International Women’s Day (IWD) is held every year on March 8th. It’s an occasion which has been celebrated since the early 1900’s in a variety of ways but the focus is predominately around recognising achievements and women’s role in society.
At Indigo Swan we are huge champions of equality and are incredibly proud of how diverse our workplace is. We celebrate individuality and recognise each Swan for their own amazing qualities and character, and acknowledge that this diversity contributes to our culture, which we cherish.
With all the messages of empowerment floating around in honour of IWD, it got me thinking about all the amazing, inspiring people out there and how lucky we are to have so many in our local community. Norfolk is home to some incredible individuals who do a fantastic job in motivating others and should be applauded for the work they do, their outreach and their voices.
Now it would be impossible for me to call out each person I find inspiring – but in the spirit of International Women’s Day I’ve selected a powerhouse of talent to help showcase a small proportion of Norfolk’s ‘Wonder Women’. These women, in my eyes, give strength and courage to others, go the extra mile in everything they do and help many to be the best version of themselves.
In the hot seat we have Francesca De Lacey Managing Director at JMS Group Limited, Rebecca Lewis Smith Managing Director at Fountain Partnership, Kirsty Jarvis CEO of Luminous PR, Professor Fiona Lettice, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at University of East Anglia and our very own mother swan, Emily Groves.
Francesca started her career at JMS back in 2004 and since then has worked her way through the business, taking the helm as MD in 2015. Alongside her team she takes great pride in the quality of their work and reputation in the industry: “We have been around 35 years and have worked with thousands of businesses to help them grow. That’s wonderful to be involved in.” When I asked her what motivates her, she responded: “Hearing the phrase – oh I didn’t know National TV ads were made in Norfolk”.
Rebecca co-founded Fountain Partnership in 2008 and within her multifaceted role she plays a key part in driving the business forward. Fun fact about Rebecca for you, she’s had the same mug in her office since 2008: “It’s the size of a bucket. I sometimes feel guilty in meetings where my guests are offered small (I mean, normal-sized) cups and I walk in with my huge mug; but not guilty enough to change it!” I’m with Rebecca on this one, the bigger the cup the better in my eyes!
With ten years of public relations experience under her belt, Kirsty founded Luminous PR in 2013 and is passionate about helping start-ups flourish. Bravery and resilience are two of the things which have helped Kirsty get to where she is now: “You need both to be an entrepreneur. Every week throws new moments which make you go ‘Eek!’ and require you to wear your big girl pants!” For anyone looking to get into PR, Kirsty’s advice would be to work your writing ability: “It’s one of the most important skills you need for our industry but is sadly underrated. You also need to develop a brilliant understanding of how the media works and what makes a great story.”
Fiona Lettice was appointed the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation at UEA in 2017. Her research spans many business sectors but has a strong focus on automotive, law and Higher Education. When I asked her if she had any tips for anyone looking to progress their career within a similar role she replied: “Build networks and collaborate – it is very difficult to progress your career alone.”
As many of you may already know, Emily started Indigo Swan in 2010 after leaving her role as a Development Director for an energy saving technologies consultancy. She realised there was a better way to do things and that’s why her can-do attitude is shot through everything we do at Indigo Swan. Having learnt a lot about leadership throughout her career she mentioned that great leadership is all about people: “How you listen to them. How you trust them. How you encourage them. Successful companies don’t just appear overnight. They are born from hundreds of decisions, challenging conversations, an immense expression of care, picking yourself up after failures, learning from those failures and sharing it all honestly and enthusiastically with those around you.”
Keeping on the leadership trail of thought Kirsty explained how she always tries to learn as many new things as possible to help her be a better leader: “Every year I look back and reflect on how my skills and leadership style have developed with every experience I work through. The important thing to recognise is that everybody in your team is an individual and has their own list of things that motivate and drive them.” She continued: “I have found that communication is probably the most important skill to develop and if you are able to use empathy to really understand what makes people tick, you have a better chance of being able to communicate and achieve what you need with better success.”
For Rebecca the biggest lesson she has learnt about leadership is to always be her genuine self. She said: “It’s really easy in business, and especially as a young woman starting out in business, to feel like you have to project a level of confidence beyond what you feel – but true leadership definitely involves vulnerability, and being able to be myself in a leadership role has been central to my approach to building culture at Fountain.”
I asked each of my ‘Wonder Women’ if they felt they had a spirit animal to help guide them along their journey. Rebecca’s response particularly stood out to me: “I’d love to say that my spirit animal is something elegant and powerful, like a panther. But on days when there’s a lot going on, I definitely have an inner squirrel who flits about making sure I’ve got the full lay of the land… so, am I allowed to have a panther-squirrel?” Firstly, yes 100% it’s okay to have a combination of animals. Secondly, I think it’s probably a feeling quite a few of us can relate to. I know for me on the surface I may look calm and composed but really on the inside my own ‘inner squirrel’ is chasing around gathering all my thoughts and putting them into an orderly fashion.
Emily felt her spirit animal would be a bear as they represent a protector and symbolize courage and leadership. She added: “I love that bears hold many contradictions – on the one hand, they love the simple things in life – sunshine, sweet food and sleep whilst on the other they are fierce; a symbol for warrior and power.” Having worked with Emily for a several months now, I see a lot of these qualities in her – although I haven’t seen any bears hiding in the office stationery cupboard!
I was intrigued to find out more about was how these amazingly talented, extremely busy ladies manage or take steps to achieve a work life balance. Fiona suggested being focused on work at work and focused on life when out of work seems to help her. She said: “The boundaries blur at times, but that is okay. I’ve also learned to ask for help when I need it and a 15-minute focused tidy up at home and work each day helps to keep things in order.”
Rebecca on the other hand wasn’t sure if it’s something that’s possible as a business owner. “We can put strategies in place, make rules about when we do and don’t work – and at times I feel like I have it all sorted. But in reality, there are ebbs and flows of intensity in business (as there are in life!), and the best I’ve ever managed to do is to roll with them and forgive myself for the balance going off-kilter.” She also explained how becoming a parent helped her set boundaries: “There was this little person who needed me and wasn’t going to understand that I just had to finish a document first.” Although Kirsty doesn’t think she’s got the whole work life balance thing down to a T – she did promise to let me know when she had – which I am going to hold her to!
As we mark International Women’s Day, I was keen to find out if they thought there were any challenges facing women in business today. Kirsty reverted to a recent survey they ran on behalf of a client which asked whether business owners had ever rejected a woman of maternity age, even if they were the right candidate for the job. She said: “The results showed that men and women were nearly as bad as each other — with a total of 44% of businesses admitting they had actively done this. For me, this indicates a huge challenge for women to overcome as, whether you are looking to have children or not, businesses are running scared of the pressures that maternity can bring, and this level of discrimination is still rife at a pretty high level.”
Francesca showed appreciated for the juggling act between motherhood and a career: “You are constantly switching hats throughout the day, never mind the working week.” She stressed how businesses need to be flexible and supportive wherever they can. She also mentioned her husband and his experience of working in a large company: “He was the first employee to take up the chance to share the parental leave when we had our second baby and take 3 months off in 2017. To me that shows people are some way off sharing the pressures of balancing parenthood and career.”
Getting the balance right between parenting and career seemed to be the topic of conversation with regards to challenges. Rebecca explained how she is aware that the mothers working at Fountain have external pressures on them – whether that’s having to leave exactly on time for childcare or having to drop everything when a little one is unwell. She said: “I saw a comic strip that explained it well – that there is actually a luxury to being able to choose to work late; it means that when you are stacked with a large workload you can regulate the intensity with which you work. But if you have to leave exactly on time, the only thing you can do is to power through, which can also mean missing out on opportunities to get involved in exciting projects.”
When I asked Francesca if she could name 2 of the key things which have helped her get to where she is now, she responded: “Moving from London to Norwich, scary to make the leap but best decision ever. Saying Yes to offers of responsibility even when unsure of my capabilities – trust others if they say you can do it.” For Fiona it was the support of her family and always giving it a go. Rebecca’s were coffee (she is a coffee addict) and working with people she both likes and respects, but who are also different from her. She said: “The four directors at Fountain sit right across the personality spectrum – from hyper-organised and details-oriented, to visionary and big-picture focused. The diversity of approach among us has been crucial to our success.”
As this piece is about people I find inspiring, I thought we would finish on who has inspired my ‘Wonder Women’ in the past. Kirsty replied: “I’ve just watched a documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg — what an amazing woman she is! She’s top of her field and has trail-blazed important change for women in the US in her long career which is massively impressive. But then when you understand that at the same time, she nurtured an incredibly loving and supportive relationship with her husband and two children. I walked away from that documentary feeling like I’d just learnt about an actual, real-life super woman.”
For Francesca, her mum has always been her biggest inspiration: “Although she died before I was married and had children, she taught me a lot about being a working mother by being the one to go out to work while my dad stayed at home and did the school run. She inspired me to build a career that I enjoyed and not give up on all my dreams just because I was the mother and not the father. She also had a great sense of humour and had lots of fun.”
I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank Francesca, Rebecca, Kirsty, Fiona and Emily for agreeing to be part of this piece in honour of International Women’s Day. Thank you very much for the lovely words and amazing advice, which I hope others reading this will find it encouraging and uplifting.