you have built an extensive network, including senior sponsors and trusted counterparts across the organisation at all levels. Sponsors are not mentors. Sponsors will advocate for you and identify stretch opportunities for you to take on. Your trusted counterparts are key to getting things done. A strong female network is an incredible support to help navigate challenges in a safe space. Formal internal employee networks help build connections across silos and provide the opportunity to pay it forward by helping other women.
  2. Be clear and consistent on who you are and what your strengths are. Identify the strengths that are unique to you. Prepare and rehearse the 30-second elevator pitch on who you are and what you are doing for the organisation. Deliver your pitch whenever you have the opportunity.
  3. Work on the key topics for the organisation. Make sure your personal objectives and priorities are aligned with the firm's objectives. Delivering a fantastic project that is very interesting is great, but if it is not clearly aligned to the firm's outcomes, it will be difficult to prove to senior leaders that you are ready to take that next step.

“Most importantly, be authentic. I am at my most impactful when I can channel my energy into roles and topics I am passionate about. We spend a lot of time at work, so it needs to be fun. As women increasingly take on leadership roles, let’s all remember to pay it forward and help others!”