Many people think working in business can be particularly challenging for women but that’s not the case for four senior managers at Verastar. From Customer Relations Director to Chief Commercial Officer and HR Director to Head of Legal, the Manchester-based firm is leading the way in gender equality in what is more commonly known as a ‘male-dominated industry’.
With International Women’s Day on the horizon which celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women, we decided to sit down and have a chat with some of our senior managers to discuss their experience as leading women in business. Here’s what they had to say…
Gillian Hill, Head of Legal
Gillian began her legal career at international law firm, Eversheds Sutherland, but realised she wanted to work in business after a six month secondment to Granada TV where she worked on the Manchester International Festival, watched Coronation Street being filmed live on TV in her office and managed to persuade Manchester City Council that Granada Studios should be granted a marriage licence for a Shane Richie show where couples competed to get married live on air.
Since then she has worked in a number of different sectors, from telecoms to software escrow, information security and aerospace. Career highlights have included her time as the Eurofighter (Typhoon) lawyer at BAE, working on the half a billion pound contract with Nortel Networks for 3G infrastructure at O2 and building a legal department at NCC Group (which ended up (unintentionally) being all women and was voted the best support department in the company every year) as it listed on AIM and then on the main market of the London Stock Exchange.
She says managing people is the hardest part of her job as you have to make difficult decisions that people won’t always like. “You have to develop a thick skin and women can hold themselves back in progressing with their desire to be liked.”
As a working mum of two teenage boys she believes equality at home and work is crucial if women are to succeed. Women should not play the martyr or be afraid to ask for help whether from peers, managers or partners.
Successfully established in her career, we want to know what advice she would give young women entering the business world. “Never be afraid to ask “stupid” questions. Everyone else will want to ask the same questions but just won’t have the bottle. Aim for the top, don’t let self-doubt hold you back, blow your own trumpet and don’t be afraid to express a different opinion in a roomful of people – diversity of opinions often leads to better decision-making.”
Janette Palmer, Customer Relations Director
Graduating with a maths degree from The University of Birmingham, Janette was initially unsure of her career path so moved to Switzerland to learn French and work as an Au Pair. After returning to the UK, she had a few roles in various sales positions and then found work at a plastic stockholding company, working her way up within 3 years from an admin role to branch manager and spending a total of 10 years with the business. In 2002 she joined Verastar on the recommendation of her brother, Steve Palmer, who was one of the then owners. Having come from a family business background, Janette was always interested in working in a business environment, managing people. Even though the utilities sector wasn’t initially a natural sector, it soon became second nature. Having primarily joined to set up a sales team, she successfully set up credit control, retention and other customer care teams, before becoming a Director of the company in 2007. Janette now manages all of the Customer Facing Teams which includes around 260 people.
Drive and determination are what makes her tick though. “Whilst a degree may get you off to a good start in your career, it isn’t a magic wand to success and it certainly doesn’t give you automatic entitlement to progression and recognition. For me, hard work and a driving ambition to do the best in all I attempt is what pays off.”
“One of the previous owners of Verastar used to quote President Coolidge and it has always resonated with me and has become my mantra over the years. He once said, ‘nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent’.”
In regard to being a woman in business, I am happy that it has never been an issue in Verastar. Our CEO, Chris Earle, surrounds himself with the best people regardless of gender or age which means being a woman in this business does not provide additional challenges above and beyond that of the job. It is fantastic to have support like that.”
Janette is also an advocate of balancing the office and home. “Work is important but so is life. I don’t have kids so don’t have the extra responsibilities and demands other female colleagues may have but I always make sure I exercise five times a week, have a lively social life and love planning holidays to different places with my partner. I also have the responsibility of an elderly parent who needs my support and so making time for him is very important to me. Fitting everything in both at work and home is always a challenge but I find lists (and a few lists of lists!) keeps me organised and on track.”
Nicola Smith, Chief Commercial Officer
Nicola began her career in utilities in 1995 in a junior role at Chess Ltd following the recent deregulation of the business gas market. “My career has very much been built from the ground up. Over the years I’ve worked in customer service, sales and marketing, operations and IT. I progressed to managing teams and leading the launch of new products from both a commercial and systems perspective as markets evolved. I was promoted to the board as Operations Director and enjoyed a long and varied career at Chess. 16 years passed very quickly.”
Nicola took a short career break before heading up the commercial team at Verastar in 2012, where she saw opportunities for growth through further diversification into deregulated markets. “With two young children and after 16 years in the same company it felt like the right time to take some time out to spend with the kids. However, I very quickly realised that as much as I enjoyed being at home, I missed the challenge of working in a fast paced business. When I was introduced to Verastar I was impressed by the vision and team and knew that I could make a difference”
Gender-defined challenges aren’t something she’s ever encountered in the business environment, Nicola feels fortunate that she has always had support in each role from every level but she does acknowledge that in some industries women have found it difficult to progress. “International Women’s Day is a great initiative to highlight the fantastic contribution that women can make in business. In 2017 it’s hard to understand that there are still prejudices which stop women from achieving their full potential. Some companies are missing out on the benefits of having diversity at all levels. Women in business are more likely to approach problem solving from different perspectives and may be more empathetic in their business interactions. Mutually beneficial relationships are a key part business success.”
Having achieved a lot in her career, Nicola can offer sound advice to young women in the business world.
“Don’t try to be a man! Be the best that you can be and always develop yourself. Having confidence in your abilities helps others feel reassured that you can do it. If you don’t believe in you, no one else will. At the end of the day it’s what you do that counts, by doing a great job you will earn respect regardless of gender.”
Jo Dogherty, HR Director
Jo is the newest senior member to join Verastar and brings a wealth of HR experience to the team having worked in senior HR roles across a number of business sectors including: financial services, legal, travel and facilities services.
Jo joined Verastar so she could be part of a dynamic growing company, which was looking to expand and develop its workforce within the UK and drive real change. Jo met a number of the senior team during the interview process and was really encouraged by the number of senior females working across the team.
What advice would Jo give young women entering the business world? “Hard work, commitment and being prepared to get your hands dirty and support the team to get the job done.” Graduating from university with a degree in History and Psychology and a Master’s in Human Resources Management, Jo had to work her way up. Starting her career as a Hotel Receptionist before persuading her boss to allow her to work in the HR department. Jo believes that her qualifications enabled her to enter HR and start her career, however gaining promotions and being able to develop her career was all about her work ethic and determination to succeed.
Work life balance is a challenge for Jo and getting it right is really important for her and her husband. “Life at Verastar is busy with constant demands and a long to do list.” Jo also has a three year old daughter and her husband works in a demanding role spending two days a week in London, so being extremely organised and sharing home responsibilities with him is crucial.
We love to empower women in business and wholly encourage it. If you’re interested in a career in the utilities sector from customer service to product management, HR or operations, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at email@example.com.