As a female executive, I’m often asked about my career path and what advice I’d give to aspiring women.
When I started my career, I was one of a minority of women to work in the power and utilities sector. Although women have continued to make inroads into the business world and boardrooms since then, I’ve seen too many talented and qualified women overlooked for promotion along the way.
We have more work to do to make gender equality a reality, and to bring both men and women to the table so it is seen as good business sense.
So here’s my top ten tips for what women can do to fast-track their careers and make sure they – and their organizations – make the most of everyone’s abilities.
1: Build solid business skills right from the start
Pursue your interests in a way that helps you build a solid foundation of core business skills. My first role at United Utilities gave me a real insight into the world of power and utilities and helped me understand the close connection between industry and society – without water and energy the economy doesn’t work. As I progressed, I learned the significance of the political interconnection too. Learning to recognize and manage these competing interests has informed a lot of my business thinking. I now lead a team within EY that is trying to quantify the importance of consumer and stakeholder trust and help businesses to find a better balance with the traditional measurements of business performance, such as profit and growth.
2: Seek out great mentors
I count myself very fortunate to have worked with senior people who’ve been prepared to mentor and coach me. At United Utilities, the Operations Director I worked for was very honest and gave brilliant advice. He told me my next job should be his, but since I was 26 and he wasn’t moving I should go into consulting and get international experience so I didn’t lose my spark. He encouraged me to take risks, to challenge myself and grab every opportunity. That’s what propelled me on to do an MBA and move to Accenture.
After that my career took on a new dimension. Two people who really helped me get to the next level were leading partners at Accenture and EY.
Don’t assume great mentors will fall into your lap: when you connect with someone, when they see something in you that’s worth investing in, then take the initiative to develop that relationship.
3: Earn the trust of your mentors
I strongly believe that you have to be a good mentee too. This is about showing people that you are worth the investment of their political and emotional capital. You have to work hard to show the value you can bring to the team and the organization.
4: Ask better questions
I love working in a firm that asks questions and takes nothing for granted. We believe that by asking better questions, we can get better answers and unlock new solutions and opportunities. As Global Industry Vice Chair at EY, I have the opportunity to ask better questions of some of the world’s most senior and experienced business leaders and to collaborate with them to help build a better working world.
So when you’re presented with a challenge, go beyond the surface. Dig deeper. Keep asking questions until you find the direction forward.
5: Take risks and learn
What is it that holds you back from taking risks? It’s usually about fear. Analyze the situation logically, think through worst case scenarios and decide if your fears are valid. For any decision I make, my working assumption is that as long as the downsides don’t appear too big, it’s worth the risk.
Fundamentally it’s about having the confidence to keep challenging yourself and reaching for the next level. For me, leaving Untied Utilities and moving to London to work in consultancy were big decisions that not only affected my career but changed my life.
They say fortune favors the brave, and it’s only by taking risks that you earn your place in this competitive global workplace.
6: Invest in your professional skills
I chose to study for an MBA to broaden my experience. I didn’t want to specialize in a particular part of business, so the financial and strategic insights from an MBA appealed to me. I also knew that it would be a respected qualification and a chance to build my professional network. Looking back, I don’t think I could have made the move into consultancy without it.
Do further study after your undergraduate degree for the extra credentials and wider perspective it will give you. Although combining studies with a business role can be difficult, it gives you the extra edge you need when competing against the best.
7: Networking: Practice makes perfect
Women don’t always see networking as a good or useful thing to do. But I believe it’s essential to raise your visibility both inside and outside your workplace.
Be proactive and get involved: you’ll only get back what you put in. It’s not as scary as it first seems and once you begin networking, you will usually know some of the people at any event. Challenge yourself to meet at least one new person at each event and, most importantly, stay in touch with them.
I’m a member of lots of different networks which have really helped me to build contacts across industries. Some of the best are Aspire, POWERful Women, the World Energy Council and EY’s own networks. I am always on the lookout for opportunities to meet new people with interesting perspectives.
8: Encourage the men in your organization
Gender parity will only become a reality when both men and women understand its value and take action. Men have an important role to play in accelerating the pace of change and ensuring that qualified women are not overlooked or underpaid.
This is about building connections. Only by pulling together can we tackle problems such as unconscious bias and how that affects the people we network with and promote.
EY really gets this. It’s great to have Mark Weinberger as our global chairman. He’s made a real effort to address unconscious bias, clearly map out pathways to leadership for women, and develop diverse teams that can unleash innovation and offer fresh perspectives. I was lucky enough to work with Mark as part of EY’s 2020 team and learned a lot from him.
9: Get international experience
One of my biggest regrets is not going abroad early on in my career or while I was at university. Based on how interconnected and global our world has become, it’s important to take opportunities that will push you further. Learn everything you can while you’re away, and use those vital experiences and skills to push you into the roles you want.
10: Believe in yourself
In the final year of my MBA, I changed jobs, moved to London and got married. Juggling everything was stressful and seriously difficult to manage, but I was able to achieve what I wanted. You can do anything you put your mind to.
Succeeding in the business world takes a lot of hard work and ambition. It sounds trite but confidence is key: believe in your intellect, your skills, your ability to keep learning and to grow. That’s what will help to propel you ahead.
Based in London, Alison Kay is Global Vice Chair – Industry at EY, a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services. Alison’s career includes Partner and Global Sector Leader assignments with EY, as well as management positions with Accenture and PWC. Ms. Kay earned her MBA from the University of Manchester. Follow her on Twitter.