Elizabeth Fagan shares her life lessons learned as Boots' first female managing director
A view from Elizabeth Fagan

Elizabeth Fagan shares her life lessons learned as Boots' first female managing director

The former marketer who cracked general management looks back on her illustrious career as she prepares to leave her role.

I am currently the managing director of Boots but am about to step out of my full time executive role and into a new non-exec career from September. As the first female managing director of Boots in 170 years, and a long standing member of WACL, I’m often asked what my big break was. Did I have an epiphany moment, a dramatic declaration to the world that changed everything?

This article is my attempt to look honestly at career success, for individuals and for companies. Having read it, you might realise, like me, that the slow and steady route to success is more common than the big leap, the breakout moment.

I started my career over 35 years ago as a high school chemistry teacher in my native Scotland, joining Boots as a buyer in 1983, then spent 14 years at Dixons Group before moving back to Boots. I’m one of 11 children and I never imagined that someone of my background would have the opportunity to lead a brand that is as valuable and trusted as Boots.

Putting the Boot in

The fact that I’m the first female managing director of Boots tells you that the world has changed. But I’m not the most senior woman at the company, nor the most senior woman in the history of Boots. Florence Boot, wife of founder Jessie Boot and pioneering force behind the Boots brand, achieved huge leaps forward for women in the workplace. Here’s a taste of what she believed and acted on in 1913:

"We parents have all had some shocks in the last few years, but have managed to survive them, and many of us have even come round to the modern’s girl point of view and feel that she is quite right in wanting to be emancipated from the hard and fast rules and conventions laid down for us from a past generation of careful and devoted mothers."

Florence was a Suffragist and how she went about achieving change truly matches my own ethos. I think it is appropriate in the 100th year since some women got the vote that, earlier this year the members of WACL voted to adopt a new purpose. We agreed that WACL’s purpose is to accelerate gender equality in communications and marketing via ample doses of inspiration, support and campaigning.

Someone said to me a long time ago that no one will ever care more about your career than you and therefore all individuals should care for themselves as well as each other

For WACL, this means grasping some tough nettles. Britain has one of the widest gender pay gaps in Europe and marketing has some way to go to create better gender equality. In this sector, women hold less than a fifth of senior roles at UK companies, and experience an average gender pay gap of 14%. A recent salary survey proved this by showing that women in marketing still earn less than their male counterparts in every single role, except that of marketing assistant.

In the modern Boots things are a little brighter. Almost 80% of our staff are women, and our customers are 80% female. In the past ten years the number of females in all parts of the business has dramatically shifted. At a leadership level, 50% of our store directors are female, our managing director for the Republic of Ireland is female and my fellow WACLer, Helen Normoyle, is marketing director.

But I know that many companies have work to do to embed diversity and inclusion into the heart of their businesses, and the time for them to do this is now. Many businesses are taking the opportunity through gender pay gap reporting to hold the mirror up to their organisation, and look at where they can improve equality. The exercise has got boards, shareholders, customers and employees talking about pay but good employment practice is about much more than ‘just’ pay – it’s about hiring equitably, paying equitably and offering equitable opportunities to advance. Positive action on all these issues is key.

Entering a plural phase

I truly believe that every individual has accountability for their own career. Someone said to me a long time ago that no one will ever care more about your career than you and therefore all individuals should care for themselves as well as each other. I firmly believe in meritocracy and I recognise that as part of meritocracy we need to balance gender and diversity within the people at the top, determining the right parameters upon which opportunities are made. If that balance at the top changes, more women will succeed.

As the president of ISBA I am working to understand how we as marketers, create an environment in which all marketers – regardless of background, gender or ethnicity – can move our businesses forwards confidently. Marketers should have a strong voice and I’m delighted that our work at ISBA to champion the freedom for marketers to advertise responsibly ties in closely with WACL’s newly defined purpose.

Taking us back to where I started and the career change that I find myself going through, I genuinely see my next move into a plural phase not as a precarious leap but as a steady bridge that I’ve slowly and deliberately built over time. No, it doesn’t make for a dramatic story for the film of my life.  But it’s much more likely to last.

Elizabeth Fagan is senior vice president, managing director, Boots, IISBA president, non-executive director of Brambles and a proud member and past president of WACL