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Spotlight Series: Sheila Flavell CBE, Chief Operating Officer, FDM Group

Sheila Flavell CBE, Chief Operating Officer, FDM Group

ARTICLE SUMMARY

We sat down with Sheila to chat about her career path and journey into tech, achieving a zero gender pay gap at FDM and her advice for other women looking to get into the sector.

SHEILA FLAVELL CBE IS THE COO FOR FDM GROUP AND IS PASSIONATE ABOUT DIGITAL SKILLS AND DIVERSITY.

Sheila has over 31 years experience in the global tech sector. She played an integral role in FDM’s flotation on AIM in 2005 and was a key instigator of the management buy-out of the Group in 2010 and the subsequent listing onto the main FTSE Market in 2014. Sheila’s knowledge of the sector has been crucial in driving FDM’s global expansion programme, taking them into the FTSE250.

She spearheads the ‘Global Women in Tech’ campaign and created FDM’s hugely successful Returners Programme. Sheila is President of TechUK and member of the Government’s Digital Skills Council.

HOW DID YOU LAND YOUR CURRENT ROLE? WAS IT PLANNED?  

No, it was not planned. I was FDM’s first employee 32 years ago when we were an attic start up.  

I always say that by me joining the company we created a 50/50 gender split in our senior leadership team!!!

As the business grew, I grew with it and created my own path I suppose.

WHAT ARE THE KEY ROLES IN YOUR FIELD OF WORK, AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE YOUR CURRENT EXPERTISE?  

As the Group’s Chief Operating Officer my role is to ensure the smooth running of the company. From an Executive director’s perspective, I oversee the following functions – Operations, HR, The Academy, Marketing and anything else that doesn’t fit into Sales, Recruitment, Finance and IT.

I didn’t choose what are now my areas of expertise. It was more a case of having to learn along the way as the company grew in size.  We went from being an attic start – to becoming a FTSE 250 organisation with circa 7000 employees.  Back in the day we were a ‘lifestyle’ business with no more ambition than to be able to pay the mortgage, to being very grown up and governed by a lot of regulation.

DID YOU (OR DO YOU) HAVE A ROLE MODEL IN TECH OR BUSINESS IN GENERAL? 

Yes, definitely – I have had many role models in my business career. One major influence has been FDM’s founder, Rod Flavell, who said to me when he asked me to join him – in the attic – “I can see something in you, I don’t know what it is, but if you come and work for me, I’ll help you find it.” How could I decline that offer?  I didn’t expect any more than an interesting job. What I did get was an amazing career in the tech industry – and amazing husband as well – we eventually got married! 

WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF IN YOUR CAREER, SO FAR?  

FDM reporting a zero gender pay gap when reporting was first introduced in 2017.

I am proud to say we have maintained this position ever since!

This was an emotional moment for me personally. I started working in the mid 70s before equal pay was introduced. I was a young police officer in Glasgow (WPC 247) and when equal pay was first introduced there was a lot of pushback from the men who didn’t think we were up to the job. Most jobs paid women less than their male counterparts doing the same role back then. Mandatory reporting aims to narrow and eventually eliminate the pay difference between men and women.

WHAT DOES AN AVERAGE WORKDAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?  

FDM is a global company with offices around the world. One week I will be in Australia and the next in the USA or Canada. It’s important to visit the regions to meet staff and clients to get a first-hand view with what’s going on in the business. There is no typical day really but when I’m in the UK I’ll get up around 6am or earlier if I have a call to APAC.  We are all back in the office a minimum of 3 days a week so lots of meetings and collaboration with clients and colleagues during those office days. I’m often out at events in the evening so long days with a home working catch up day on a Friday. It’s good to clear the desk before end of play Friday so that I can enjoy the weekend with my growing family.

ARE THERE ANY SPECIFIC SKILLS OR TRAITS THAT YOU NOTICE COMPANIES LOOK FOR WHEN YOU’RE SEARCHING FOR ROLES IN YOUR FIELD?  

Good organisational and analytical skills, strong people skills, critical thinker, problem solving, strategic thinking, project management experience.

HAS ANYONE EVER TRIED TO STOP YOU FROM LEARNING AND DEVELOPING IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL LIFE, OR HAVE YOU FOUND THE TECH SECTOR SUPPORTIVE?  

No quite the contrary, I have been totally encouraged to keep learning and developing my skill set. Technology is moving at such a pace that there is no time to sit still. Do so and you may be left behind. The sector comprises of 18% people who identify as women.

Women are 50% of the population and the main users of technology so we need a voice and a seat at the table when designing the solutions to ensure that the technology works for everyone and not just men.

There are many examples of tech solutions in the past that were designed by men who modelled their products around the dimensions and needs of the average male – early-stage airbags in motor vehicles is a good example of this. When those air bags were released, they didn’t take into account the shape of an average women.

HAVE YOU EVER FACED INSECURITIES AND ANXIETIES DURING YOUR CAREER, AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?

I have doubted myself many times over the course of my career and still do from time to time. It took me a long time to realise that it is something that is common to women. Of course, men suffer too but I think women are more prone to loss of confidence and self-doubt.

I don’t know of a businesswoman who hasn’t suffered from loss of confidence and self-doubt at times. It’s something that we have to recognise resides in most of us, and we have to learn to manage those feelings when they bubble up to the surface, otherwise, they can constrain your career progression.

ENTERING THE WORLD OF WORK CAN BE DAUNTING. DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ADVICE FOR ANYONE FEELING OVERWHELMED?  

Talk to someone. Find a mentor to help you through.

Take one step at a time and don’t feel you need to know everything – your employer won’t expect you to.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHER WOMEN WANTING TO REACH THEIR CAREER GOALS IN TECHNOLOGY?  

Believe in yourself. Have confidence in your abilities and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve your goals. Build a support network. Having a support network of peers, mentors and sponsors can help you navigate the challenges you may face in your career. Look for mentors who can guide you and sponsors who can advocate for you.

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