As part of International Women's Day, The Barton Partnership is exploring gender diversity within the strategy spehere throughout the month of March.
We interviewed a panel of seven senior, female strategists on their experiences of gender diversity within the strategy sphere, delving into what challenges they have faced as a woman in strategy, what diversity initiatives they have seen benefit their businesses and what advice they would give to a young woman starting her career in strategy.
The women that took part in this panel had some fascinating views on the topic and we are extremely grateful for their contribution. The interviewees are:
Lidia Bozhevolnaya – Head of Strategy and Corporate Development at Hiscox (www.hiscox.com)
Lidia is Head of Strategy and Corporate Development at Hiscox. Here, her passion for tech-led innovation is helping to drive the adoption of innovative technologies and accelerate the use of data and analytics throughout the business. A qualified engineer, Lidia spent 5 years as a management consultant before moving into financial services to lead strategy transformation and work with C-level teams on their most complex and game-changing initiatives. She is a member of the Insurtech Board, which is part of the HM Treasury Fintech Delivery Panel, and in her spare time is a hands-on business development advisor to start-ups. Lidia also recently made the list of ‘100 Women to Watch’ among UK professionals, produced in conjunction with Cranfield University’s Female FTSE Board Report. London is home now, but Lidia has previously lived and worked in Scandinavia, Asia, Russia and the Middle East.
Bryony Winn – Chief Strategy Officer at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (www.bluecrossnc.com)
Bryony Winn is a mission-driven healthcare exec, a mom to 2 under 4, a wife and part of a dual-career household, a (recent) peloton fan and a (wannabe) runner!
A native of Zimbabwe, Bryony was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and a Partner for McKinsey and Company before joining Blue Cross NC in 2018. In March 2019, she was named as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum. While working towards accessible and affordable health care remains Bryony’s professional focus, she is equally passionate about promoting gender equality as a means for improving people’s lives. You can follow her on Twitter @BryonyWinn.
Karina van den Oever – Partner at Elixirr (www.elixirr.com)
Karina is a Partner at Elixirr, where she helps companies that are being disrupted by discovering the art of the possible, building an ecosystem of start-ups, developing new propositions, and enhancing their digital and innovation strategy, operating model and capability. She has 20 years of combined consulting, industry and start-up experience in luxury, retail, financial services and other consumer facing industries.
She was formerly at A.T. Kearney in London and Amsterdam, and at Saks Fifth Avenue and Calvin Klein in New York.
Sumana Bose – Head of Strategy at SunRice (www.sunrice.com.au)
Sumana is currently the Head of Strategy for SunRice – a listed FMCG/agribusiness ($AUD1.2bn), and was originally based in Sydney to design and launch the Group Strategy. She has now been transferred to the Singapore office to implement the Asian component of the Strategy through the management of an Asian Program of work. This involves M&A in the region (including a recent transaction in Vietnam), designing new market entry strategies and implementation plans for Asian markets, in addition to Asian supply chain development. Sumana leads cross-functional teams across the business (and across regions) to achieve these deliverables.
Sumana’s previous roles include in-house Strategy at Airbus Group (EUR 67bn) in France, where she co-wrote the Group Strategy. Prior to this, Sumana was a management consultant in both Australia and France, across a number of industries.
Lindsey Wright – Head of Strategy at the AA (www.theaa.com)
Lindsey Wright is currently the Head of Strategy at the AA, with a focus on supporting the Executive team in its transformation of the AA into an innovative, product led business; as part of this she leads a number of new digital product development initiatives. Before the AA Lindsey worked in consulting at OC&C and led the Group Strategy team at Bacardi.
Katy Gotch – Director of Business Development at Immediate Media Co (www.immediate.co.uk)
Katy has spent most of her career as a strategy consultant in multi-channel retail, starting at Bain & Co, Javelin Group, then as an independent consultant working for clients such as Dixons, Boots, Homebase and Asda. She spent 4 years at Home Retail Group, most recently as Strategy Director of Argos where she was instrumental in the partnership with Sainsburys that lead to their acquisition of the retailer. Now Katy is Director of Business Development at Immediate Media, heading up their corporate M&A activity and strategic development.
Amanda Chin – Engagement Partner at QVARTZ (www.qvartz.com)
Amanda Chin is an Engagement Partner, and part of the leadership team in the Singapore/Asia office of QVARTZ, a Nordic-rooted, first tier management consulting firm. QVARTZ seeks to deliver top quality consulting services to clients while maintaining a strong people angle & culture – as evidenced by the recognition from the VAULT survey as #1 in culture in Europe for 3 consecutive years. At QVARTZ, she has primarily been focused on corporate strategy and commercial excellence engagements across both consumer/retail and industrial segments. She is a global citizen – being born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before living in Sydney, Australia and Copenhagen, Denmark – and is now based in Singapore. Prior to QVARTZ, she was a Director at Deloitte Monitor and part of a leading, Australian strategy boutique. One of her fondest memories over the past 3 years is moving to Singapore while 5 months pregnant, drawing up the business plan for the local office 3 months back from maternity and starting things up not long after
How have you seen promoting women and diversity benefit your business?
BRYONY: Blue Cross NC has been on Working Mother’s 100 Best Companies list for a decade running; more recently, we were recognized by Forbes as one of the best employers for diversity, and more. We’re very proud of these accomplishments, as they are dividends earned by long-term investments in a diversity strategy that focuses on continuously enhancing inclusiveness within the company. Today, women make up almost half of the Blue Cross NC enterprise leadership team and an astounding 75% of our overall employee population!
KARINA: I should start by pointing out that Elixirr is very much a meritocratic firm, and we value diversity in its broadest sense – not just gender but also background, experience, age, race, etc. and we continue to improve on this. Regardless of the fact that it’s morally the right thing to do, as a partnership, we strongly believe that promoting diversity is commercially the right thing to do. What benefits have we seen?
1. I think our diversity helps us to be more innovative as we are always open to listening to different ideas and we always welcome the perspectives of others. This rings true both inside of Elixirr and outside, as our extensive global ecosystem enables us to tap into an even wider set of perspectives.
2. A client told me once that when firms pitch to them, they strongly prefer mixed teams, so we benefit from that
3. It helps us to attract the best talent regardless of gender, race, background, etc. and for us this is paramount, as the quality of our people is how we consistently deliver the highest quality work for our clients.
LIDIA: I assume everybody is aware of countless research that demonstrates that diverse environment generates higher employee engagement, better business results, and hence higher return to shareholders. At Hiscox, one of the benefits of having more diverse teams is that we tend to be more creative and innovative compared to our peers in the industry. Diversity is a great catalyst for generation of awesome ideas!
SUMANA: In Strategy, arriving at a well-considered and robust recommendation is such a critical part of the job. As such, the benefits of diversity are evident. Understanding the different angles of a problem by seeking cross functional views anticipates so many execution and stakeholder issues down the road. Perhaps a customer segment is better understood because it skews towards certain ages or genders? Seeing how different people approach the same problem yields insights that others cannot generate. The last thing a strategist wants is a polarised, top-down strategy that reflects the musings of like-minded individuals! Diversity initiatives that are beneficial are those that create supportive environments for people with a different perspective.
LINDSEY: I have seen a number of benefits to companies from having and promoting (at all levels) a diverse workforce. At its most basic, it plainly demonstrates that anyone can succeed, not just a specific subset. I also believe diversity helps teams get to a better “answer” when their work is informed – and challenged - by a wider range of ideas and perspectives.
KATY: A specific and limited example I’m afraid, but in response to the Gender Pay Gap analysis last year, we reviewed our annual pay rise and gave a higher % increase to employees below a salary threshold – with the knowledge that this would disproportionately benefit the women in our organisation who are more likely to work in positions with lower pay grades
What do you believe are the key challenges in terms of achieving diversity in today’s workplace?
LIDIA: I think the key challenge is actually creating an inclusive environment and not just a diverse one. If you have diversity but people don’t feel like their voice is heard, or their opinion is welcomed, or their suggestions count - they will become disengaged, their performance suffers, and ultimately, they leave. Without an inclusive workplace culture, diversity is not going to have any lasting impact on the business.
BRYONY: Increasingly, most large companies really do value diversity; however, it is also true that most of those same companies are led by (likely white) men. Here is a great example: Every year, I attend JP Morgan’s annual health care conference, which is the biggest of its type nationally. At the 2018 conference, there were more men named Michael than female leaders giving company presentations. Isn’t that crazy?
There are a number of challenges here. Personal ones – like the real issues moms face when balancing work and home lives. And institutional ones – like systematic access to opportunity. One that I think we can fix most easily is that of at least having diverse slates for roles or opportunities. To any HR specialists or recruiters who read this: I’m sure those Michaels are great but when considering candidates, I want to meet more Michelles, Marias, Maliks and Miguels.
KARINA: I think there are 2 key challenges in terms of achieving diversity in the workplace today:
1. Unconscious bias – sometimes leaders unconsciously still tend to promote and value people who ‘look like them’ as it’s ‘safe’, and when most of the leaders are still male, it’s hard to break that cycle. What’s required is a conscious effort to look beyond similarities, and actually value differences.
2. I hate to stereotype, but I still see very talented women who don’t have the confidence in their abilities to show their ambition. They wait until they are ‘100% or more ready’ before they put themselves forward for a promotion. They see it as a reward rather than an opportunity. What’s needed here is coaching and support from senior leaders to ‘pull up’ those talented women.
AMANDA: I see two main ones – first of all, potential female leaders discounting / disqualifying themselves based on pre-conceived ideas vs. putting themselves upfront e.g. telling a hiring manager that you are expecting, and perhaps they should reconsider whether to give you the role / promotion that has already been earmarked for you. Second of all, while there is recognition from companies and leaders around the gender diversity agenda, very few are taking concrete action AND following through in a relentless way (thus leading to initiatives living and dying very quickly).
SUMANA: We sometimes have a desire to recruit a junior version of ourselves, because it’s familiar and it takes less time to anticipate their needs. It is a challenge to genuinely understand that different employees need different things to feel valued and that we have to manage each individual with these in mind.
LINDSEY: Specifically, on the topic of gender diversity, I think the biggest challenge is sustaining the good gender balance that is often common at the junior and middle levels of organisations into the more senior and executive levels. I think a number of issues make this a challenge - including unconscious bias in hiring and promotion to difficulties for women re-integrating after starting families.
KATY: In the organisations I have worked with in recent years, one challenge is getting the complete data to really understand where there is still a lack of diversity, or where there are communities within the business whose experience of work is impacted by their gender, race, sexual orientation (despite the best intentions from leadership) - to help leaders see that even when an organisation has a positive and open culture and good representation of women (for example) that there may still be work to do. Without this level of insight, from qualitative and quantitative data and open participation across the organisation, it can be hard to achieve continuing improvement in diversity. There is a danger that we become complacent, now so much has been done, and don’t achieve true equality for all.
How seriously do you think leaders / companies are taking the diversity agenda?
LIDIA: Most leaders take it seriously. Whether it is high in terms of priorities on their agenda is a different question. Another issue is that taking this topic seriously does not automatically mean that a leader knows what actions to take to move the dial, or what actions would be the most effective, so there is a lot of trial and error going on
BRYONY: Companies as a whole are taking diversity more and more seriously.. The fact is, the link between business performance and diversity is clearer today than even before. While I was with McKinsey, we put out a study on this very topic. I think it should be required reading for any aspiring leader. This is both clearly the right social thing to focus on AND a smart business move.
Many companies have started tackling diversity challenges with structural changes – increased benefits e.g., maternity/ paternity leave. I think the next steps are addressing cultural barriers – like actually getting dads to take their full paternity allotment, and not judging them for it! Real gender diversity comes from not focusing on women’s issues… but knowing these are family challenges.
KARINA: There are certainly some that are taking concrete actions by setting specific targets around building a mixed board and executive team, or hiring specific profiles – be that age, gender or race to bring diversity. There are also those that are proactively providing coaching for female leaders, or those that have specific return to work programmes for women. There’s still a lot more to be done and it’s only by continuing to have these types of conversations and people proactively taking action that change will happen.
AMANDA: Most leaders / companies say the right things – but per above, few are taking concrete action and following through
SUMANA: I think leaders and companies are stepping up, simply because it makes such commercial sense to get an idea right, and to get it right faster. Testing ideas across a diverse range of views plays a key part in getting there. But there is still a long way to go… too many companies still adopt such a cookie cutter recruitment and evaluation process. Companies sometimes use the wrong metrics to make a judgement on whether someone is the best person for a job.
LINDSEY: From what I’ve seen it is very mixed. Whilst there is clearly still a long way to go, there are some great examples of companies taking it very seriously and having a real impact. Last week I went to an IWD panel hosted by the Bank of Ireland (the AAs Financial Services partner), and was really inspired by stories and examples of diversity initiatives by some of the speakers, who included companies like American Express and the Post Office. Equally some of the smaller, emerging challenger businesses are making a real effort in their policies and messaging to encourage diversity in their workplace. I suspect it will become increasingly hard for companies to ignore diversity in how they hire, promote and communicate themselves, as employees and customers alike begin to expect it.
KATY: This varies but I have seen some leaders, in retail in particular, stepping forward and driving the diversity agenda with broad and positive programmes, committing time and resources to underline their commitment ‘from the top’, and taking specific actions to make a real difference to their work-force as a whole.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in your career?
LIDIA: I have been extremely fortunate to not have faced any challenges as a woman per se, even when I was based in the Middle East. However, I have a number of close female friends who have faced severe challenges in the sense of exclusion. In a minority of cases these challenges got resolved. In a majority of cases, women had to leave to find a more inclusive environment. We have a long way to go to achieve diversity AND inclusion in financial services, where I have spent most of my career.
KARINA: As a full-time working mother, it is definitely a constant juggling act of prioritisation. I could be deciding between a coffee with a potential client I have been looking to set up for a long time vs. attending the school play where my daughter has 3 lines. And sometimes, to be honest, it can be exhausting.
I wouldn’t give it up, as I love what I do, I think my children are more resilient and independent because I work, and I believe I am setting a good example for both my children, not just my daughter.
AMANDA: I have been very fortunate to work with a Scandinavian company that has propelled me through the typical 'slowdown' of a woman's career (e.g. starting a family). Earlier in my career, one of the key challenges was to be taken seriously / seen to be too quiet amongst my more outspoken and boisterous male colleagues. It has taken me time to learn how to take that space on my own, while remaining true and authentic to myself.
SUMANA: I’ve been very fortunate to not face gender bias in my career but I have noted in corporate life that that unconscious bias is a real challenge to overcome. We still pigeonhole women too much using metrics that have nothing to do with the job, such as appearance. Even worse, we often adversely interpret women’s light-heartedness, warmth and empathy– which can be leveraged so well in the corporate environment - and conclude that they lack the necessary gravitas or intellectual ability to deliver. I have worked for some incredible leaders that leverage women’s strengths, but appreciate this is not everyone’s story and there is still some way to go.
LINDSEY: For me, the awareness and challenges of being a woman have only arisen in more recent years as I’ve become more senior in my roles. As a junior and mid-level consultant my peer group was very diverse, and to be honest I didn’t really consider gender to be an issue as it wasn’t affecting me directly. However, over time as I’ve been promoted, the mix of people I work with and around has evolved and it is not at all uncommon to be the only woman in a room. While the AA itself is a well gender balanced company, I attended a Future of Mobility conference recently and was astounded that less than 10 of the 100+ attendees were women. The automotive sector still has some catching up to do. The main impact for me of this imbalance is that it can feel very lonely, so I have started appreciating much more the power of a strong network of female peers.
KATY: I have been very lucky and have had a rich and varied career, working with some brilliant and supportive clients, managers and peers. I am very grateful that I have always found opportunities to progress, and ways to enjoy a challenging day job and have time for the family. Only on reflection can I think of how being a woman has had an impact – and only in a couple of ways. In my first job, as a strategy consultant in one of the top-tier firms I saw that the women that returned after maternity leave would tend to work 3 days a week – but to achieve that flexibility they would return to non-client roles in internal training, recruitment, or marketing. I wanted to be a consultant delivering value directly to clients, not work in a support function, so this certainly was one of the reasons I left. Also, as a parent – one of the ‘unsaid contracts’ I have with my family is that I try to be home in the evenings. So I don’t want to go to evening network events, even though many would give me the opportunity to mix with senior, influential and interesting contacts. I made the decision a few years ago to change my response to evening invites from a ‘yes, maybe’ (when I often would pull out at the last minute) to ‘no thank you – but I would love to attend your next breakfast or lunch event’. I imagine this has impacted the strength and breadth of my network.
What examples of good diversity initiatives have you seen/used throughout your career?
LIDIA: Something that works really well at Hiscox is employee networks, which actually go to address the inclusion part of the equation that I referred to a couple of times. We have over 10 networks going across the business, all organised through initiative by employees. Among these is a network where people discuss mental health issues and how they affect life and work, parents network, LGBT, and the US network for Spanish speakers. As one can see, these networks demonstrate that diversity is about something much broader than just gender.
BRYONY: Some of Blue Cross NC’s diversity initiatives are incredible. The emphasis on employee networks of all sorts is impressive; and while it might be more work/life balance than diversity, as the mother of two small kids, I’ve personally benefitted greatly from having an incredible backup childcare facility right here on campus. The reason why these are great though, to really answer the question, is because they’re bona fide programs that are cultivated after implementation … which is where a lot of companies struggle. You can’t just have a great idea, launch it and hope for the best. You have to manage it, staff for it, consistently communicate about it, and celebrate employees for using it.
KARINA: I think one of the most effective ones is informal coaching from leaders, as it provides one-on-one specific support that is targeted and aligned with company and personal objectives. Networking is another one, as it provides an opportunity to build connections with like-minded individuals, and it’s also a great opportunity to support emerging leaders, which in and of itself helps with your own development.
AMANDA: At QVARTZ, one of the most important recognition we had, was to involve our male colleagues in all of our diversity initiatives. We realized quickly that (1) some of the issues also applied to a subset of our male colleagues and that (2) having them as part of the discussion, was helpful to mobilize them and get them thinking about why this is an issue and how they could be part of the solution. Given the proportion of senior leaders within all firms tends to be heavily skewed to males, one of the more positive initiatives I have seen, are where these leaders are encouraged to take on a female mentee within the firm who might be approaching what is typically the bottleneck of her career to ensure she has the mentorship (and more importantly sponsorship) to best navigate the next part of her career development.
SUMANA: The best initiatives are those that stem from knowing that diversity is a real commercial advantage. Initiatives can come from both formal business processes and also through offering support to those that may be less visible but are nevertheless very valuable.
Business process initiatives could involve actively configuring your decisions around diversity. Recruit beyond your traditional forums to increase the likelihood of including talented women in your shortlists. Consider cross functional teams to deliver a strategy rather than a business unit for example; this promotes diverse ways of thinking and allow fresh ways for members to be viewed and feel valued. I’ve worked in a company where they’ve deliberately mixed junior and senior executives to brainstorm and test Strategy and M&A ideas.
Initiatives that support people with less visibility would centre around training leaders to promote the views of these talented but often overlooked members and provide supportive environments – such as flexible work practices, mentoring/shadowing opportunities and advocating their views in important meetings.
LINDSEY: I think having and supporting a very open dialogue about the topic helps employees feel that the business is dedicated to the issue. At Bacardi, I had a very inspiring manager who led our women in the workplace initiative, which brought together women and men across the business, and was actively sponsored by a member of the Exec team. The group used internal speakers to talk about their own personal experiences and brought in external speakers to share a wider set of perspectives. Personally, I learned a lot from these sessions which I continue to use.
KATY: Retail Week’s ‘BeInspired’ network is a positive movement supported widely by men and women across senior roles in retail. Its manifesto is to “connect women with those who can help propel their careers, inspires them through the stories of others, opens eyes to career opportunities, and fosters a culture of career confidence”. It has a network of ambassadors who are senior leaders who share stories and act as role-models, it runs workshops and round-tables for women at different stages of their careers, and a conference.
What request would you want to make of tomorrow’s leaders to make the world a better (fairer, happier, and more profitable!) place?
LIDIA: To be able to lead well, one should be more selfless, more focused on what other people can bring to the table. If leaders work from a general conviction that all people have great creativity and drive within them, and that the main role of the leader is to unleash / enable / stimulate potential already existing within people - then the world would be a much happier and better place. This form of leadership generates much higher engagement, which - as we know - usually leads to better returns for the company.
BRYONY: That’s a big question! But I’ve got a short answer: create value. To me, value means more than money and a profitable business; that isn’t enough. How do you impact people’s lives - employees, customers, communities? Truly articulate why your organization exists, and what it strives to do. That’s the value you provide. Then explain it to your employees … make sure they understand – and believe wholeheartedly – in it. Then follow that “north star” at every turn. The happiness and profits will follow.
KARINA: Value the perspectives of others, be the kind of leader you want to have, set an example / be a role model, and inspire and empower your teams.
AMANDA: This applies to both males and females – check yourself whenever you 'think' you are saying something that comes from an unconscious bias. Extremely difficult, but eye-opening when done.
SUMANA: Understand the real intelligence and strength of your employee and know what they are capable of contributing. Their difference of opinion can make all the difference when problem solving... support them in finding their voice, and take care of their needs (salary, flexibility, development) so they are respected, remain engaged and feel valued.
LINDSEY: Lead by example. If our leaders themselves are diverse and surround themselves with diverse people and views, it sets a really great example which then flows downwards.
KATY: Be a role-model; always challenge yourself, be aware of sub-conscious prejudice; be intentional in your language and behaviour to make sure all those around you feel comfortable to express their authentic selves; use data to look for any lack of diversity in your teams, in your recruitment practices, in the balance of promotions – be brave and stand up and take action where you perceive unfairness or intolerance (even when no-one is watching); be humble; be kind
What advice would you offer to a young woman starting her career in strategy?
LIDIA: Never stop learning. That is the most important thing from my point of view. Working in strategy requires good understanding of what’s going on in the world - be it in the wider economy or industry or competition or societal trends and changes. Decent understanding of technology is also key as it increasingly affects more and more of what we do, how we interact with each other and the world of products and services. You will become even more successful in working with strategy if you keep on learning.
BRYONY: First, stretch yourself. Take on the tough jobs that you’re not sure you can handle. If you are offered an opportunity, don’t think too hard, don’t second guess yourself – grab it! Never stop learning. The joy of career in strategy is you get to see an incredibly diverse array of projects … that is a privilege. Treat it as such. Own it.
Second, live for now. Make decisions based on where you are today and stop making career decisions today based upon what might happen tomorrow. I’ve heard too many young women saying things like “… but is this a good career path if you want to have a family down the road?” Don’t get caught up in today’s norms and double standards. Follow the path that suits you best. You will always be able to plan for your life stages as they actually happen, rather than counting yourself out of an otherwise great opportunity because of something that might happen down the road. Live for today… and when or if things change, totally okay to make different decision then.
1. Embrace all opportunities and be open to learning – operational experience is very valuable in developing strategies that are implementable
2. Believe in yourself and surround yourself with people that make you feel good about yourself
3. Start building that network now, and continue to harness it as you progress in your career – it will be valuable no matter what you do later on
AMANDA: Seek out role models / mentors / sponsors who will help shape and guide how you can be a strong leader – it is important to remain true to your core, and infuse it with characteristics that you admire. This support system will be especially important as you face some tough crossroads in your career
SUMANA: Solicit views from across the business when building a strategy, don’t be a top-down textbook strategist.
LINDSEY: Don’t be afraid to take risks in your career decisions
KATY: Identify your strengths and focus on building those strengths; identify what work you most enjoy and do more of that; expect the best of people; be open to opportunity; work for people you respect and who respect you; remember you are in control – your employer, no matter how supportive, would take 24/7 of your time if you give it – you must set the boundaries that work for you – this may feel selfish; have fun.