Businesswoman Dame Inga Beale was the first woman to be made CEO of insurance giant Lloyds of London where, for over 320 years men have been at the helm. First Women asks Inga for her learnt insights regarding risk, ambition and what a woman has bought to the modern incarnation of an organisation over three centuries old.
I’m not sure I was directly inspired by anyone when I was growing up
But what I do know is that my home environment was very safe and free. Being enabled to follow my own path fostered determination which has been invaluable in my life and work.
Being a chameleon does not mean you are compromising your authenticity
Life is a game and one’s success depends on how well you play it. I have had to be a chameleon to adapt and thrive and yes, this can get tricky to navigate when one is also dedicated to authenticity. There are many different versions of self – and you have to trust that it is natural to shift between the different roles. The balance is found in considering the appropriateness and authenticity of each as you play them.
There are lots of versions of Inga Beale. If I walk into a room on business, it’s not unusual for there to be few – if any – women present. I have to adopt a role to bolster myself – a brave face, speaking out, showing strength. It’s natural. It is not my intention to harm or trick anyone.
The rugby girls see me as a businesswoman on TV and they don’t recognise me…and yet I am the businesswoman and the rugby girl!
Some years ago, I had built a solid career over 8 years. Then I decided to drop it all and go travelling.
I left on the spur of the moment – paradoxically, you can often make the healthiest decisions when you do not over-think. Even though many people recommend you should consider at length, what feels right often comes in an instant and its usually the best way forward.
Logic and gut make the best combination
I don’t tend to have sleepless nights – I shut off completely and rest. I sleep on problems. In the morning I have a much clearer idea as to whether the decision I made the night before was the right one. I am also a mathematician, so I draw up a list and mark each item in relation to a problem on it and ‘score’ it accordingly. Then I look at the best outcome on paper…but then check in with how I *feel* about it. When confronted with a logical matrix I still don’t necessarily go with the answer written there – I use the data in relationship with my feelings to help get to the best design.
Some people don’t like following a gut feeling and I understand that in business you need to think things through well. So, I like a mix of thinkers and feelers in a team – how you successfully unite the diversity is the challenge of leadership but the benefits are great when you do so.
Leadership means letting go of your need to have your own way
I have to listen to others’ views. One cannot stick to exactly what one wants to achieve, it’s about your team, the stakeholders and the customers. I learnt the benefits of team work from my sports playing. I have never veered from its guiding principle that it helps to be in a team. Just like rowing – things are only successful if you pull together.
I treat success and failure in the same way
I tend to not celebrate my own achievements but I take great delight when a team I have worked with succeeds. What makes me feel good about something is when I see others around me performing well. Lloyds has a recognition programme which acknowledges that encouragement and celebrating work done well is a greater support of wellbeing than money can be.
Leaders have a responsibility to cultivate diversity
Men have confidence where women often do not. Women often underestimate themselves and you have convinced them that they have the skillset for a job. Men say ‘hooray’ after a success. Women tend to say, ‘I’m glad that’s over.’ As a leader it is important to become aware of these gender differences – as it is to become aware of cultural approaches to success and failure. When you are working for a global company, do your homework. You need to know what makes genders or cultures tick.
We have to understand each other’s viewpoints. Women can learn from men to speak up – do not expect to just sit there and get a fantastic job. Men can learn from women the benefits of vulnerability. Women find it easier to say, ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I did that wrong’ and people respect and love leaders that can show an element of human vulnerability.
Try not to over-compensate regarding gender issues
When I started out, I didn’t feel I belonged in business because there were men everywhere. As a result, I adopted male behaviors to cope. No-one asked me to or made me feel I had to, but I felt excluded by merit of gender and I reacted to that.
What happened after a few years was that I suddenly rebelled against not truly being me…so I left business and went travelling. When I came back I worked for a US company…but then the balance swung the opposite way and I unconsciously biased my team by employing all women! Something else I had to ‘un-learn’. But the company had goals to support this and having goals is what gets things done.
Healthy body = healthy mind
I stay fit and healthy. When I am out of physical condition I do not have the same mental strength. I do not need alone time or rest, I simply need to keep fit. I also get my energy from being relational with others. I do not benefit from quiet reflection.
Women in insurance bring a very healthy attitude to risk
Women are diligent and they read everything. They take care to be very well informed. They hold a balanced view much of the time – all of which are vital in insurance when you are taking the risk out of someone else hands into your own.
Complacency will catch you out
I learnt this the hard way. 12 years ago, I was brought in as CEO to manage a Swiss company and we were so successful at turning things around that we forgot to assess the future dangers…and then the enemy arrived with a hostile take-over bid. We defended for months but eventually had to surrender. Over a decade has passed since then but I have not forgotten the lesson. I am still very careful to keep my eyes open – particularly when things are going very well. I do not dwell on failure. Learn your lessons and move forward.
Find your purpose
Some years ago, I was asked what my personal purpose was and I realised it was to empower women in business. I feel very aligned to that purpose every day. So, when things get tough what also drives me forward is the thought that ‘I mustn’t let the women down.’
You have to have a purpose. Businesses have to have a purpose. I’ve been here at Lloyds four years and when they took me on they asked me to modernise the market – both in technology but also in terms of innovation. I have a goal and that goal keeps me doing the best I can do all the time. I want to succeed here because I have that purpose and also that purpose drives me to succeed. It keeps me on track.
Women: get a network of women
On your career path, you may not feel you need to but seek out other women. Yes, diversity is important but so is a group of female allies for the safety and support of shared experience. I didn’t think I needed a network of women but I did. Seek out too, a mentor or coach with more experience than you, whom you can trust to tell you the truth.
…and give it too. Challenge and be challenged – even when it feels terribly uncomfortable. It’s a mistake to leave too many things unsaid.
Interview by Deborah Willimott