Two years ago, dressed in suffragette white and addressing a cheering convention, Hillary Clinton stood for a possibility. That day anyone, including her, had a chance of becoming the next President of the United States. Now she is a reminder of the limit women continue to confront — in politics and beyond. Although it is more than 40 years after women began pouring into the workplace, only a handful have made it all the way to the top of corporate world. The percentage of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies who are women just passed 6 percent, creeping up (and occasionally dropping back) at a glacial pace.
Why don’t more women get that No. 1 job?
You can’t be what you can’t see: it is true for all of us — we rely on stories, examples, leaders or, in the purest, most basic form, images that inform us about who we are and what our potential is, and without these, we are left unaware and unable to be that which we cannot see. Let’s inspire each other with stories and continue pushing through glass ceiling. You are not alone here. Each month we will present a short interview with an inspiring woman, who got there. We will ask her what helped her to get to the top, be it in the corporate environment, politics or elsewhere. We will not shy away from asking if there was a price to pay and whether the top still looks as exciting as when they started climbing the peak.
Our first interview is with Deborah Nash, currently Senior Managing Director of well-known international consultancy Teneo (formerly Teneo Cabinet DN). She arrived to Brussels thirteen years ago as an intern for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, assignment that was supposed to last for 4 months.
Deborah thank you for your time and agreeing to chat with GWC about your career path. Let’s start from the beginning. Where are you from and what brought you to Brussels?
I arrived in Brussels from Northern Ireland already thirteen years ago. My background was in law and I was very excited about specializing in humanitarian and human rights law. Previously I worked in a law firm in Northern Ireland, but felt that my real interests lay elsewhere. I decided to take a leap of faith and moved to Brussels to start an internship with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.
It was a great experience. I was doing a very interesting job and, due to lack of staff, my internship covered many issues normally not available to interns. I took on work on the relationship with the European Parliament and for the first time was exposed to the EU bubble. However, afterwards I discovered it wasn’t easy to get a job in the humanitarian sector. I was offered only another internship. I decided to again step out of my comfort zone and joined a small boutique consultancy called Cabinet Stewart (currently Interel) as a researcher.
What happened next?
I stayed with Cabinet Stewart for 8 months and learned a lot there about working in consultancy. While there, I interviewed for a position with Cabinet DN (now Teneo) and joined the company as a Consultant in 2007. In 2015 I was asked to become an equity partner and in 2017 the company was acquired by global strategic advisory firm Teneo, so I am now a Senior Managing Director at Teneo. Aside from my client-facing work, I am also COO of the Brussels office and responsible for developing our people and talent strategy. This is a new challenge for me and I’m very much enjoying helping my colleagues grow and develop their careers.
This is very exciting. How would you summarise this path? Did you set yourself on becoming a partner from day 1?
I’ve always been ambitious but I didn’t plan for this to happen from day one. We started as a small team, with five people only and the company started steadily growing. And with that my role was constantly evolving and included more and more responsibilities. There was always a next step to look forward to.
It was a mix in the end of being in right place at the right time, mutual respect and trust and of course very importantly working really hard. A career plan is very important to have, but what I really have learnt is that sometimes you have to take risks and put yourself out there. I believed in this company, decided to stay instead of moving to a bigger firm and then decided to take this leap of faith and join as an equity partner.
There must have been milestones on the way, especially when looking back. What do you think was the breaking point?
A big breakthrough was when I became a director and joined the management of the company. For the first time you get the chance to actually run the company and give input on the direction of travel. The next big milestone was to invest financially in the company. It was another level of commitment – the company becomes yours and its failures and successes are experienced on a whole new level.
Did you ever feel out of place, as a young woman in a big boardroom full of men?
Like many women, I definitely had moments when I felt insecure and questioned my place at the table. However, I was fortunate to experience this more as my own internal feeling, rather then something triggered by actions of my clients or colleagues
Let’s talk about work life balance. Success at work often comes with a price.
I am happily married and my husband and I have similar mindset in the sense that work is an important part of our lives and we are both passionate about it. He understands that sometimes work requires me to stay late or do extensive travelling. But I feel that we are having an amazing time together and work doesn’t stop us – we see our friends, travel and enjoy life. At this point of my career I am also more in charge of my schedule.
We share a passion for travelling and make sure to plan ahead some long weekends and city trips. Next weekend we are going to English countryside to celebrate my husband’s birthday with friends, those sort of moments make the hard work worthwhile.
What about children?
Having kids can definitely be disruptive if one wants to progress his/her career. I am lucky that my current company is very friendly towards people having kids. There are senior women in the company who have children and are able to combine it with a successful career. A lot is about being flexible.
At the moment, my husband and I are still quite career focused but having children is definitely something we both want and I’ve no doubt we’ll manage to find the right balance, so we can continue to advance our careers and also build a family.
You are a manager now of fairly large team, other managers are men. Do you feel the responsibility that comes with being a manager and also a woman? Do you try to support women across teams?
I completely agree that women should support each other and I want to be an ally and to see my colleagues grow. Hard work is very important, but having a support, a network really can help women grown and break the ceiling.
There are also everyday things. Supporting female colleagues during meetings, making sure their input wasn’t overlooked or ignored. Ensuring that female colleagues are not pushed towards, for example, organizing events if that is not something they are passionate about, and making sure they receive good quality clients and strategic work that will help them grow. Another key element is giving feedback. It’s easy to forget, especially positive feedback, and I always want to recognize the hard work that has been done. I remember my days as a junior consultant and want to make sure people feel supported.