Interview with Ali Kennedy, VP & Group Head of Tax at Sophos Group plc

March 6, 2017

Brewer Morris is proud to be supporting International Women’s Day 2017. We have interviewed a series of our female clients asking them how they have been bold for change #BeBoldForChange

Brewer Morris interviewed Ali Kennedy, VP & Group Head of Tax at Sophos Group plc.

International Womens day

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
I think the single biggest barrier to female leadership in large listed companies is senior leadership team and boardroom culture. As women become leaders, they begin to come into regular contact with the C-suite and the board. Since this is predominantly male, women often find themselves presenting their work to a group of successful and confident males who have similar backgrounds, similar communication styles and who all know each other well. If you have a different style and background which does not fit the mould then these encounters can be intimidating and unpleasant.

Many women observe the boardroom culture and do not wish to join it as they feel that they would have to transform to fit in. Others join the C-suite and leave quickly because they are largely ignored for being different or criticised for not contributing. It is difficult to contribute when you are the lone woman on a predominately male board and the style of meetings mirrors a debate in the UK parliament. Boards need a culture shake up if they are going to retain talented women. Many high achieving women feel that starting their own business is a preferable option.

Who inspires you and why?
I think that female Members of Parliament, like the late Jo Cox, are inspirational. They work in male dominated and confrontational surroundings. In the House of Commons they have to sit on benches wedged between their male colleagues, without any personal space. Imagine if we were asked to sit that close to someone at the office! Their appearance and communication style is sometimes judged on social media and in the press. These women are trying to make a positive impact for their constituents but they sometimes receive negative comments on social media. These women persevere, earn less than their peers in the private sector and do their best for the country. I wish that I had their courage.

What advice would you give aspiring women in your industry?
I work in the technology industry and this sector, in general, struggles to recruit and retain women. Women often dislike the culture and the focus on male achievements and interests. I would advise women to ‘call out’ every day sexist behaviours in this industry as they encounter them. I once experienced sitting through a sales presentation where many sports analogies and photos appeared on a slide deck and every athlete was male. I quietly asked the presenter afterwards if he was aware of any female athletes. He immediately realised what he had unconsciously done and was apologetic. His future presentations were much more balanced and were commended by female sales representatives who became more interested in the products. Women leaders have to politely intervene in these circumstances because if they do not then their inaction is sending a message that the behavior is acceptable and profitable for the business. A lack of diverse thinking is very bad for business.

What would your advice be to women who are trying to achieve their career ambitions?
Be very flexible. There will never be one career plan for life or one route to get where you want to be. Grab opportunities as they arise without over thinking them and be prepared to move on quickly if they are not delivering what you need. Many women tend to be more risk averse and stay in roles too long when they aren’t progressing and wait until they tick every box on a job spec before applying for a move. Women should be bolder and believe in their capabilities and intelligence rather than relying on already knowing how to do every aspect of the new job.

How do you achieve work life balance?
I don’t think of my work and life as two actions that have to be balanced. I also hate the term ‘juggling’. As far as I am concerned, there is no precarious balancing act or juggling where all of the batons could fall if I get it wrong. I think that women are prone to being too hard on themselves when they task themselves with trying to balance their entire life. I find it far more enjoyable to set a long-term strategy for where I want to get to and then just break the day-to-day actions down to a series of individual decisions.

It is quite easy to determine my top priority – this is fitness and health for my entire family and myself. So each of us gets time to exercise and eat well as my top priority every day. My career, kids homework and other activities slot in somewhere after that based on what is most important and urgent on that day. I find that if we are all feeling fit and well we have very high energy and concentration levels so achieving our goals becomes so much easier. I always encourage my staff to prioritise their fitness and take proper breaks to eat. On my team, stepping out to go to the gym during the working day is always an acceptable use of time.

What were the main drivers in helping you succeed in your career?
I think that it is important to have a personal development plan. Write it down and refer to it often. Mine includes both personal and career goals because I never separate my life into compartments. Once the plan is in place, don’t be afraid to share it with your stakeholders and ask for help to achieve it. If you are looking for new challenges within your organisation show them how the change will work and how it benefits them. Have a plan that makes it easy for them to say yes. I find that coaching a replacement for the areas of my current role that I wish to step out of usually helps because you are then not leaving them with the inconvenience of figuring out how the work will be covered during the transition. It also provides development for other team members.

Never be afraid of getting a refusal if you ask for a role and don’t get it. Refusals can provide valuable feedback about your own performance and the culture of the organisation. Twenty years ago, I was told that since I had a young child I would not be suitable for a role that I had applied for because I could not travel. No one had actually ever asked me to travel and my family were happy for me to do so. I got the message that I was not going any further in that organisation and the best thing that I ever did was leave.