Breaking the glass ceiling
I knew when I made the decision to study for an MBA, I’d be required to take on challenges that would feel uncomfortable. I expected that the structured path on the course would guide me through, and over, certain obstacles. I wanted to face barriers head on, and improve upon them.
In my role as a sales and marketing executive I was used to speaking in front of small groups of people when giving product demonstrations, or meeting new customers for the first time at one-on-one events. I felt relaxed and in control in those types of engagements. But I wasn’t regularly required to speak to much larger groups of people.
My sister, who’s an excellent public speaker, told me that preparation and practise were the keys to success. With that in mind, I was both excited and extremely nervous about the prospect of running an event for the Cass Global Women’s Leadership Programme which would require me to mediate a panel, in front of a large audience.
On the one hand, it was a huge honour. I’m so proud to be involved in a programme that’s asking tough questions and looking to improve female involvement at all professional levels. On the other, I knew it was unchartered territory – what if I lost track of time or struggled to help conversation flow amongst the panellists?
The good thing about hosting a panel is that actually, the stars of the show are your panellists. They do most of the talking and it’s their insights that make the event special. The difficult thing is that you can’t over-practise – you don’t know which direction the conversation is going to go in, and you have to stay flexible.
On the night, I got to the premises quite early – I wanted to see the space in the room and get in a few more run-throughs. By that point, I’d practised my introduction and questions many times over. I was trying to concentrate on the pace and tone of my voice when speaking – I naturally speak quite quickly and knew I had to deliberately slow that down.
I met the fantastic panellists for the first time about 15 minutes before the event began. I was lucky enough to be hosting four seasoned and highly experienced women from the fund management industry, who’d also grown together in their careers, becoming great friends. Their warmth, obvious rapport and intellect had a very calming effect – we were already talking amongst ourselves about some of the topics I was due to bring up and I could see how engaging and knowledgeable they were.
Once the crowd had arrived, there were about 50 people in the room. Some of my friends and my partner had come to support me. When I gave the introductory speech, I tried to picture speaking to them. The rehearsals I’d done in preparation paid off – I was familiar with the script and was able therefore to devote my concentration to remembering to speak in a deliberate, relaxed manner.
The panellists were as I’d expected them to be – absolutely brilliant. The chemistry between them was fabulous – one of my friends after the event commented that it was like being a fly on the wall as four friends from a fund-management version of Sex and the City talked to each other at dinner. It felt intimate, and genuine.
Time seemed to fly by and on reflection, I can remember four messages the most clearly – I’m sure for people in the audience there’d be other topics that resonated. Each point I think is inspiring and helpful to both men and women.
Dagmara Fijalkowski emphasised the importance of practise and preparation for workplace engagements. After she said this, her friends on the panel described her as the most prepared person in the room, despite her vast knowledge and many years of experience. Dagmara explained that she still puts hours of thorough research and rehearsal into all of her presentations. This may at first sound like common sense, but I found it reaffirming to hear how hard work and determination can still often be a differentiator.
The second point I remember highlighted was the importance of following and choosing paths in your career that lead towards what you’re passionate about. This was raised by Jane Lesslie who’s had a fascinating journey into fund management from journalism, through government service and economics. She pointed out how hard it is to lack confidence when talking about a topic you love, or lack motivation in an area that invigorates you.
This discussion of how careers can grow, develop, and flourish over time lead us to talk about the multi-career life. The panel challenged the audience to put less pressure on themselves about whether or not they were exactly where they wanted to be in their careers at this exact moment. They highlighted how every step contributes unique learning, and that it’s all part of a longer career journey.
Lastly, the panel described that despite fund management’s reputation as a male oriented career (backed up with a consistent under-representation of female talent applying at entry levels), it doesn’t at all live up to the image of shouting and bravado on trading floors. Instead, it’s a measured, calculated, research-oriented environment where everyone’s performance tends to be measured in a meritocratic fashion (long term returns).
Once I’d brought the panel to a close, I went out into the reception area and could see pockets of people energised by the event, expanding on the conversation amongst themselves over drinks. I knew I’d achieved a personal milestone with the type of public speaking I’d just done, but I was almost happier to see the inspiring effect the event had had on the audience. For that mostly, we and Cass have the star panellists to thank.