“Building relationships with others is probably the most fundamental ingredient to your career success.” Vanessa Vallely in Heels of Steel: Surviving & Thriving In The Corporate World (2013)
Vanessa Vallely OBE is founder of award-winning WeAreTheCity.com, WeAreTechWomen.com and their offshoots (nine different websites, numerous conferences and awards, 120,000 women and 120 corporate clients, seeking to ‘attract, develop and retain their female talent’). She is now ‘one of the UK’s most well-networked women’ and a ‘prominent figure in gender equality’. Here Vanessa shares her perspectives on and for women aiming to reach the top in business.
WeAreTheCity And The Power Of Relationships
In 2008 Vanessa searched – in vain – for information for ‘women like her’ looking to progress in their career. Finding very little, she dreamt up an idea to plug the gap: a ‘working women’s website’ with a newsfeed, features, events and details of UK-wide women’s networks. WeAreTheCity was born, starting out as “a passion project” that Vanessa ran alongside her corporate career in banking.
“As it grew as a community, my love for it grew, so much so that every time I worked on WeAreTheCity or gender I felt the fire in my belly again.”
Two years later Helena Morrissey set up the 30% Club, which brought gender onto the agenda at the top and has catalysed progress since. “From very few people championing female progression, there are now many amazing organizations wanting to help women achieve parity.”
There still remains “a big gap in attracting female talent” but, Vanessa believes, “If women want to enhance their careers that lies within them; it’s not necessarily the responsibility of their line managers and their firms; there’s a lot that we can do ourselves.”
Vanessa cites networking as a fundamental part of her own success and actively promotes it through the WATC websites and her own speaking engagements. She is keen to redefine ‘networking’ as ‘the art of developing key relationships’.
“You won’t get anywhere fast without people to support you. Invest time in building your network, helping people you meet and making real connections – not just transactional swapping of business cards. See it as business development for your own career.”
The Confidence Trick: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
“Confidence is an interesting one. As children we are born with confidence, however our life experiences chip it away over time. Individuals plant seeds in our heads about what we are or are not good at. We grow those seeds until they become ‘a thing’. I once had a colleague who told me I couldn’t write. I harboured that as a truth for many years. Later I took great pleasure in sending him a copy of my book, signed ‘lots of love from the girl who couldn’t write’.
“Sometimes you have to put your earmuffs on, because the opinions of others are just noise. You are the judge of your own capability. Confidence also comes with age and maturity, as you develop stability and security.
“One of the biggest things that can hold people back is imposter syndrome; middle-class men suffer from it too. Recognizing it is key. Early in my career it stopped me taking risks, as I talked myself out of many opportunities. I now ignore the voice in my head shouting, ‘What if it goes wrong?’ I have learnt to change the tune to, ‘What if it goes right? What’s the worst that could happen?’
Furthering The Gender Agenda
“I believe if we are to achieve true parity for women, we need men on the journey. Of the 85 women’s networks we work with through Gender Networks, almost 30% have rebranded to more gender-inclusive names because they’re trying to include more men. There are many senior men who want to help achieve gender parity but are not sure how. We give men a voice through our interviews, we invite them onto our panels: we need them at the table. It is also important that they see the challenges women face both at work and at home. And when we talk about health and mental health – whether babies, menopause or sleepless nights – men are on the end of that too. There are troubles for all of us as we go through life’s journey regardless of gender.
“I truly believe it will take both men and women working together to achieve gender parity and what better time to start than now. Let’s not wait the 202 years predicted by the World Economic Forum for a better and more equal world for women.
Vanessa’s FIVE TOP TIPS For Women Who Want To Make It In Business
- Grow your networks. Invest your time in meeting other people and also connecting the people that you meet. Give first, receive later.
- Think about your digital story. We all leave crumbs on the internet. What social media are you using? What is your brand online? What’s your online story?
- You don’t need a senior job title to act like a leader.Exhibit leadership behaviours – passion and empathy – you can be a leader long before you run a team.
- Seek out multiple mentors and find your sponsors. Find people who will open up opportunities for you when you’re not in the room. Do the same for others.
- Look after your mental health and wellbeing. “Ambition and being the best you can be is great, but don’t forget to look after the engine that is driving the bus.” It is impossible to be everything to everyone.