This woman spent the first 15 years of her career believing her real strengths were as a team player who made sure things ran smoothly.
She was the person that helped other people do great work. And she enjoyed being the reliable fixer, the one who kept everything together and she felt valued and respected for that. Not because she was a woman, because she was really good at that sort of stuff. She was promoted into management, earned a good salary and was happy.
There were several times in her earlier career where she saw people with less experience – and, let’s face it, less ability – move ahead of her. Actually, she didn’t mind this. She wasn’t ambitious for a big title or wider acclaim. Her strengths had never been in man-marking big clients or representing the company on industry platforms (she had never had to do that). That’s fine. And we must be clear: none of this had anything to do with the fact she was a woman. She wasn’t better-suited to the back room because she was a woman. She wasn’t less overtly ambitious because she was a woman. She wasn’t better at making operations run smoothly because she was a woman. She wasn’t great at nurturing the people around her just because she was a woman.
But, but… No-one expected or demanded that she should be more than the person who made everyone else look good; she was damn useful doing exactly what she was doing and, since she was happy doing it, well, that suited everyone. And perhaps – just a maybe, you understand – her bosses didn’t have bigger expectations of her (and consequently she didn’t have them of herself) because she was a woman.
The great thing was, she spent years understanding how to make businesses run efficiently, how to structure the most effective teams, how to make other people better at what they did. And then, finally, someone came along and told her that all that experience meant she was actually the brilliant one, the one who could make the difference, the one who could lead a company. And they expected her to be able to do it. So she did. Brilliantly.
Judging the IPA’s Women of Tomorrow awards – announced this week – is always a humbling and inspiring experience. This year, more than ever, though, it was also a frustrating one. Too many amazing women in our business have stories like the one above; they have been allowed to (or have been expected to) be quietly wonderful and not feted often enough internally or on the industry stage. Thanks to the IPA for helping to change that. Tomorrow’s industry leaders might just need to be told they can.