Leadership Stories: Sue Whalley is a pathbreaker who encourages other women to follow in her footsteps by creating ecosystems of support

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As the first female leader in very senior roles, Sue realised the importance of networks and relationships. Equally applicable in her home life, she and her husband have each progressed their careers and successfully raised 4 children. They are a source of inspiration to her and keep her in touch with younger generations in the workforce.

What does leadership mean to you, and how has your approach or style changed over time?

Leadership is about setting direction, embodying values, bringing people along with you and helping them be the best version of themselves every day by asking: “what do you need, to be the very best you can?” I also think it is about teams, ensuring the right mix of skills and diversity of thought for what needs to be done; about establishing culture and a focus on purpose that everyone can get behind; being able to say, “I don’t know, but what I think is” and listening to others who can help shape thinking.

I remember back to my early days leading teams as an Engagement Manager at McKinsey. As I reflect, I was probably more focused on task and individual skill coaching, ensuring the work got done to meet the client’s needs, rather than on broader purpose. Over time, as a McKinsey Partnerand then COO at Royal Mail, leading a very large operation and groups of teams, I learned the immense strength of enabling others, empowering them by giving the tools and approaches, and being there when needed;and the importance of focusing my activities on those things which only I could do, enabling others to build their own capabilities by stepping into gaps. I have also realised the importance of networks and relationships. They are critically important now in my role at Associated British Foods where I need to lead and influence through others. I reflect now how much better conversations can be when I open up, show some vulnerability, feel I am leading as myself and create an environment for others to do the same.

What have been the biggest challenges and the biggest successes in your life, and what have you learned from them?

In my career I have taken on situations where I was the first female in the role, including the Royal Mail executive leadership team, and now in the Group Centre leadership team at ABF. It was incredibly hard, but also very rewarding to enter a very male ecosystem, find my voice and work through how to influence and make a difference. It was especially hard at ABF where the team had been together for many years. Strangely, I think Covid helped me as I realised my thoughts and style of operation could make a real contribution in a situation with no playbook. It was a matter of feeling confident to take the space, recognising I had been appointed for a reason and needed to apply the skills and capabilities I could bring to the table.

I am proud of the work we did post the IPO of the Royal Mail in 2013. As the first female leader of the RM operation, I led the organisation through several years of transformation, bringing in e-commerce systems, changing the working practices, working with retailers to integrate parcels systems and rolling out 80,000 personal digital scanners. It was really tough, negotiating with the unions, restructuring, changing the culture, and at the same time making sure the post got delivered every day - “flying the plane and rebuilding as you go”! When I left, I was humbled to receive a comments book which was all about how I impacted the culture and encouraged more diverse teams and inclusive environments, as well as having moved the business forward in a really challenging environment.

In both these situations, what has been more satisfying than my own impact is being able to make a difference in terms of finding other women and helping them be successful as well as leading enhanced discussions on culture and how to engage the workforce. I have got satisfaction from seeing others take on those discussions too. I learned the importance of role modelling, courage and influencing others to get their support. I have reflected on the importance of a “north star” in terms of purpose and objectives that you can come back to when the going gets tough.

One of the successes I cherish most is that I have been able to develop my career and at the same time, with my partner who also has his own career, bring up 4 amazing children who are now the most incredible young people from whom I learn a great deal. Many workplaces now have 4 or 5 generations. My children are constantly giving me great insight into the thinking of Gen Z which we all need to understand! Based on my own learnings I often talk to women I mentor about support at home – how to work together to support 2 careers if that is where their ambitions lie. I think this is a factor that can be downplayed in advancing women’s careers.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

My advice to my younger self and younger women is:

  • Set your sights high – believe you can be great and have the courage to go for it!
  • If you are presented with an opportunity, work through all the reasons why you have been offered that opportunity, NOT the reasons why you might not be able to do it.
  • Find people who will support you along the way – don’t be shy in asking for help and support. Senior people are flattered to be asked for advice.
  • Recognise that not everything will go your way and don’t take it personally.
  • If you want to pursue a career and have a family, have the conversations at home which will support you progressing your career and make sure you have the support network at home.
  • Tell your story and don’t expect others to tell it for you.
  • Surround yourself with the girlfriends who will be critical in your network along the way!

I realised my thoughts and style of operation could make a real contribution in a situation with no playbook.

Sue Whalley
Sue Whalley

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