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Stop wasting valuable talent

Sharon Glancy, MD, People 1st
Sharon Glancy, MD, People 1st
There has been a lot of talk about the representation of women on boards, but equally important is the loss of skills, experience and knowledge that happens after career breaks. Sharon Glancy, MD of People 1st, also runs Women 1st which focuses on transforming the face of boards in the hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism sectors and supports women who aspire to senior leadership roles to fulfil their career ambitions. Sharon talks to Roger about how her own career developed and her ambitious aspirations.

q:  How did you get to where you are today?

a:  That's an interesting question! I started work at the age of 14 when I ran a sort of child minding business in the summer holidays to help out mums who were at work. Things are very different today, of course, but then it was acceptable.

I found that I quite liked earning money to support my hobbies and buy stuff that I wanted so, as soon as I was old enough, I went into the hospitality industry. I worked at Ragdale Hall, a spa and health place in Leicestershire, as a Chamber Maid earning £2.22 per hour. It was a real eye-opener, finding out what the industry can do and learning what somewhere like Ragdale Hall offered its guests. It was all about helping them to have a great experience and feel good - and, of course, spend their money!

It was also interesting to see what impact time away from work and home had on people and how beneficial it was. Guests used to come up to me and say that it was the best time they had had for years. They felt rejuvenated and relaxed and that told me that there was something important that the hospitality sector should have to offer.

q:  Where did you go from there?

a:  I did a degree in business studies and HR, doing a lot more work in pubs on the way, as well as running the bar at a conference and banqueting centre at weekends. That gave me a chance to help people with their weddings and business meetings which was a valuable experience - serving 300 to 400 people during the weekend was hard work, but good fun and there was a good team. The hospitality industry is good at that - teamwork - people working hard towards a shared objective.

I did a placement year during my degree as a business development advisor with the Leicestershire Training and Enterprise Council and that involved working mainly on Investors in People. At the time there was a massive drive from the government to encourage engagement with employees. I worked for a year with around 200 businesses, ranging from multinationals to SMEs and one-man bands, helping them achieve their IIP standard.

I was very fortunate as my line manager wanted to coach people and he was good at it. He had worked in the senior team at ICI for years, so he had a lot of valuable experiences and knowledge to share - of course, some based on working with John Harvey-Jones. I learned a lot in a short period of time including such things as growing a company, how employee engagement works, what works well and doesn't and we discovered how to find solutions to the challenges. It gave me a valuable insight into how to run an organisation.

In my final year, a couple of the organisations I had been working with at the TEC asked me to work with them on a consultancy basis so, while I was completing my dissertation, I had three customers I worked with all of which achieved their IIP accreditation. That was great for me as I was applying what I was learning at university in a work context. I remember challenging one of my lecturers who was talking about employee engagement based on a study of 16 people and in my year out I had worked with around 200 companies, so my evidence base was rather larger! Applying real life examples to the theory and research has always interested me, so that was good.

q:  What did you do after graduating?

Josephine Fairley, Green & Black's Chocolate; Sharon Glancy, People 1st; Sam Mercer, consultant; Christine Hamilton
Josephine Fairley, Green & Black's Chocolate;
Sharon Glancy, People 1st; Sam Mercer, consultant;
Christine Hamilton

a:  I went back to working in pubs and bars as I really enjoyed that, but a role came up to work with the Prince's Trust helping disadvantaged and disaffected young people start their own businesses. I reckoned I could do the job - I had a lot of knowledge about business development and improvement around people. I was fairly financially astute too and, as one of the challenges was to help them build business plans and cash-flow forecasts, I applied. I was up against, well, I suppose a number of older men and I was only about 23 or 24, but came out of the interview thinking that I could really do the job. I was fortunate enough to be selected and during my time there I helped around 30 people start their own companies which was very rewarding.

There was one guy who had been out of work for about eight years, had a family of five to support and was claiming disability benefits. They were living in a council house without even any carpet on the floor - just concrete. He wanted to start up his own painting and decorating business, but had no idea how to start. I worked with him and we managed to get some funding. After a year, they had moved out and had their own small place - not a palace, but a huge improvement and it made me feel good that I had helped him succeed.

q:  What came after that?

a:  A: Well, while I was at the Prince's Trust someone asked me to come and work with them setting up a beacon company scheme. The concept was to share knowledge and expertise with other companies, so we did a lot of events and conferences, coaching and mentoring and that sort of thing. I grew it from a very small group in the East Midlands to having about 100 businesses involved. It was a good experience for me as it represented the 'next stage' in the business cycle after the start-up phase.

As a result, I got involved in something called Elevate East Midlands which was about what managers needed to be effective in their roles. It was a training, mentoring and coaching intervention again to help managers develop their skills. We got some government pump-priming funding to get it going and, in the end, helped about 400 individuals which was pretty good. Some of the businesses became quite successful in the local area too.

After that, I joined the Hospitality Training Foundation which is now called People 1st and that was using all the knowledge and skills that I had accumulated on the way in the hospitality and tourism sector. It was all about customer retention, employee retention and development. I set up a scheme through which we provided training support for small businesses and we developed a strong tourism strategy alongside that in association with the Regional Development Agency at the time. Again, it was a great experience - working with small and large organisations, but all in the hospitality sector. We managed to attract about £2 million in funding and opened up doors for businesses to help them develop, grow and succeed.

Training and helping people to develop had always interested me and People 1st had a small company called Stonebow which they were looking to grow. At 26, they asked me if I wanted to run it so I said 'yes' - just when I was buying a new house and getting married at the same time - I don't do things by half!

It took us - one colleague and me - about 18 months to get under its skin and turn it around and grow it by 50%. It was hard, but I loved every minute of it and it helped me develop a thick skin on the way! I learned that you really do have to put yourself in the customer's shoes and see it from their point of view and, since then, the business, now known as the People 1st Training Company, has continued to grow.

q:  So, your current work developed from that?

a:  Yes. I am always looking for a challenge and we had always wanted to do something specifically targeted at women at People 1st. The demographic in the hospitality and retail sector is about 60% female (from which, incidentally, only about 6% get to Board level) so it is an important group. There is a huge loss of talent from the pool on a yearly basis, so we decided to try to help fix the leadership and management issues to help the industry stem the attrition. The sector currently loses around 310,000 women per year which represents a cost of around £2.8 million. Basically, they get trained up and then take a career break and either don't come back or come back to a job significantly below their skill level.

I attended the five day Women in Food Service Conference in the Texas which was established about 24 years ago and looks at how to retain talent. There were around 2000 women delegates and I was the only person from the UK, so I was a little apprehensive that it was going to be 'very American' and not very relevant. They had recognised this issue over 20 years before and they had made some significant successes with the involvement of some of the really big brand organisations. I wanted to bring the idea back to the UK - I was surprised that I was so inspired to be honest!

I wrote a proposal to get some seed money from the government and we launched Women 1st within six months with the support of Cherie Blair. We had created a mentoring infrastructure and a training programme called Step Up, so we proved that we could do it!

The key thing that cemented the need for this in our industry was at the launch when Cherie was giving a wonderful introduction. I asked the audience of over 110 women how many had a mentor and only four hands went up! And these were all senior women - not people starting off in their career. If you asked a similar group of men, I would expect more like 85 to put their hands up.

We all know that networking, mentoring and people endorsing skills and expertise are critical today - as ever. It was clear that these women didn't have the necessary support structure and informal network behind them which makes career development and progression ten times harder.

q:  How has Women 1st developed since then?

a:  We quickly realised that we need to celebrate success because one of the key challenges these women were facing was that nobody knew who they were. I mentioned the stats earlier - 60% drop out and only 6% reaching a senior position. There are few role models for people to look up to and learn from, so we created the Top 100 Club which is about recognising and shining a light on the talent in the industry. There are some great people out there too - like Robyn Jones who runs Charlton House - she has grown her company to make it a big business. The Caterer and Hotelkeeper publishes a list each year of the top 100 most influential people in the sector and that year there was only three or four women in the list and none in the top 50. The following year there were eight, with three in the top 50 and one in the top 10 and I think that was the visibility we had created.

q:  Is it that women don't network so effectively then?

Networking at a Women 1st event

a:  Good question - we never stop talking after all [laughs]. Seriously, I think it is a matter of confidence. When I first started going to networking events there were so few women and people used to ask me if I was someone's PA.

There are lots of issues - men tend to be taller, conversation tends to be around football or sport, there is an issue of confidence and an awareness of what networks exist, the value of networking and so on. Networking is daunting for men and women, but men tend to use such as sports as ice breakers to open conversations up.

This is where mentoring and learning from others helps so much. Plan who you want to meet, whose business cards you want to get, even what events are around. I used to research people the evening before, find out something about them, maybe even print a photo out so I could recognise them. Our Women 1st events are always good to practise networking for this very reason. We always have an inspirational speaker and the energy in the room is phenomenal.

q:  Do people ask about the need for the existence of Women 1st in a negative way?

a:  Since we started, we have always been evidence based - 310,000 women leaving the industry each year at a cost of £2.8 billion - which is a good focus. Women make 85% of the spend decisions in the home - hospitality and retail is the area they mainly influence, so there is a compelling case there too. Research has also shown that having at least three women on a Board helps it to perform a lot better (such as that from McKinsey).

I always believed that you can be what you want to be - my parents were always very supportive and brought me up with that belief. It is all about how you communicate, your self-confidence, how you overcome the perceived barriers and so on. We are all going to be working a lot longer these days, so both men and women may have a career break and it is crazy to lose the talent, male or female.

q:  What are the challenges for women returning to work?

a:  There are many, but one could be described as their 'mind set'. I have a friend who I keep nagging to get back into work, but she has the challenges of balancing her home life, family and work time. Flexible working is obviously an important thing for many people these days - not only women.

The prime idea is that we shouldn't lose the talent from our industry. People still want - and often need - to work and many go down the entrepreneurial route as it allows them flexibility. Of course, that is great, but it is still a huge loss to the industry. If we could find a mechanism to allow them to develop these entrepreneurial skills, balance their time and work in the industry, that would be great. From a business context, if you ask the individuals, they often have the answer themselves - you just have to ask. McDonalds has a scheme where a job can be shared by family members. That sort of innovative approach is good, but the more senior a position, the more challenging it can become. Developing a talent pool is a good idea and combining it with job sharing.

Shine Awards
Shine Awards 2012

q:  How do you see Women 1st developing in the coming couple of years?

a:  Looking back first, People 1st merged with a skills development organisation in passenger transport. In that sector, it is very male dominated, with only around 20% of people being women - taxi drivers, train drivers and so on. There are a different set of challenges there and it has been very interesting. The pay is quite good and the work is very structured, so it does suit some.

We are keen to take Women 1st into the retail sector which is just starting now.

We have just announced the training of the 1000th woman in our five-day step up programme which is great news. That gives people skills in making presentations, delegation, confidence and so on and around a third have had a pay rise on the back of the training. And 90% have reported improved confidence as a result, while a third have taken on more responsibility - it is a good programme and our success has been great. My target is 5000 women in five years.

We would like to get a woman on every short list by 2017 and we have started Step to the top, a programme we have developed with the Institute of Directors. That will help women get onto Boards, we hope.

We already have a good network of mentors and I want to develop that further. At the moment most are female and we need to get more of a balance - this is not about a 'women's club', it is about helping people to develop in the real world. We want to do more on the mentoring side, but one of the challenges is to get mentees at the moment. We need to get people to ask to be mentored - we have a 'matching' system to help to get the rapport going.

Mostly, we want women to get there by merit, not by tokenism. The definition of merit has to be considered in this as there are a lot of unconscious biases that can creep in. Also, when it comes to applying for jobs, women have a different approach. There was a study done by the Times (I think) where they ran a very specific senior job advert with a six-figure salary and well-specified job requirements. The applicants were almost exclusively male. When they re-ran the advert with no salary specified and a looser statement of requirements - some experience in this would be useful, you may have done this, and so on - a significantly higher percentage of women applied. When they followed up the study to find out why, they found that women are scared to apply for jobs where they feel they might not meet all the requirements exactly, whereas men will just have a go. I would like to help women overcome these perceptions - the sticky floor that holds them back.

q:  What is your vision?

Sharon Glancy, MD, People 1st

a:  A: Well, to achieve as much as possible, of course! All the things above and also to develop the organisation. I am MD of the People 1st Training Company and Women 1st is just part of my role - I have two full-time members of staff plus me! We cover the whole of the UK, but a lot of the things we do are around London and the South East at the moment. I want to develop regional chapters. We have the leadership council with members drawn from leading businesses and leading entrepreneurs which helps us to set the direction. In the regions we want a local Chair who can develop things. Our first is just starting in the North West and I live in the East Midlands so want to do things there too. It will take time, but in five years we hope to have every region covered.

We work in partnership with many people, but we want to retain our identity and achieve a lot in a short time.

q:  What is your key message for people?

a:  Make sure you have good mentors and make sure that you invest time in developing your own network. We all have moments when we are a bit down or lack a little self-confidence, but we need to focus on our successes and continue to move on. Keep a success diary - your achievements will give you confidence to carry on. And never give up! Even if something happens along the way, if you know where you want to go, you may get distracted a bit, but you will always get back on track. Even if you have to take time out of your career at some stage for whatever reason, it doesn't mean that your career is dead - get back in there and move on!

Give yourself a good talking to every now and again - as if it was someone else with a lot of talent telling you about yourself. And occasionally do something that scares you every - something that takes you out of your comfort zone - it will help you grow!

Sharon Glancy is MD of People 1st - the sector skills council for hospitality, passenger transport, travel and tourism in the UK. You can find more information here:

The second annual Women 1st Conference will be held on 19 June 2013 at the London Marriott Hotel, Grosvenor Square - details can be found here:

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