IWF UK Leadership Stories: Jeanette Cowley
Jeanette Cowley is a CEDR accredited mediator, a negotiator, team and executive coach who also researches how senior leaders sustain momentum for the long-term. She helps people reflect and resolve complex issues.
What does being a leader mean to you?
I’ve been in dramatic situations where it’s appropriate for a leader to say: we are going that way right now! However, leadership, whilst being about direction, is more frequently about building trust. Just like negotiation, I believe leadership involves the head, heart and gut.
What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?
When I was at university, I contracted Tuberculosis (TB). The senior consultant said he wanted to remove part of my lung: to be on the safe side! At twenty-one I found myself in a very hierarchical environment surrounded by people who kept saying they knew better. I was terrified. I could have said OK and gone with the advice of my consultant. However, I said no and we asked for a second opinion. I realised something back then that has stuck with me ever since: when it really matters, you have to speak your mind.
Another major challenge was when I decided to change the focus of my career. At forty-eight, I moved from an in-house strategic role with a large team, to a consulting, hands-on role. The transition was relatively easy. However, I did not anticipate the initial loneliness of working alone. My work focus is dispute resolution and mediation. I also coach teams and groups and speak at conferences about negotiating when relationships matter. When I’m not in front of clients, I research art in leadership, how senior leaders sustain momentum, and I paint abstract art. My initial challenge when I set up Go For Growth was finding a new network. The first thing I did was register for a MSc in Behavioural Change and Coaching. I also attended a range of professional courses to sharpen my professional skills, took offices in a busy location and attended quite a few networking meetings. My motivation was to meet and be challenged by new people. What worked for me was deciding to rectify the fact that I had never been in the company of many senior women. My last corporate role had been the Group HR Director of a FTSE 100 and the only woman on the executive team – as usual. I hadn’t heard of IWF until I was introduced by a relatively new contact. So far, I’m loving meeting some fascinating women.
What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?
My success usually involves situations where the stakes are high and there’s a fair degree of disagreement. I seem to have the ability to help people focus, reflect on what really matters and then decide how to move forward.
One of my early successes involved a large reorganisation across multiple sites. Emotions were running high and significant redundancies were going to be inevitable. I thought there must be a way to do things differently and asked both my team and our external advisers to focus on mitigating the impact of the business closure on several thousand people. We put in place some ground breaking programmes and support mechanisms. I think the reason for the success was something to do with wanting to make a positive impact rather than have a quiet life. I remember my mum’s voice in my head saying: where there’s a will there is a way. Collaborating with external suppliers was a big factor in the success.
Another example is still in the process of unfolding. It is more about my own mindset and the excitement of creating something new. For years I kept my business and creative worlds quite separate. However, over the last five years I have been integrating my commercial experience, art and research in a very particular way. I was going to write a book but ended up creating what I’m calling Voicing Possibilities Art Cards designed for coaches, mediators and consultants. It is early days but I am enjoying the process and so delighted with the initial feedback. The success is really about having the courage to focus on what really matters to me and where I think I can make a difference whilst continuing to research the process. The success is also the product of collaboration: something I am learning to do more and more. It is so enjoyable.
How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?
In the beginning, my leadership style was a bit brutal. As a woman, I expected to be treated like everyone else and was shocked and angry when that was not the case. Being the first in my close family to go to university and then on to complete an MBA, and the first to have a management role, meant - without role models - I was learning as I went along. I didn’t understand how to let people into my world. Although I would fight for my team in private, I didn’t quite grasp how to share my true feelings openly in the work environment for quite a few years.
Things became easier with experience and success. I found a mentor and started to understand myself better. Over the years I’ve learnt how to relax. Breathing techniques from my singing help.
I’d say my leadership style is all about curiosity. I believe everyone deserves to be heard. My purpose is connected to the words ‘Voicing Possibilities’. I will always be a stickler for time keeping, hard work and getting things done. However, most importantly, I know everything I achieve is with and through other people
What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?
Work hard at what you love. Re-appraise what you are doing from time to time. Ask for help from people you trust and admire. Stay curious - particularly when you find something or someone annoying. Be kind to yourself and other people. Don’t be afraid to say no. Keep learning new things about the world and yourself. Ask questions. Know you are good enough. Ask for what you want when the time is right. And remember, you can always change your mind.
My leadership style is all about curiosity. I believe everyone deserves to be heard. My purpose is connected to the words ‘Voicing Possibilities’.