How the 5Cs can help build strong career foundations.

posted 26 Sep 2014, 09:32 by Ines Wichert   [ updated 26 Sep 2014, 09:34 ]

Career planning, critical job assignments, courage, curiosity and connectedness, the 5Cs, as I have called them in my book Where Have all the Senior Women Gone? are powerful building blocks for any career. They become even more important though for people who follow non-linear career paths, as can often be the case for military spouses.

In this article, co-written with Heledd Kendrick, founder of Recruit for Spouses, a social enterprise that champions and supports returning military spouses to the workplace, I explore how the 5Cs can help build strong career foundations.

Flexible Working - Communication is the Key to Success

posted 29 Nov 2013, 06:38 by Ines Wichert

It pays to enable employees to balance work with other commitments outside of work. Work-life balance plays a key role in employees’ level of engagement, the extent to which they are willing to go the extra mile for their employers. It also influences employees’ decisions to stay or leave their organisations. This has been shown in both academic and business research. And no longer is this only an issue for working mothers; it has become an increasingly important consideration for men and non-parents, too. 

In addition to personal arrangements at home, flexible schedules at work are the key ingredient to making work-life balance a reality. On 5th November, the London city network of the European Professional Women’s Network (EPWN) hosted a panel discussion in partnership with law firm Morrison Foerster on the topic of flexible working. The panel brought together a wide range of different perspectives on this topic which made for an insightful evening:

·         Ann Bevitt, employment lawyer and Partner at Morrison Foerster

·         Vicki O’Brien, Head of Customer Service at BA who has been working reduced hours for a number of years

·         Paul Churchill, responsible for Agile Working at Lloyds Bank

·         Dr. Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at the University of Middlesex

The Law

An employee has the right to request a change to the hours worked, when these hours are worked and where they are worked, provided they are caring for a live-in dependent or have children under the age of 17. However, employers can refuse a request on business grounds. Examples of flexible working arrangements are working from home, working reduced or compressed hours, or starting and finishing a work day on a flexible basis, e.g. starting late and finishing late or staring early and finishing early.

Making it work

Flexible working can bring clear benefits to both employers and employees. The panel, however, also highlighted a number of challenges that need to be addressed if flexible working is to deliver these benefits; simply offering flexible work arrangements is no guarantee for success.

The ideal worker and role models

Flexible working clashes with the ideal worker concept which proposes that we should always be present at work, be available to work long hours and be completely dedicated to our work. This doesn’t sit well with working from home or working reduced hours. If this outdated yet still widespread norm is left unchallenged, employees who work flexibly may engage in counterproductive behaviours, such as regularly working late into the night in order to compensate for working reduced hours. Employers have a key role to play in clearly communicating the acceptability, even the desirability, of flexible working if it contributes to retaining valued employees. Senior executives who work flexibly, or who have worked flexibly in the past, can help send powerful messages about how flexible working can be integral to both personal and organisational success. Such role models can help to re-define the ideal worker concept but have to include men, women, parents and non-parents. Working flexibly will only become a success if it is perceived to be an acceptable choice for all employees and not only mothers.  


Working from home requires trust, particularly so on the side of the manager who cannot physically see an employee working at his or her desk. Employees may also experience uncertainty and feel the need to continually prove that they are productive which can result in unnecessary email updates and over-communication. Managing a virtual team requires strong performance management skills and clear target setting. More than this though, it requires an honest and open conversation about how much daily or weekly ‘evidence’ a manager requires about what an employee is working on and how much guidance an employee requires to feel supported. Regular communication helps to build trust and can make working from home more effective.

Being promoted while working flexibly

As we have already seen, work-life balance is a key factor for retaining talented employees. Another driver of retention is career progression. Unfortunately, flexible working and career progression don’t always mesh well. You can have one or the other but rarely both. To help change this, managers need to challenge themselves about whether their ‘ideal’ candidate really has to be in the office every day. Furthermore, simply asking an employee what he or she requires to ‘make it work’ (e.g. a leadership development course, a promotion) allows for an open discussion that can help to uncover flexible solutions. Training and coaching helps to equip managers to have such conversations, which in turn increase the likelihood of these conversations taking place. It is encouraging to see that there are now more women (and men) who are managing to keep their careers progressing while working flexibly. The Power Part Time list celebrates some of these achievements.

The golden cage

Flexible work arrangements are highly valued and may make employees more reluctant to leave an organisation for the fear of not being able to work flexibly at a new organisation. As a result, flexible working can create a golden cage. Despite recent media stories of companies such as Yahoo asking employees to work from the office again rather than from home, flexible working is now well-established enough to make it a legitimate request when discussing a role with a potential new employer. Employees can help an employer consider a request for flexible working by clearly outlining how the proposed arrangements will work in practice and how they will help deliver results for the organisation; if presented like a business case, an employer can consider requests for flexible working like any other business proposal.

As mentioned at the start of this blog, it pays to enable employees to balance work with other commitments outside of work. And clear, open and ongoing communication helps to make flexible working a success for both employers and employees.

Robust Gender Equality Processes, Madeleine Albright and Poor Acoustics – lessons from a ‘Women in Leadership’ session at this year’s Civil Service Live Conference

posted 9 Jul 2012, 05:52 by Ines Wichert   [ updated 10 Jul 2012, 08:31 ]

Last week saw the Civil Service Live conference take place at Olympia conference centre in London. Three days of talks, workshops and supplier exhibitions all aimed at senior civil servants.

I ran a session on Women in Leadership in the main theatre which turned out to be an inadequately parcelled off area at the rear of the main exhibition hall; noise interrupted us from both the  well-behaved Civil Service Live conference at the front as well as the much more boisterous Imbibe conference at the rear. All in all, a great opportunity to practice voice projection and bring together a panel of senior women to discuss career progression in the civil service.

The British civil service is in many respects ahead of the private sector when it comes to making gender diversity a reality. It started setting objectives in 2003 which were renewed in 2008 and then followed up with a target to have 39 percent of senior civil service roles held by women by 2013. Current statistics show that the 30 percent barrier has already been breached and almost a third of the most senior roles in the civil service are held by women.

While the robust processes and structures that are in place have helped to significantly increase the representation of women in senior civil service roles, subtler barriers such as stereotypes, gender role expectations and the wider organisational culture are as much of a problem as in many private sector organisations. A number of senior female civil servants went on record recently to state that while practical changes have certainly helped to create a more diverse workforce, there still is a long way to go and that a difficult change in mindset is required in order to achieve true equality (see comments by Shioban Benita, 12th Feb 2012 in Civil Service World; and Ursula Brennan, 2nd Dec 2011, The Guardian).

And that’s what we focused the panel discussion on: processes versus culture. I had the great fortune to have with me a fabulous panel of both private and public sector female leaders:

  • Andi Keeling, Director of Women’s Markets at RBS
  • Sue Owen, Director General for Strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions
  • Julia Bond, Non-executive Director for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • Gillian Crooks, Deputy Director for Change at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs

The panel shared how small changes to processes can make a big difference. For example, including a junior member on a promotion or selection panel ensures that transparency and openness is maintained and that no senior-level backroom deals take place on who is promoted or recruited into senior roles. The panellists encouraged the audience to take advantage of job sharing and mentoring schemes that exist across the civil service and reference was made to a speed-mentoring event that was to take place at the last day of the conference; a concept I hadn’t heard about but a great idea to encourage a good fit between mentors and mentees.

The role of mentors and mentoring developed as one of the main themes during our conversation and Madeleine Albright’s saying that “There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women" was mentioned. At least one of the panellists was asked by two women to be their mentor. This was great news and especially exciting for me as I’m currently working on a research report which looks into the issue of mentoring for women – due out towards the end of the year.

The Q&A time revealed, however, that despite the much more robust processes in place for encouraging gender diversity, the everyday experience of women in the civil service is still very similar to those in the private sector. The audience asked questions of the panel that I regularly hear at events in the private sector:

  • I work three-days a week and have been implicitly told that my career is now on hold. What can I do to increase my visibility?
  • How do you manage to create work-life balance? I struggle with that.
  • I have a supervisor who doesn’t support my career advancement. What do you suggest I do?

The panellists’ advice emphasised the importance of repeatedly looking for opportunities, taking risks, building a breadth of experiences, aiming high and moving on if your supervisor doesn’t support your career.

Overall the session was in turns revealing, encouraging and disappointing. While there remains much to be done in a drive towards cultural equality, the Civil Service does provide some inspirations that all kinds of organisations could learn from.

Macro and micro… not the economy but the importance of messages

posted 30 Nov 2011, 07:13 by Ines Wichert

Progress against Lord Davies’ voluntary targets for women on boards has been disappointing since they were set in February this year. Six months in, just 33 percent of FTSE 100 companies have set specific goals for raising the percentage of women on boards. Of those that did, many have set targets of 10 percent and lower – hardly an ambitious goal – given Lord Davies’ original target of 25 percent by 2015 – but at least a target. For, as the old adage goes ‘what gets measured, gets done’ or at least it stands a much better chance of getting done.

Recent Catalyst and Opportunity Now Awards, for diversity and inclusion, have highlighted the fact that organizations  who have managed to increase the senior management diversity have received strong CEO support and senior management commitment. But it’s not only about officially stating the organization’s support for inclusive leadership in front of a rolling camera. It’s also about making sure that informal micro-messages from senior and middle management are just as supportive.

In her keynote speech at the BPS Conference about Diversity in the Workplace (London, September 2011), Stella Nkomo said that these micro-messages are not to be underestimated. She talked about the importance of these informal messages in the context of a manager directly saying to a woman, or a black man – “you are valued in this organisation, we want you here”.

Lord Davies next progress report is not expected until March/April of next year. With growing evidence that more gender diversity at the top is linked to increased organizational performance, will the bleak economic outlook spur CEOs and chairmen into action or will it side-line gender diversity and inclusive leadership as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an integral part of weathering the storm? What micro-messages are currently being exchanged in senior management meetings when diversity and inclusion are discussed, I wonder?

Career Advice from Fortune 500’s Most Powerful Women

posted 7 Oct 2011, 12:43 by Ines Wichert   [ updated 7 Oct 2011, 12:45 ]

In it’s 13th year, the Fortune 500 Most Powerful Women’s Summit took place this week in Laguna Niguel, California. A Who is Who of America’s top business women, the summit brings together an impressive list of both senior Fortune 500 women as well as promising entrepreneurs. With this year’s title THE START OF SOMETHING BIG, the event featured four different progamme streams: leadership, global business, innovation & growth, and social good. In addition to the face-to-face conference in California,  many sessions were streamed out live to over 10,000 virtual attendees.

The messages to the next generation of aspiring women leaders were clear – many not new but infused with additional validity coming from these impressive female captains of industry. Here are a few examples:


·         Ginni Rometty SVP at IBM: Growth and comfort don't co-exist. You learn the most when you take risks.

·         Gloria Steinem, Women's Action Alliance: I would have told my younger self not to be so nice; women are too nice!

·         Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook advises that women need to keep the foot on the career gas pedal; keep looking for opportunities.

·         Ellen Kullman, Chair and CEO of DuPont commented on the benefits of others holding up a mirror and providing feedback; important to keep growing.

·         Meg Whitman, Chair and CEO of HP: We are all cut out for almost everything we want to do.

·         Sister CEOs, Denise Morrison, CEO Campbell Soup, and Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications advise: be strategic about your career



Fortune 500 Most Powerful Women Summit 3rd – 5th October 2011, Laguna Niguel, California

How women can succeed at office politics

posted 7 Oct 2011, 12:38 by Ines Wichert

Organisational politics brings with it connotations of intrigue, manoeuvring and favouritism. It is rarely associated with positive attributes and it is often avoided by women. Nevertheless, many reluctantly recognise that those who use political behaviour in a skilled manner seem to advance faster in organisations – they always seem to be aligned to the right people, have important insider knowledge and are in favour with those in power. One way to help women overcome their reluctance for politicking in the workplace is to use different terminology. Phrases such as sharing success and building effective relationships can convey a different impression, but retain the same end result.

To become a skilled operator in an organisation’s political arena, try the following:

·         Share personal success stories. This is an integral part of career success. It’s not about bragging, it’s about helping your very busy boss understand what you have delivered. Without you sharing, he or she won’t always know.

·         Find yourself a mentor, an effective mentor. Psychosocial support is a great thing to have but we know that the really effective mentors share information about unwritten organisational rules and provide access to powerful networks. Be selective in your choice of mentor and ask for the information you are currently not getting.

·         Network, network, network. Networking really is as important as everyone always makes it out to be. Find ways of building one-to-one relationships with people who are important to your career and keep them up-to-date on your progress.

·         If you find networking with men difficult, go prepared. What is the latest business deal or major sporting event that has taken place? Remember that men like to comment on things such as sports and business rather than sharing personal information early on in a conversation.

·         Change the terminology. Think about sharing successes and building winning relationships rather than self-promotion and ingratiation. Organisational politics become more palatable when you think of it in these terms.


Extract from How Women Can Succeed at Office Politics, published July 2011. For full article, please go to

Can Quotas Work?

posted 7 Oct 2011, 12:36 by Ines Wichert   [ updated 7 Oct 2011, 12:41 ]

Including women at all levels of organisational life makes sense: women bring different skills and a fresh perspective to decision-making, foster innovation and are good for an organisation’s image. Furthermore, organisations with the most gender-diverse management and board teams have better financial results (e.g. Catalyst, The Bottom Line, 2007).

In 2003, Norway was the first country to enact a quota law that stipulates that 40% of board positions in all publicly listed and state owned companies have to be held by women. Despite the initial outcry, there now seems to be agreement about the effectiveness of the law to increase the number of women on boards. As a result, other countries such as Spain, France, Iceland and Canada are following Norway’s example and introducing quotas for women on boards.

After this success, all eyes have turned to executive teams. However, statistics from Norway are still as disappointing as they are elsewhere. Only about 6% of senior management roles in private companies are held by women. These results emphasise the importance of strengthening current efforts to increase women’s representation at executive level. Skills training, networking opportunities and mentoring schemes are often mentioned as effective interventions. Not surprisingly, much the same applies to increasing women’s representation senior executive level. The problem is not a lack of knowing what works but rather an unwillingness to make gender diversity an organisational priority (McKinsey - Women Matter, 2009). Policies and initiatives to redress the gender imbalance at senior levels require active CEO sponsorship, close monitoring for effectiveness and anchoring in performance metrics.

Taken from Can Quotas Work?, co-written with Elin Hurvenes, Chair of the Professional Boards Forum, Norway, and published in The HRDirector, December 2010, Issue 74.

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