Women in Law

The journey to the top of a profession is often accepted as being a lonely one, particularly for women. It is one that involves fighting the status quo in small and big ways every day at every step of the way. The perception of the unapproachable, uncompromisingly independent woman going it alone persists in popular culture, and still permeates into real life. Rather sadly, a detailed study by HBR of female CEOs across industries found that most respondents expected little or no support both at home and at work, relying only on themselves to get to where they wanted to be.

Is this the harsh reality, and are there actions ambitious women (and men) can collectively take to change the picture? Obelisk Support places great importance on providing a support network for our consultants, and seeking opportunities to connect with leaders and mentors in the legal field. We believe no woman should have to go it alone while carving out a successful career in law. Here is some advice on creating better support networks for aspiring female leaders.

Advocate for Yourself – and Others

Forming a network that supports your efforts to move up and provide greater value to an organisation and/or clients often means speaking up that little bit louder about what you are doing, rather than waiting and hoping for people to notice and to care. We are all too often reluctant to self-promote – a trait that is more likely to be seen as negative in a woman than it would be from a man. However, female CEOs interviewed by HBR described how self promotion coupled with internal acceptance of their leadership ambitions ‘unlocked their ability to take charge of their own development: seeking out stretch assignments, learning on the job, and learning from the people in their networks.’

Of course, it is easier said than done. If you find the idea difficult, one place to start is with your social media posts. See it not as self advocacy or promotion, but as your story to tell. Sharing the highs and lows of your career journey within an online network can help you become more comfortable about selling your strengths and your ambitions in the workplace.

An important part of advocacy is holding up other people as examples and supporting them too. That can include people you work with, people you know, or people outside of your circle whose work you admire. The more you make a habit of talking about the efforts of others, people are more likely to take interest in and rally round those of your own.

Nurture Informal Support Networks

Your career support network must not simply consist of professional associates – your family and friends also play a significant part. Aoife Flood, Senior Manager of the Global Diversity and Inclusion Programme at PriceWaterhouseCoopers identifies support networks as a series of circles – personal support and advocacy as the widest circle, then professional and workplace, with you the self-advocating individual at the centre.

As a mother and a member of a family or partnership, you cannot get to where you want to be in isolation. Sometimes, this will involve difficult conversations at home about expectations and roles within the family environment. Sharing the emotional labour load is a challenge for many professional women, so be honest about what support you need. Outside of the family, talk to your friends about ambitions and life goals on a regular basis – when you are going through a difficult patch you need the people who know you best to reaffirm your aspirations and offer an outside view on what can help you get there.

Ask Directly for Help

Women in male-dominated spaces such as law are often so used to being grateful for what they have managed to do, in spite of the obstacles, that they forget that they have a right to lay out their long term goals and to tell people what they would really like to achieve beyond what they have already accomplished. They also fear that asking for support may be perceived as weakness or entitlement. But those who have succeeded in their career path didn’t get there without asking others for assistance – from departmental improvements to formal or informal mentorship, sometimes the support is there waiting for us, we just need to take a deep breath and ask for it. That’s a sign of strength, not weakness: female CEOs interviewed by HBR in 2017 showed a higher level of humility and a willingness to learn and improve on the job, ‘[demonstrating] the ability to harness the power of others to achieve needed results, and the recognition that no one person defines the future of the company.’

The response you receive will also give you a definitive answer either way as to whether the environment you are working in is where your talents will be nurtured and valued, or whether it is time to seek a new direction.

Stick to Your Core Values

Resist the temptation to emulate the paths of others and try to completely match the habits of high profile career gurus or influencers – they do of course have some nuggets of wisdom, but ultimately you can only build support networks when people have genuine belief in your authenticity and motivations. If you are not sure of yourself, your values and what drives you, it is harder to align with like-minded people and articulate what you need and what you want. Remember ,your success isn’t someone else’s perception of what success looks like, it is getting where you want to be.

With that in mind, it is important not to force relationships – as per the advice in our article on networking, go in with a genuine desire to meet and learn from others.

You are responsible for your own success, but that doesn’t mean you always have to do it solo. There will be times when the guidance and encouragement of others will be crucial, so keep yourself open to support networks around you. If you are in need of some inspiration, here are some quotes from women who succeeded – in their own way, on their own terms, but by no means in isolation…

What Female Leaders Have to Say

“No matter who we are or what we look like or what we may believe, it is both possible and, more importantly, it becomes powerful to come together in common purpose and common effort.” 

Oprah Winfrey – philanthropist, actor, broadcaster, entrepreneur… the list goes on for the woman who sees nothing as being out of her reach

“To me, leadership is about encouraging people. It’s about stimulating them. It’s about enabling them to achieve what they can achieve – and to do that with a purpose.”

Christine Lagarde, french lawyer, politician and MD of the IMF has never been afraid to speak about the reality of being a woman in a male-dominated space

“I try to seek out and surround myself with people who just percolate fresh, original, and creative ideas.”

Martha Stewart – former stockbroker and model, who created a media empire around her cooking and home improvement talents

“Lead by example: support women on their way to the top. Trust that they will extend a hand to those who follow.”

Mariela Dabbah – author and career consultant, and founder of the Red Shoe Movement and Latinos In College, Dabbah uses her platform to support women and Hispanic people on their path to success

“I do have something to say that others will value, whether they are men or women. The first step is really knowing when to speak and the second step is to speak up because it really makes a difference.”

Barbara Humpton – U.S. CEO of Siemens. She has held senior leadership roles at other major technology firms, including Lockheed Martin, and Siemens Government Technologies, which works with the federal government on energy and infrastructure projects.
Making Work, WorkWomen in Law

Networking is a term that many people have an uneasy relationship with. Most of us want to seem enthusiastic and interested in the opportunity to schmooze with influential peers, but let’s be honest – for most of us, the idea of networking leaves us filled with a sense of dread. For lawyers, more comfortable in front of a screen than in a room full of strangers, networking is an essential business skill to master.

The problem lies in the idea we have of networking. The term has become somewhat tainted, but networking is still a valuable part of your personal development – and it doesn’t have to be an awkward bragging exchange. To truly gain value from networking, it’s important to think #humanfirst (like we do at Obelisk Support) – go in with genuine desire to learn, meet like-minded peers and be ready to talk about you, your life passions and goals. Here are some alternative networking tips from The Attic to help you learn to love the process…

Breaking the Ice – Introductions

Quite simply – don’t overthink it! A simple “Hello, I’m…” and smile goes a long way. If you are attending a talk or seminar as them what they thought of the discussion and take conversation from there. You don’t need to offload your career history; listen first: Ask them who they are, where they’ve travelled from, what brings them here and reciprocate with answers of your own.

Remember to say your full name! Why? Well first, so you can be distinguished from the two other Sophies in the room, and it also makes it more likely for people to commit your name to memory. When it comes to work talk, don’t just provide a job title and company name – briefly explain exactly what it is you do and why it interests you.

Don’t ‘Work the Room’ – Work With People

Aggressive and obviously strategic tactics to get around to everyone you might think is of influence are an immediate turn off. As always in life, authenticity is key. Don’t try to be something you are not or what you think people want you to be. Whatever level you are at, you are in the process of building yourself up – just like everyone else in that room, whatever level they are at. So be open and honest, and focus on the quality of connection, rather than quantity.l If you are worried about coming across as insincere or if it all still seems too contrived, listen to these anti-faking networking tips from Marie Folero:

– Networking is lifelong practice, see it as a regular habit not just a performance at an event

– Be totally present with each person you are speaking to, it’s not about getting around to the next person

– Be honest about your availability and don’t make promises you can’t keep

– If you have discussed follow up contact/further introductions, take action right away instead of waiting

Providing Value and Gaining Value

You need to ask yourself not just what you are looking for but what you can offer. As previously mentioned, you shouldn’t have to promise the world or pretend to be what you are not – just show yourself to be genuinely interested and motivated by your work. You want to hear about what interests and motivates people and their passions, rather than a list of achievements or a job title. Others will feel the same. This is the foundation of real connections in work and life – the mutual sharing of ideas and inspirations and telling the story of what led us to where we are today.

This TED event talk on active networking talks about how most of us have the wrong idea and approach to networking. He provides some tongue in cheek observations on how we make snap judgements based on appearance, and explains how we often overlook the real value of meeting people and getting to know them, no matter how much ‘relevance’ we think they might have.

Cement Those Connections

Of course, it’s all very well having great, energising conversations at an event, but what should you take away from that? If you feel you have more to learn from and/or teach a person, you need to make sure you establish follow up contact. So ask outright: ‘Where can I find out more about you and your company? ‘Do you use Twitter?’ ‘Can I send you an email with more information?’ Some people don’t hand out business cards anymore. They just connect with you on LinkedIn on the spot.

If you do use business cards (and nice stationery is memorable in many ways) don’t consign those business cards to an elastic band and a dusty drawer, as Mark E. Sackett says! Track and log the contacts you meet – use an online address book, or Outlook, and be sure to add notes of interest that you learned about them while talking to them. This will help to prompt you to include conversational points in your follow up emails, and keep the rapport going.

Where to Network – Offline and Online

There is the question of how useful large events created especially for networking really are. For example, this article on abovethelaw.com advises against them, saying “Instead, go to things that matter. Go to talks and seminars and presentations that are actually about something (besides “networking”).” It all goes back to the question of why you are there; if it’s not going to be of real value to you as an individual it’s not worth doing. The best events to go to are the things that genuinely interest and excite you – as that will ensure you bring the best version of yourself to the occasion. It could be better, then, to make a pledge to regularly attend industry relevant talks and speaking events where the opportunities to network are the side product, not the focus aim. Consider more informal soft skill focused groups – eg Toastmasters, which have a relaxed atmosphere to help build confidence and public speaking skills. Offering yourself up to speak at events is another way of creating more opportunities for networking, so it’s something to consider if you haven’t done it so far!

Remember you can also network online – social media used to be more commonly referred to as social networks after all, so it is time to take it back to basics. Check out our article on managing your presence on LinkedIn for online networking tips.

The bottom line is it’s not just about broadcasting yourself. Think of social media as an ongoing networking event – as intimidating as that sounds it doesn’t mean you have to be posting and messaging people all day long (those are habits that will very quickly get you muted/unfollowed anyway!). It simply means your social media are an open channel which you need to use regularly and interactively to discover and nurture relationships.

Finally, if you can’t find the right group or event for you – create your own!

Sometimes, things simply won’t happen unless you create the opportunity for yourself, so if you see a lack of events or online groups that fit your current situation – be that as a freelance lawyer, someone who is returning to work or is in the middle of a career change – it’s time to make it happen. With online platforms such as Meetup it’s easy to set up a small monthly lawyers breakfast/lunch group in your local area.

Get out there, relax and happy schmoozing!

Women in Law

As October and Black History Month comes to an end, Debbie Tembo reflects on her career journey and the importance of identity and diversity in her work.

Life in Cape Town

I grew up in the beautiful Mother City of Cape Town in South Africa. I went to the University of Cape Town to study a BA in Cultural and Literary Studies with a major in Film and Media Studies. I became really interested in marketing and brands, which lead me to study a postgraduate diploma in marketing management for another year.

From a young age I have always been the child that would push boundaries, whether it be convincing my parents that I absolutely needed to go on a Gap Year straight after school (which had never been done in our family) or being the first black prefect at high school or being voted “most likely to succeed” in my postgrad class at university. Our family was the very first black family to move into a fairly well to do white suburb in Cape Town, circa 1993 (very shortly after the release of Nelson Mandela). My dad was the head of an international seafaring NGO, which meant that I was surrounded by people of such different and international backgrounds to me, and this has fuelled my subconscious distancing of homogenous groups from an early age. My parents, like most black folk are religious people, but what they imparted to me more than religion was a deep sense of spirituality and authenticity, and I carry that in my professional life. I would definitely forego business if it meant that I needed to act against my better judgement and compromise my integrity. Authenticity is such an important value to me and when you’re a black female professional, I think it matters more.

British American Tobacco – From Cape Town to London

I was recruited into British American Tobacco’s global graduate recruitment training programme where, after an 18 month program, I was successfully offered my first managerial role. Despite a heavily male-dominated industry and work environment, I did well in my roles and it was clear that I was on a fast track path within my career. I had great support from sponsors and mentors within the business and I benefited from a strong coaching culture in the business. Interestingly, my sponsors, mentors and coaches were all men who believed in shifting the balance of female representation in business and they gave their best in support to myself and the many more talented women in the business.

Debbie at a British American Tobacco innovation conference

I also studied for an Honours degree during this time in Communication Science. As a result, in 2006 I moved with my husband to London on secondment to work at the global HQ in a new area of marketing within the business that was focused on innovation and how to do things differently, more efficiently and essentially push the boundaries in marketing. Here, I was the youngest member in the global marketing team and again, I got a massive amount of support – you don’t succeed in such an environment without being good at what you do and having bosses that have your back at every turn. After a year of piloting an innovation process globally, it was time for the next challenge, the one that ultimately lead me to bow out of corporate.

Taking a Corporate Break

My next role involved me being based in London, but travelling across the Middle East and Africa region every 2 weeks in a team that was just not ready to embrace different ways of working and challenging the status quo. The travel became too much and ultimately, I became someone in this role that was so far away from my core and who I am as a person that I was deeply unhappy.

After exploring alternatives to this role and personally deciding that I wanted to stay in London, I decided to leave BAT and take some time out for me. I don’t think anyone could really wrap their heads around why I would leave a promising career because of some sort of identity crisis, but it felt like the right decision. In that time I had my first child and 2 years later, my second and I was privileged to spend 6.5 years of their young lives mothering them.

During those years, I dipped in and out of work for a marketing events company, a strategic brand innovation agency, as well as partnered on a few start up businesses inputting into their marketing strategies so I was active in work in a non-conventional way, which is more common these days.

Finding a Work-Life Balance

I wanted to return to work, but I knew that I wanted to come back on my own terms and I knew that this was going to be difficult until I saw an ad for an Obelisk Support Marketing Manager. I was immediately drawn to the ethos of the business and thought, I can do this. In short, I didn’t get the marketing job, but Dana felt that I could contribute to the business in a different area and here I am 1.5 years later and I think we’re doing well.

I work with a team of not only smart, but nice people and that makes such a difference to work. There is no hierarchy in our structure, everyone can contribute, try new ways of working and get on with their work in the best way that suits them, provided we are all focused on the same goals and have the will to succeed. I really enjoy that no two clients are the same, even if they’re in the same industry! Diversity is a big current in my life and has been throughout my career and I enjoy working with the different clients that we do and tailoring solutions to suit their individual needs within their respective ecosystems.

Working in the legal industry is and challenging and there is always something to learn everyday. I love that Obelisk exists to change the way of working in the industry and I’m privileged to be a part of shaping the future of legal in this way – it certainly makes for some surprising conversations, but I can honestly say that more clients are coming round to this way of working and embracing the change, which is fantastic and hugely rewarding and matters not only now, but for future generations of lawyers.

Reflecting on Work during Black History Month

Looking back on my career, I have always had roles that were focused on growing a business, a brand, a category, a service in a different way that challenges the status quo and forces a different perspective and I love that about work.

For me, Black History Month is a celebration of black excellence, of which there are many examples all around us of men and women who are doing amazing things in the world to change the status quo for the generations coming behind them. Our Obelisk CEO and Founder Dana Denis-Smith always says, “that you cannot understand the present without understanding your past” and I wholeheartedly agree. Black History Month is also an opportunity to pause in the busyness of life and take a moment to reflect on the many, what I like to call, warriors who stood up for us, who self-sacrificed for us to be where we are today.

I would simply not be here right now in this moment, if it wasn’t for the many South African freedom fighters who fought for the end of segregation, including my dad who left high school to boycott an inferior education and later went on to finish his high school as an adult and to complete a theology degree in a democratic society. Those hero men and women changed my life and made today’s opportunities in the workplace possible for me. Yes, we have a long way to go to equality, but there are enough opportunities for me to seize and make a success in business and I don’t see the fact that I am black and a woman as an excuse or a barrier to that success – it’s the fire inside that fuels my willpower to succeed!

Advice to Her Younger Self

This is the same advice that I give my daughters – if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That’s your intuition, God, the universe guiding you, trust it always. Also, don’t justify yourself to anyone to make them feel better about the decisions that you make. Wait for them to ask you and then decide if it’s worth explaining. I think women spend way too much time trying to justify themselves and their decisions when they really shouldn’t have to!

Making Work, Work

A successful career is never out there waiting to be gifted to us from a company or someone else. We forge our careers, we shape our path and it’s all down to the choices we make and efforts we put in. We will hopefully align with like minded people along the way who will offer mutual support and inspiration but ultimately our success is not waiting to be offered: we have to own our career and be accountable for what we do.

Of course, not all career choices are always freely available to us. Often we have to take the best choice presented to us in the situation we find ourselves in. But it’s important to not let those things become barriers in our minds to dampen our motivation and allow us to lose focus on where we want to get. Here are some key pieces of advice for owning your career and being accountable for your actions.

Get to know you

Perhaps the biggest part of forging a successful career is getting to know ourselves. Work ethic is something that is instilled in us from a young age, whether it is through our background or through school or early ambitions, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be worked on and nurtured. This involves not just focusing on the bigger picture of our long term goals and where we see ourselves in life, but also those daily wins. It means spending each day thinking about what drives us; those little moments that put a smile on our face, set off a mini adrenaline rush and make us want to tell our friends what we just accomplished. It means knowing what environments we work best in, what times in the day we are most productive or most efficient, and when our most creative ideas start to flow. It also means knowing our weaknesses, and more importantly, how to address them.

Recall that feeling you get after a productive, successful working day. Make that your aim every morning when you wake up. Of course you can’t predict how things will work out but going to sleep each night knowing you did the best you could throughout the day will help you sleep better and prepare for the next. It will also make the time off you get so much more satisfying!

Break down your life patterns and responsibilities

Once we are acquainted with our characteristics, we also need to examine our schedule and life patterns, allocating time that will need to be spent paying attention to children’s homework or essential personal responsibilities such as financial administration. Communicate thoroughly with clients and colleagues when things are disrupted. This means we can better avoid overcommitting or overestimating the time we have available. Pretending you don’t have a life outside of work is only going to stall your progress, as you start to lose control of your schedule and judgement of how much work you are capable of taking on and completing. It is much better to build a solid relationship with a few clients that you know you can handle, and look to carve out long term/repeat work off the back of it. Build a reputation and level of experience that allows you to command rates that represent the quality of work you will put in.

Assess where there is room for improvement

As well as looking at what we are achieving, it is important to honestly assess the areas where you could work harder and focus more attention to – and answer why this is happening. Is fear holding you back? How can you push through it? Is there something in your life that needs to change to make it easier for you to go after the things you want? Could you spend more time seeking out clients, is it time to call in a favour from someone to help you on the next step? Most of us with any level of ambition can probably admit to areas that require more proactivity on our part to take our careers to the next level.

And when things go wrong – act, don’t react.

Allow yourself space to vent emotion: talk to a confidant or write out how you are feeling in that moment. Then look at what needs to be immediately done to put things right – is an apology needed, what solutions can you present to rectify the situation or get things back on track? What steps will you take to see the solution through and ensure that a similar situation won’t occur again? Once the situation is under control, return to your page or the conversation you had previously, and talk about your role in what went wrong and ways in which you were responsible. Whether or not there were other factors at this stage are less important, the focus needs to be on you and the things that are within your own control. Then, accept it as a learning curve and move forward – as much as these occurrences are to be kept to a minimum they need to be owned as part of the tapestry of your career, just as much as the successes.

As you can see, owning your career is an ongoing process, and regular self reflection and goal assessment is necessary as we journey through life. We are all a work in progress after all.

Obelisk In Action

We were really lucky to have Terry Miller OBE talk about concrete and practical things that have made a difference in her varied and successful career, and the question was posed to our Wednesday Live audience about what has made a difference in their journey through work. Terry told us that overall, her success was borne out of realising what mattered most at the different stages in her life, not to mention making time to nurture outside interests will maintain drive and avoid burnout. She also provided some more detailed advice about keeping your career on track and forging one’s own path to success…

1. Don’t slam doors on your way out

Over the course of your professional life you are likely to have several jobs, particularly working as a freelance consultant, and will meet and work alongside many people. These people are your network, for good and bad. Ideally, your lasting impression is one that ensures they will recommend you and bear you in mind for future opportunities.

2. Maximise every encounter with physical and mental preparation

It’s vital that every time you meet or speak with someone you consider the impression you give – you may not get a second chance to remedy a less than ideal encounter.

  • Mental preparation – Anticipate what to expect. Reduce points to diagrams, read documents several times if necessary. Be concise and stick to what you know: if you don’t know something, say this early and don’t waffle.
  • Physical preparation – Choose outfits for important times as your ‘battle dress’ – comfortable, well-fitting clothes that you look good and feel confident in. Pay attention to your posture and avoid crossing your legs when seated as this folds the body in on itself. Practice a ‘superwoman’ power-pose and breathing exercises beforehand. Speak in a measured, non-rushed tone and be commanding – avoid upward inflection when making statements and you are less likely to be challenged.

3. Leadership is about managing people

No matter how brilliant you are no one ever does anything by themselves. The most important skill to learn is to surround yourself with excellent people.

  • Give constructive criticism – do so immediately, couch it in terms that this is something that can be fixed, deliver with emotion.
  • The art of really listening – Terry cited the virtue of MBWA (management by walking around). Boundaries are required for concentration and short but regular updates to ensure goals are met.
  • Be supportive under pressure – Terry said that at LOCOG they had a small soft chimp toy that was passed to those who were experiencing a bad day or difficult time as an act of team support and sympathy.

4. Position yourself for promotion

Act as if you are already there, this channels your focus and helps determine how people regard you. Terry described in the final two years before being made a partner at Goldman Sachs, how she decided to act as if she had already been appointed – not to mislead but to inform her conduct in meetings and running projects  as a partner would, with conviction and authority.

5. Take charge of your career

Think every six months about how your career is developing. People thrive if they take responsibility for their career, and drift if they expect others to do so.

6. Priorities – low-hanging fruit or tackling the hard stuff?

Terry’s personal approach is to tackle the hard topic by setting an initial hour limit to make it seem manageable.

7. The value of the early no and the sympathetic no

You need to be decisive about what you can do or not do. The longer you delay or leave your response open-ended, the more difficult it is to get out of, so an early no is vital.

The ‘sympathetic no’ is better received. Even if the answer is ‘I’m sorry I have to say no, I’ve looked at it from all angles,’ it has the benefit of being decisive and inclusive. It can be couple with a constructive end, e.g. ‘we can revisit this at another time or start from different position’.

8. The value of the second alternative

Put the option that works best  for you as a second choice when presenting options to others: ‘What would you prefer? We can either pick this up in two weeks or we can deal with it now?’ In Terry’s experience, this invariably works!

9. Be realistic about having it all

Terry discussed her own career trajectory and balancing her own life priorities as a parent as maintaining a slower longer position on the career ladder, but on her terms. Her outlook is that it is possible to have it all job, parenting or outside passions, but not all at the same time.

10. Take advantage of the unexpected and the challenge of the unknown

In 2005, Terry’s plan was to step out of partnership and focus on horse riding. However, she was invited to become the general counsel of LOCOG, the opportunity of a lifetime. This required her to accept a complete change of personal plans and go into many new areas.

Final thoughts – Mistakes and mentors

There were two particularly interesting questions from the audience: the first regarding mistakes – Terry said it was her experience that being honest and dealing with them directly is the best policy; this fosters trust and an ability to focus on solutions rather than a more unhelpful process of others finding out later.

The second related to Terry’s experience of mentoring. Ideally, this would be done by your manager, someone who wants you to perform at the best of your ability. However, she also said there was an important role of a ‘truth teller’ someone who could give more objective advice and this may be someone higher up the organisation.

Terry Miller OBE is an independent non-executive director of the British Olympic Association, a  director and trustee of the Invictus Games Foundation and a non-executive director of Goldman Sachs international bank, having previously worked as international general counsel. She was also general counsel for the London Organising of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) from 2006- 2013.