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Lisa Åkesson

RADA in Business

Business Tutor

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Women, are you ready to climb on board?


RADA in Business tutor Lisa Åkesson spoke to Gillian Karran-Cumberlege, founding partner of boutique executive search company Fidelio, to get her take on how important effective and flexible communication styles are to women hoping to take the next step to the boardroom.

Recently one of the bastions of male industry, Glencore has become the last FTSE company to appoint a woman to their board. Just weeks later, the cabinet reshuffle also reflected these changing attitudes as more women were promoted to senior positions. With representation of women in the cabinet now at around a quarter, it certainly looks as if the gender balance is beginning to shift significantly, and may well be on the government target of 25% by 2015. (Davies Report) The executive quotient has not increased as much as the NED quotient. So the path to the top it would seem is more open than ever to women, and yet there are still significant challenges to progressing into these positions.

Prior to setting up her business, Gillian Karran-Cumberlege was group head of investor relations for Volkswagen from 2000 to 2007, and significantly the most senior female executive globally. Consequently, Gillian has a double perspective - her personal journey to a group executive position, in a very male-dominated and globally competitive environment, and now her present position as recruiter and advisor for women seeking senior leadership roles.

Looking back, Gillian’s advice to women who want to reach board level is 'be confident, indeed as confident as your male peers. Learn about the career paths that successful executives take to get to the top of their profession and be prepared to follow it. Take career decisions that give you the relevant exposure and credentials to get you there.' Gillian believes that knowing yourself and understanding which aspects of your career you enjoy and where you excel can help build the confidence you need to succeed. She may have followed a less conventional career path than some of her male counterparts – but enjoyed the journey, confident in her aims - “I followed my instinct.”

A key factor to Gillian’s own success, is her evident self–belief. She recalls how on graduating from Cambridge, her tutor stated, 'she looks as if a puff of wind would blow her over but intellectually she is very tough'. Not an appraisal you would imagine her male peers would have ever received. And yet bizarrely complimentary. Gillian has always achieved an effective balance between femininity and firmness. A question many women in similar positions face is how to portray toughness and resilience in a boardroom of testosterone, whilst keeping true to their own personality and femininity. In order to achieve a successful balance, it is important to understand these behaviours and how they can maximise personal impact in different situations.

Observing women who sit on boards – they exude confidence, presence and stature. They have impact, strong self-belief, and authority. These attributes enhance your prospects of moving to board level, and I strongly believe that they are skills which can be learnt. Greater understanding of how your presence and behaviour impacts others is key. Consider how you say something as well as and what you say.

Gillian expressed frustration at the repeated excuse from businesses that there aren’t as many technically skilled women as men when considering leadership positions, particularly at the non-executive level. As far as she is concerned, this simply isn’t the case, and she is working with many women who are technically credible, and more than qualified. Yet there is clearly still a significant hurdle to overcome for that final push to board position, which so often can be based in self-limiting philosophy. ”If we lack self-confidence we will lessen our impact and authority to be taken seriously and so will struggle to make this transition. There is a line to tread between being strident and a shy and retiring wallflower.” Extremes of behaviour are more likely to be overlooked for promotions into very senior leadership and board level roles. As we emphasise in all of our business training; accumulating a versatile communications ‘toolkit’ allows you to make more informed choices in your use of body, breath and voice, in order to reach your full potential and secure the position you know you are capable of.

Gillian believes that developing these essential skills will support women in progressing to the top, and that there is much value in supporting these women in understanding how to demonstrate impact, presence and gravitas, to effect greater authority in the boardroom.

So how do you come across? What impact are you making when you walk into a room, engage with your team, senior management or clients? It is well recognised that it takes just a few seconds to form an impression of someone new. Indeed, a series of experiments by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov revealed that all it takes is a tenth of a second. Despite this, how much consideration do you give to preparing for that first impression?

Your body language communicates volumes and is what people pick up instantly. How you hold your posture, ground yourself, shake someone’s hand, maintain good eye contact and fill a space with your presence will give you the visual power that others will read, evaluate and decide if it is fitting for the part. It is also important as women to be aware of the choices we make in our body language and have the courage to reveal our femininity.

The second part of this feature will be published later this week

Lisa Åkesson is a business tutor for RADA in Business

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Lisa Åkesson

Business Tutor

Read more from Lisa Åkesson

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