International Women's Day 2017 - Blog by Fiona Pelham

International Women's Day is an opportunity to reflect on the contribution of women to our global society and to appreciate those who take risks, show leadership and act with courage to make the vision of fair and balanced world a reality. It's also an opportunity to consider our personal contribution to the creation of a world where women are given equal opportunities for education, awarded equal pay and have equal influence in creating our future societies.

On my own journey of life in the last 12 months I've found myself in unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable situations of leadership. Whether our title is CEO, mother, manager or daughter, I believe as women we have unique opportunities to lead using traits other than those traditionally associated with the word leadership, or you could say the old fashioned traits of leadership such as dominance and fear. Traits of empathy, nurture, compassion and emotional intelligence which women demonstrate through life, no matter their title, are valuable leadership traits (and while traditionally associated with women, men can also demonstrate these traits in their leadership). The intention of this blog is to share my stories and experience to support and inspire the many groups of women who inspire me to face uncomfortable situations with more fearlessness than fear. When I think of women who have shaped history or shaped my life it's clear that being a female leader is not about being one specific way. There are many ways to lead and make a difference and sharing our stories can only inspire many more.

Thinking of daughter's everywhere gave me confidence to take action when I sat down for lunch at a conference and realised that the table of all men next to me were about to discuss a strategic business decision which I would have ultimate say on. I knew being on their lunch table to hear their rationale would help me, I knew my job title was such that I merited a place on their table, I knew they all knew that my job responsibilities were such that I should be sitting on their table to give input however it was thinking of these men as dads of daughters that made it possible for me to see beyond my frustration of their approach and be able to ask a dad of two to swap seats with me (which he immediately did). I often speak to the men I work with about their daughters because hearing them passionately champion and share their hopes for their daughter's leadership in the world is a good reminder for me that situations are often created from habits and breaking habits is always easier when you have a context for doing so. I can't think of a more powerful context for creating new habits than to support the next generation of female leaders in the world.

The power of women coming together as a positive and collaborative focus was something I have regularly experienced over the last 12 months. This experience gave me strength to choose fearlessness over fear and made it clear to me that it is only the support of a tribe that makes leadership possible. One woman told me 'we see you leading and we think of ourselves'. That statement was so powerful for me because it communicated an equal world is not just about individuals having access to equal rights, it is about individuals becoming communities, working together to create equality. In other words listening to, following and empowering a leader is just as an important a role as being the one with the title of leader.

November 2016 provided the most challenging leadership experience in my life so far and it was being emotionally intelligent that gave me ability to take action so I could lead.

Hours after the US Elections I chaired a board meeting in Florida. Leaving politics aside my personal, emotional and human reaction to the result was 'How could a strong woman with experience not be chosen over an inexperienced man who had said inappropriate  things about women'.

The US election was not a comment on my leadership in the world but the human workings of my brain could not help collapsing everything together leaving me questioning 'does the world think every female leader is too shouty', 'does the board I'm about to chair of 50% men and the mixed political backgrounds think women are less capable of leading' 'how do I empower the many women on the board who are emotionally impacted by this' and then finally 'do this board want, respect and listen to a female leader'. At 3am as announcements were being made from a stage in New York I was experiencing a crippling in my own confidence to lead which in practical terms was being caused by something that had nothing to do with me whatsoever. 

Having the emotional intelligence to recognise the spiral of negative conclusions my brain was jumping to meant I was able to reach out to a mentor to get what I needed to be able to be a balanced, compassionate leader able to paint a picture of a future of equality of opportunity.

My final story demonstrates the value of having a sense of humour. After spending days working on a blog to be sent to a community of over 17,000, after hours of pouring over my choice of words and the ordering of my messaging the following are the first 3 pieces of feedback I received:

Look how pretty you look', 'Looking lovely Fiona' 'Love this picture of you'

The irony is I had paid absolutely not attention to the picture that would accompany the blog (I hadn't even thought there would be one). I will save it for another blog to wonder about our societal instinct to tell women they look good when we are really trying to comment on their leadership (I know each of the people that made those comments are all people who would support me, no matter what I looked like!). After a year of leadership which involved a significant number of speeches, photographs and social media I have learnt to channel every comment on my shoes, hair, jewellery, make up to be a positive comment on who I am as a leader. Bringing humour to this makes it much easier- especially when I speak to the men I share the stage with and ask them the last time someone complimented them on their shoes, suit, hair!

Being a leader takes something. Being a female leader takes a little more because our society and culture isn't yet normalised to that. It's happening though and if the over 10 female interns who have been part of my business' in the last 12 months are any indication millennials are going to be a demand for equality, eager to use their female leadership traits and a force for positive change in creating an equal world.

As we celebrate this international women's day let's look to a future where a blog like this would seem strange because both men and women will be experiencing equal opportunities for education, pay and influence. A world where men and women's will both demonstrate traits of female leadership and together create a world that works for everyone.