Leading by Lifting Others

Elizabeth Jenkin and her Lift as You Climb co-founder Jane Gibbon discuss doing better at diversity on the Risky Mix podcast.

The results are in: diversity brings profitability according to reports from global management consulting firm McKinsey. In their recent interview on the RiskyMix podcast, Elizabeth and her Lift As You Climb womens’ networking group co-founder Jane Gibbon discuss the importance of mentoring for career progression.

Asked what she is passionate about, Jane (Chief People Officer at London Business School), kicks off the interview:
“I have a real passion around authenticity. That is in the way I present myself, my leadership style, but also in creating workplaces where people can come and be their authentic selves. It takes way too much time and energy pretending you’re someone you’re not, when you should really be focused on delivering the best you can.”   

EJ: My passion is creating a legacy where women in insurance –or women in business generally– have less speed bumps in their careers. So how can we look at their careers and what adversity they might face during that journey, and be able to either give them the skills to knock those adversities away, or get rid of them altogether.

RM: Can you tell us a bit about your career journeys and how those passions developed?

JG: Being an HR Director, I’ve been able to see some amazing organisation evolutions, I got to participate in the AOL-Time Warner merger which is what brought me to Europe 20 years ago. It was a lot about creating the basis for people to come into the organisation, be treated fairly, that kind of thing. And then when I had my kids, what I realised was that each one of them had really special and unique gifts. So what I became increasingly passionate about was that they had a place where they could go and have a great career, regardless of their differing interests. It was really that marriage of my personal life and my professional life that really pushed me forward.

I also had a milestone birthday and was thinking about that legacy piece Elizabeth was talking about, and how much had changed for women in the workplace during my 30 some odd year career. Not that much. I reflected back with my mother, who was a headmistress, on what the progress has been. There’s been some, but I think we still hit the same stumbling points around women having to balance work and home, and the third shift that they face into. My work has been around creating great workplaces, but also this legacy, so that the women who come after have a better and more well-rounded experience. Without going through my whole CV that’s it in a nutshell.

EJ: I work in insurance and have done for 25 years. I dropped out of university and took a number of turns early on in my career. I’m not sure If I found insurance or it found me, it doesn’t really matter 25 years on. I worked in underwriting early on, and then I worked for 18 years at Aon, which I loved, and I went into reinsurance for a couple of years with a company called RFIB, which we then sold. Now I’ve gone to an insurtech disruptor. So I’ve kind of been around the houses, poacher and gamekeeper in insurance. But what I’ve felt latterly in my career was all the obstacles that were in my way. Particularly in insurance. I think we all know them, they’ve been written about a lot, and then wanting to change that for the next generation coming through. What can I do to make things better for the next generation coming through?

“It was really that marriage of my personal life and my professional life that really pushed me forward.”
– Jane Gibbon, London Business School Chief People Officer and Lift As You Climb Cofounder

RM: What has changed during your careers? 

EJ: The awareness has certainly changed. All companies have a focus on equality, whether that be gender or race and have done for about 10 years. Has it really moved the dial in terms of female leaders? I don’t think it has. The McKinsey reports are still saying that we are not on the boards of companies, in fact I think we’ve gone backwards in terms of boards of companies. I think maybe for the younger generation they might see it slightly differently, but for our generation, there are barriers to entry there. 

JG: What’s interesting is a lot of organisations –I work for a tech company, insurance companies– are really focused on making sure their graduate intakes are even between men and women. But what we find is that it’s the middle of the career. It’s kind of when people hit their mid thirties that things change and careers tend to stall. Here’s the thing, we can’t change biology, if you choose to have children you can’t help but be out of the workplace for a period of time, but those kind of breaks do start to put decelerators on your career. The research that I’ve read is that men and women view their careers very similarly. It’s when you get to your early thirties that you see things change. Most disturbingly mens’ salaries coming out of university are already 11% higher than womens’. One reason for this could be our desire to negotiate for ourselves. It’s also the traditional thing of industries where women are more prevalent being less well-paid than male dominated Industries. A friend who’s a very senior HR leader at a global brand once said to me, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. If you want more salary, squeak.  

RM: You’ve spoken about this mid-career deceleration, and both of you have children. So what are the obstacles there, and how do we remove them so women can continue on the trajectories on which they saw themselves in their mid twenties?  

EJ: If there was one simple answer we would be a lot further forward I think. But speaking from a personal point of view, pregnancy is not the only thing that might happen at the midpoint of your career. It might be caring, grief, there are lots of things that could happen. But speaking for me personally, there were people at my company that said “It’s okay, you’re really valuable”. Had those people not been in my career, I have no idea what my trajectory would have been. I’ve been told not to be grateful for those people because that’s the way that people should just behave. But actually I am grateful for those people because if I had been working for people who had gone “Oh, she’s pregnant, let’s put her on the scrapheap, she won’t be able to perform at the same level, her mind will be elsewhere…” All these things that people come up with (which is nonsense), I might have decided to step out of insurance, and go somewhere else, somewhere more progressive. And I’ve seen it happen to other people in the industry, and they have stepped out. We do see that. 

JG: I’m going to say something a bit controversial. You can’t always predict this but it’s really helpful to have a partner who’s supportive of your career. It’s really hard to predict when you’re hanging out with someone and you’re having a good time and you don’t have all the pressures of life and you don’t know what they’re going to be like in a logistics setting, with two careers, children and everything. I think Elizabeth and I are really fortunate that we have partners who have supported us. There is something about men stepping Into the space of taking up some of the responsibilities that exist outside of their paid work, making sure they do their equal share of parenting and keeping the house running. I wish we could change this record.

EJ: There were times in my career when I thought I would like to start a family, which took three years at the beginning. During that time I didn’t go for any job opportunities, I didn’t put my hand up for anything because I was worried that I’d have to tell them I was pregnant. I shouldn’t have done that. I look back now and think I really lost time there. So I would advise other women to not take their foot off the pedal. Keep going. 

JG: You’re not only losing time, you’re losing earning power. 

EJ: And pension.

“If you want more salary, squeak.”
– Jane Gibbon, London Business School Chief People Officer and Lift As You Climb Cofounder

RM: Have you had any significant mentors?

EJ: I had one and she was the one who really did the battling for us. “I’m going to come in at 10 and leave at 4 and that’s what I can give you.”: she had all those really difficult conversations twenty years before. Which segues nicely into Lift As You Climb. What can we do today that will have an impact? I think the expression is “You can’t be what you can’t see”. 

RM: How did Lift As You Climb come about?

JG: I’d love to say it was laser-focused but we actually spent about 2 years rolling the idea around with a bottle of wine, and that’s maybe why it took two years or so to get off the ground. Elizabeth and I have children around the same age, and knew lots of women around the same age who were not actively engaged in the professional world, and they kind of lost their mojo. So part of it was what could we do to utilise the skills that we have to shepherd that group of women back into work. But after testing that idea, we realised that wasn’t the place that we could best serve. The notion of learning across generations was particularly appealing to us. 

EJ: Once we started to noodle Plan B, we talked about networking events, and that when we would go to these events we would generally see the same people, they were generally about the same age as us, they were generally the same colour as us, they generally earned about the same money as us, and we talked about the same things every time, and there was no call to action. Both Jane and I are very action-oriented, so we would walk away from these events feeling a bit deflated. It was kind of nice to see people, but it wasn’t like, “Now I’ve got these things to think about that I haven’t thought about before”. We thought about the best way of doing that, and thought that family is where so much learning goes on, and family learning is intergenerational. So this is where Lift As You Climb came from. Let’s create this virtual family, where the young can learn from the old, the old can learn from the young, and we thought we’re onto something.

Another thing thrown into the mix was that [LAYC bridges] industries. One of the things that Jane is always saying, and I believe her, is that men’s careers are like ladders whereas women’s careers are like lattices: they move side to side more. So a lot of the skills really should be transferable to other industries. But we haven’t always got the bravery to do that. Or what do we need to know in order to do it?

JG: It also brings in a whole new group of role models. Here are a whole group of people who have done things differently. So how can I navigate my career with a variety of different models sitting in front of me? That’s really powerful.

EJ: And the truth is, there are loads of similar themes in our careers. So just by hanging out with insurance experts or HR experts we’re not necessarily going to solve all the conundrums that our careers throw up. I’m not dissing insurance networks, I think they can be extremely powerful, but they’re extremely powerful for insurance, they’re not necessarily extremely powerful for long-term career vision.

RM: How are you trying to do your networking events differently?

JG: One of the things we were trying to avoid is that moment when you’re served a lukewarm glass of really awful wine, and then you stand around and talk about how bad the journey was to get there (because that’s so exciting). So we pick a theme, and we inform our participants of the theme ahead of time. And we do a theatre start, so our speaker will start at 6.45. One of the reasons we do that is so that we give people [commonality]. To have listened to the same speech and be able to interact with that speaker. We do break people out into smaller groups so that they can process the speech. Our last event we did word clouds. We try to make it very interactive. This is not a place to come and sit there and be passive. Lift As You Climb is an action-orientated environment, because we all have to take action to make our careers better.

EJ: To be able to take those insights back to the workplace and do something about them the next day. That’s what we’re expecting from our cohort. That’s how change happens.

RM: What are some examples of topics you’ve put to attendees?

JG: We’ve done resilience. How you preserve resilience in difficult and normal situations. We did a long session about mentoring. How do you find a mentor, decide the ground rules for the relationship, when the relationship should be terminated, what are the appropriate boundaries. We had a great speaker, a male speaker, because a lot of those relationships are male-female, how do you make sure those relationships feel and are safe for everybody involved?

EJ: We did ‘lessons I would tell my younger self’. We had three different women from different generations doing that, which was really fascinating. No matter how young we are, we still want to tell our younger selves things. The mentoring one was really interesting because it’s really well documented how much of a difference it can make, and because in the ‘lessons I would tell my younger self’ one, they all said they would have had a mentor much earlier. It’s really important that they hear it not from us but from all of these incredible women, who you’d think ‘Oh they’ve been fine on their own’, but actually they needed someone to pull them up –lift them up– as they’ve gone through their careers.

“I would advise other women to not take their foot off the pedal. Keep going.” – Elizabeth Jenkin, CCO of Nimbla and Lift As You Climb Cofounder

RM: Are there any issues or challenges that come up that have surprised you?

JG: In the ‘lessons I would tell my younger self’, all three women had been CEOs and I think the thing that interested me was how much the things they were saying were the same.

EJ: I think one of the things that came out was the level of sexual harassment that women can be subjected to. That’s a very unpleasant one. It’s so sad. And bullying, actually, in the workplace. Just women being told they’re aggressive, and it’s not the women most of the time, it’s actually the insecurity of the person throwing the accusation. Which is one of the reasons why we did the [session on] resilience.

RM: Can you tell us about the work you are doing in the education space.

EJ: It’s still really early stages, but we’re very excited about it. We’re going to be creating content for disadvantaged young women to let them know that they too can be leaders. They may not have those role models in their lives at the moment, we can give them visible role models and mentors, as well as practical tools like CV workshops, interview workshops, personal branding, those kinds of things, over the course of a year, in order to set them up as they leave school or college. They might not want to be CEOs but they can lead in their own careers.

JG: Is a really nice way to pay back through our network because our network is all about joining women together who have started their careers, but this is a really great way to make sure we are also [address women entering the workplace]. There’s so much focus on people’s technical skills and not enough on –I hate this term but– “softer skills”, and leadership. What that means, and finding that for yourself. We’re really hoping to help individuals explore that for themselves at a relatively young age.

EJ: I was just going to add something as well. When we look at the room, we are very aware that we are very white middle class, and that’s not what we want. Obviously we want the people that are there, but we want to try and drive more diversity in the group as well. And this seems to be a great way to do it, because we’ll get people from less fortunate backgrounds into the group, and they will then pass their learnings through and down. We’re looking at social mobility as well as race, [and also] at some very cool technology to connect people to mentors and things like that. So it’s onwards and upwards for us.

You can listen to this episode of the RiskyMix podcast here, and learn more about Lift As You Climb at www.LiftAsYouClimb.co.uk.


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