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The making of a female leader: Top tips from Kathryn Herrick – Part 2

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This is part two of our two-part series on Kathryn Herrick, an experienced and successful C-suite leader with a fascinating career. In this instalment, Alison Rotundo talks to Kathryn about being a woman working within a male dominated environment, where she offers her tips for women looking to carve out their own career in leadership following her impressive career to COO and CFO positions at several high performing companies in listed, private and in Private Equity owned businesses.

I like to take on a challenge and break things up into component parts, find the problem and then put things back together.

Alison asked Kathryn to describe the challenges she has faced in her career. “I like to take on a challenge and break things up into component parts, find the problem and then put things back together which I believe has come from my engineering roots. Having mainly worked in male dominated industries, I have really enjoyed breaking that stigma. I think being really driven has meant that my roles and my career have matched my personality.

“I think my biggest challenge has always been facing the revolving doors of bosses. In one role I had three different CEO bosses in a period of 2 years, each one had a slightly different personality and slightly different remit on my role which made things more difficult. For instance, one of them had a good financial head, but then the next was so strategic and he just wanted to focus on a certain aspect of my role, but that did really help me to progress in a role.

“The other difficulty I faced was that the incumbent in the roles I took on, was usually male, and as a female coming in to replace a male leaving for whatever reason, it was specifically tough for the first couple of months. You just have to focus on why you’re there, and help and support your teams. This happened to me twice, where I took over from a male incumbent, who was still there, which made it quite difficult. This simply made me more determined to get my head down and do the job well.”

Alison asked whether Kathryn felt she had to work any harder to achieve success in this career as a woman. “Maybe, but trying hard and wanting to achieve is just part of my DNA. I don’t think I’m naturally bright, I did not go through any private system, but I did work extra hard for my exams and at university, probably harder than most. I think doing difficult A-levels and a difficult degree prepared me for working harder in my career.” I kept stretching myself-never stay in your comfort zone.

I had to make a conscious decision to overcome my inhibitions.

Kathryn noted that her shyness might have been a problem if she hadn’t addressed it early on. “When I was young, I was quite shy, and this was ok because I had focussed a lot on my music. When I went to university, I suddenly had to push myself quite hard to come out of my shell, because I saw these very bright people who were also grounded and confident. I knew I needed to be more like them to get ahead.

“When working in marcoms there’s a lot of socialising and I was working with men who maybe assumed I wouldn’t want to go to the pub after work or play golf, I always made a conscious effort to tell them that I would join them. I really learned the importance of socialising and networking early in my career, and that is what helped me grow my network.”

When you get more senior in business it can be lonely; it’s important to have people you can talk to who understand.

When asked about her role models, Kathryn was quick to put her mother at the top of her list. “She’s the one that drove me to change from an all-girls school to a mixed sixth form college, choosing a difficult degree, and she supported and continued to push me in my career and through all my life. She’s 85 in two weeks’ time and she still works, having spent 40 years in the civil service.”

Her other role models, Keith Taylor at Equinix Inc and Sir Martin Sorrell, have provided Kathryn with exemplary examples of people skills. “Keith always sits down and chats to anyone. You can be so busy that you can forget people, but it’s so important to make connections. Sir Martin Sorrell really did help me in my career in my 30s. There was a time when we had so much work to do, and he noticed that I was coming into work over multiple weekends, and he emailed me to say thank you. When someone that senior recognises you, it means something.”

It’s satisfying when people reach out to you for help.

Kathryn now mentors two women. “I’m there for them, and equally they sometimes help me in situations because they’re younger than me and have a different perspective.”

Alison asked whether Kathryn feels that times have changed for women on the leadership track. “I think they’re much more open about talking about the challenges of being a female in business. But for me there wasn’t really anyone to talk to about it, so I just sort of went with it. You now have heads of diversity in business and dealing with the challenges is more conscious.” But Kathryn doesn’t like diversity for diversity’s sake. “I always remind myself that I’ve been chosen because I have the skills to do the role. I don’t want to think that I’m there to fulfil a quota or target. I’d rather they just choose the person that has the right skills.”

Tips for senior women in leadership.

  • Network, network, network – it’s all about the energy

Make sure you build a strong network of people from different backgrounds. It can be lonely, but when you build a strong network of people from previous bosses, people you’ve worked with, it can be really useful. People want to help and often when you drop them a note, they respond quickly. Don’t be frightened to reach out to people and ask.

  • Make sure you have balance

Have a life outside work. It took me a long time to understand that. But I think that had a negative impact on me and my career. I have learned now that balance is much more important. Work is part of it, but make sure you get time to focus on your family, friends, fitness as well.

  • Don’t be afraid to delegate

Have the right people around you for the work that is required in the future. As you progress in your career you’ll need to delegate more, you’ll never progress if you don’t. And making sure that the people you delegate equally delegate and keep delegating until people say enough!

Thank you, Kathryn, for being such a fascinating and inspiring person! If you would like to speak to Kathryn directly, you can find her on LinkedIn