Speaker Leonor Stjepic talked to us about her career path and the problems of being authentic as a female leader. Can you imagine how supressing your own personality can destroy you?
An award-winning charity entrepreneur, Leonor Stjepic’s career has spanned the private and not-for-profit sectors and her roles have ranged from executive to non-executive.
Since 2007, she has been CEO of the multi award-winning medical research charity – RAFT. In 2011, she created a commercial company called Smart Matrix Ltd to take one of RAFT’s inventions to market. For the first five years of the company, she was Smart Matrix Ltd’s CEO at the same time as being the CEO of RAFT.
Having stepped down as CEO of Smart Matrix Ltd, but retaining a role as it’s Senior Advisor to the Board, Leonor became Chair of London Fire Brigade Enterprises, the trading arm of London Fire Brigade -one of the largest firefighting and rescue organisations in the world.
Female Role Models
I grew up in the UK at a time when the only career choices I was offered by my teacher at school were secretary or sales assistant. I was not tall or pretty enough to be a flight attendant and it was inconceivable to the teacher that a working class woman from a non-English background could go to university and become a professional. It was also inconceivable to me as all the people I saw in positions of authority were white, middle-class men. There were no female role models until Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, by which time I had already almost completed my education. In the 1980s we saw the rise of the “career woman” in popular culture and this was a positive step forward but the stereotype was of a tough, confrontational, ruthless woman who didn’t have a social life and who gave it all up when the right man came along. The message to women was – if you want to get to the top you needed to, effectively, be a man in a skirt. Like many women of my age who worked in the city, I had to play to the stereotype.
How Supressing your Personality can destroy you
I had to be “one of the boys” because to show any of the female traits that actually make me a good leader would have been seen as a sign of weakness. That was probably the unhappiest part of my career and it also taught me a huge lesson. I was making a lot of money, more than I have ever made since, but started to get ill – just minor things like always catching colds and ended up taking so much time off that my employers sent me to a private doctor for tests. I was hugely fortunate that the doctor I saw was a woman. She gave me a myriad of tests, which all came back negative, and then sat me down and said “the only thing wrong with you is that you hate your job and are making yourself ill of because of that”. I was shocked and went away to think about what she had said; then I made a decision. I realised that supressing my personality, my natural behavior towards people; by being someone I was not, was making me ill and needed to stop doing that.
I resigned from my job and made a promise to myself that from now on I would only be me and even if that did not bring success, I would at least be happy and healthy. Ironically that’s when I started to be successful and achieve things. Being able to build relationships and treat people in the way I wanted to treat them, lead me to taking on a myriad of roles that have enriched my life. I have had dinner with Royals; been invited onto the private yacht of billionaires; worked with people who are changing lives every day and get to meet and talk to people whose names are known around the world.
During the Think Tank at the Global Female Leaders I would like to explore the power of being authentic and how woman can be authentic in today’s world.
Barriers of a woman being authentic
It is not easy to be the only woman in the room or to behave differently to the people around you. Not all of my employers, initially, understood my leadership style and they had to learn to understand that what I bought to the table was different but just as valuable – sometimes even more valuable.
“One of the barriers of being authentic is fear.”
So how do women overcome that fear? And why do we set up these barriers to ourselves when men don’t? In the Think Tank Academy I also want to talk about how overcoming fear can free you up to be an even better leader and how it can make a difference to not just your career, but also the careers of those around you.