To celebrate International Women’s Day we interviewed SOLGM CE Karen Thomas, a self-confessed ‘big bossy sister’ who cut her teeth on bossing her younger brother and sister around when she was growing up before landing her first management role at age 31.
For the past 7 years, Karen has been at the helm of SOLGM as the CE taking responsibility for fulfilling SOLGM’s vision to promote and support professional excellence in local government.
We asked Karen about some of the challenges facing women in leadership and what advice she had for aspiring female leaders:
What have been some of the challenges of being a female leader?
“I never thought of myself as a female leader, just a leader. My parents were the early version of ‘girls can do anything’. My first experience of leadership was at Brownies, then I was Head Girl at high school. My first experience of gender discrimination (‘girls can’t do everything’) came in my first job and profoundly shaped how I’ve gone about being a leader. I had found a training course that I really wanted to go to and went to my supervisor to get approval and he said “no”, much to my surprise! He thanked me for finding such a good course, but he didn’t see why he would waste money on me - a 25-year-old female at the time who might just go off and have babies. Instead he sent one of the guys from the organisation instead. I was stunned!” It was in the same workplace that people used to ask a colleague’s wife, who was a doctor, if she was a “woman doctor” and she used to reply “no, I treat men too”!
So, I’ve always strived to think about what I enable as a manager, and as a leader. Being the eldest in my family meant I ‘cut my teeth’ on a younger brother and sister, but I quickly learnt that you get nowhere just being ‘bossy’ and telling people what to do. Learning to persuade, paint a vision, consult and compromise are the essential ingredients, ‘bringing people in’ rather than ‘going it alone’. And it all sounds so much easier than it is, because I think we still have a view of a leader as the person out the front telling others what to do.
Have you had mentors that have encouraged you along the way?
“I’ve been really lucky and had some great mentors. For the first 20 years of my working life, all my mentors were men. When you looked up that’s all there was, there weren’t really a lot of established female leaders. Now when I look behind me, there are way more women. I think there’s been a generation of us that have helped changed the proportion of female leaders. It’s not just about gender though – it’s a whole range of factors. I heard somebody once say this ‘if you are thinking of a garden, would you choose a garden that’s a cacophony of colours, shapes, sizes and smells – a really multi-floral, multi-height, multi-scented garden – or would you choose a garden that was just red roses? Red roses are beautiful but after a while, just red roses are a bit boring. We need to think of our work places and our communities as the multi-floral pictorial”
What advice do you have for aspiring female leaders?
“A lot of women who have leadership potential doubt themselves and are afraid to take that first step. I liken it to standing on a 9-metre diving board and thinking ‘I just can’t jump off and dive into the water’. You must ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ (with thanks to Susan Jeffers). The first time is the worst, but you never completely get rid of that fear. The ‘Confidence Code’ by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman was recommended to me by a coach and I would really recommend that book to others. I think confidence and leadership do go hand in hand. The biggest thing is just to be yourself – don’t feel like you have to mould yourself into something you’re not – just be yourself and be authentic”.
What can organisations do to help support females in leadership positions and aspiring leaders?
“Organisations need to have people in senior positions with an orientation towards looking out for young leaders – female leaders as well as male leaders. I think it’s true that we unconsciously look for people who look like us, so people in senior positions must create a pipeline that looks different to them. The more diversity we create in an organisation, the more likely that we are going to continue to diversify and embrace the fact that we are all different. By being different we’ve all got something different to contribute. Leaders who have ‘made it’ need to keep looking out for who’s coming behind and encourage them, nurturing them because it is scary sometimes and you just need someone there to say ‘I think you can do this’ – we need to pay it forward”