Inspirational business leaders: Behaviour over bank balance

Start-up founders tend to choose role models based on their media profile. Here's why you should learn from the hard working women that get things done quietly and out of the limelight, rather than the media darlings.

If you want to take your career or business to a new level this year, role models can be useful sources of inspiration. Seeing women achieving in business reminds us all that glass ceilings are there to be broken; these high profile females are living proof that anything is possible.

However, simply coveting other women’s achievements is not the answer to attaining your own career goals – identifying the behaviours and values that took them to the top is the real way to emulate their success.

Victoria Beckham and Katie Price have made their own way financially, but what will their legacy be and have they really helped other women understand how to overcome obstacles and prejudice?

So says Sue Nelson, CEO of successful tax relief consultants Breakthrough Funding and enthusiast champion of women in business. Sue is a Tech London Advocate who passionately believes in the power of females and wants to see more women succeeding in traditionally male-dominated industries, such as science, technology and engineering.

“When you ask women about their role models, often they will choose someone who has a high profile in the media rather than someone who has achieved amazing things quietly, against all the odds,” Sue said. “For example, Victoria Beckham and Katie Price have made their own way financially, but what will their legacy be and have they really helped other women understand how to overcome obstacles and prejudice? I do worry that too many young women want to appear on The Apprentice or X-Factor as a route to their dream career. The reality, though, is that sustainable success is about hard work, dedication and hard lessons learned.”

Financial aspirations and a clear vision to achieve success are vital to any business venture – Sue’s company achieved a profit and hit her £1 million turnover target just over a year after its 2015 launch and is on track to reach her next goal of £2.5 million by the end of 2017. However, she believes that success in business is not just inspired by other people’s achievements, but by their values and actions; it’s not just about what they have done, but how they have done it too. This is a philosophy that is reflected in her own choice of role models, some of whom are highlighted below.

1. Dame Stephanie Shirley, IT pioneer and philanthropist, who founded software company Freelance Programmers in 1962 and employed female software specialists.

“She was probably the first woman to get into technology, but she was really up against it – she had to call herself ‘Steve’ because no one would answer the phone to a woman and certainly not to a woman at the cutting edge of new technology,” Sue said. “She gave away shares to the very people who had helped make her business a success: her staff, creating 70 millionaires. She employed women in top roles, introduced job sharing and pioneered women in business, even though at the time, the law dictated she could not set up a bank account in her own name. In those days you could only have a bank account if you were a man. Dame Stephanie came to Britain as a five-year-old refugee saved from persecution as a Jew; she became the mother of an autistic child, took her company public and has given away more than £67 million of her personal wealth to charity. What a talented lady, with a huge legacy that I truly respect.”

2. Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmental political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Wangari was persecuted for most of her adult life, but refused to give in. She really wanted to help other women and give them status in their local community. She looked at a difficult problem and came up with an ingeniously simple way of solving it,” Sue said. “Through Envirocare and the Green Belt Movement, she encouraged women to find a focus by planting trees across Kenya and paying them a small amount for every seedling they planted. It was a really good, sustainable model, helping women to improve lives by making a connection between their daily problems and the challenges facing the environment. Although a controversial figure, she has made a real and lasting contribution to women’s rights and ground level business in Kenya. For her pains, her husband divorced her because she was too strong-minded and he was unable to control her!”

3. Theresa May, Conservative MP and Prime Minister of Great Britain.

“I do not really agree with many of the political views of Theresa May,” Sue said, “but I admire her steely calmness under pressure and the way she has coped with personal criticism. Politics is the toughest and nastiest game of all. As Home Secretary, you cannot possibly imagine the issues and problems that lay at her desk: security, terrorism, immigration, drug smuggling, law and order. Many things we know about, but even more we don’t. The Daily Mail’s approach to all this was not to discuss how good she was at her job, but to run stories about the clothes she wore and the shoes she chose. It doesn’t matter who you are; the misogyny, injustice and pettiness of this month after month must still hurt.”

Sue adds: “There is much criticism about the government’s attempts at dealing with Brexit. But it seems that Theresa is quietly getting on with this monumental task, refusing to be baited by the media and working with a team of similarly quiet and focussed individuals – Boris Johnson aside, of course! While Ed Balls, George Osborne and dozens of others proactively sought out time on TV and radio over the last five or six years, tearing chunks out of each other and scoring childish political points, I prefer our MPs and ministers to be calm and measured and get on with the task in hand.”

These are three exceptional and high profile women, but how do ‘ordinary’ females draw on these role models when conducting their own professional lives?

“I’m inspired by these women because they all, in their own way, have got on and really achieved tangible things, not just talked about it,” Sue said. “A lot of business people and so-called management consultants and business ‘gurus’ talk up what they can do and make a lot of noise, but I’m not interested in them. I employ people who are modest, passionate and can solve problems. To succeed in business, you need to concentrate on what really matters and resist the temptation to be drawn into politics or other people’s battles. If you’re good at what you do, your work will speak for itself. As Steve Martin once said, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”

Praseeda Nair

Kellen Rempel

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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