Interview with Harvard leader Charlotte Sweeney

Charlotte Sweeney didn’t let leaving school at 16 hold her back. Driven by a desire to see a fairer, more equal society, she worked her way up the career ladder in investment banking, before setting up her own successful consultancy and writing a book. She’s now published a book with the Financial Times.

What’s your career background?

I left school at the age of 16 and started with Barclays as an apprentice. I gradually worked my way up the corporate ladder in back office, sales and then moved across to HR, Change and Learning and Development.

Over 17 years ago I got my first role in, as it was then, Equality and Diversity. I have led this agenda for multi-national blue chip organisations across the world until I set my consultancy business up in 2012.

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How did your career change after having children?

I don’t have children – that was a conscious decision I made at a very young age.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I had worked in the Financial Services sector for 25 years and led diversity and inclusion strategies for a significant portion of that time.

I became increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of change within businesses on creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces and believed I could have more impact by working with multiple companies via my consultancy.

I wanted to share my first hand experience of creating change and passionate about removing barriers and bias for anyone that wants to progress in their careers and also wanted to use that experience to create products and services that I wanted when I led the agenda in companies.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

There wasn’t really a defining moment. I left investment banking and arranged a meeting with my accountant for the following day to discuss my tax status after leaving employment. By the time I had left his office I had set the business up.

I mainly work on customer feedback and insights and constantly evolve what I do, or as my business colleagues say, I pivot.

A couple of years into setting the consultancy up I had an idea for a programme that could be led across cities to drive companies to consider, and act upon, the local implications of creating workplaces that work for all. I positioned the idea with a dozen contacts I had in big companies – they all loved it – with slight tweaks.

From then Creating Inclusive Cultures was launched. This has continued to evolve since launching in Leeds and now includes business forums in Manchester and Birmingham with other cities coming on board in 2017.

We are also launching the Creating Inclusive Cultures app which will give all employees access to tailored information about diversity and inclusion.

What’s your unique selling point?

There are very few credible consultants in this field that have first hand experience of a subject that many companies are grappling with. My career has spanned working for a number of companies, leading the change globally as well as working for senior business figures and senior politicians in Government.

Where many consultants talk about the changes required, I have actually delivered those changes time and time again in companies… and have the bruises to prove it.

Companies like my pragmatic and honest approach – they may be excited by theory and best practice but, for me, the true value of a consultant is bringing it to life and making the desired changes a reality – that is what I have built my career on.

Who’s your target audience?

Companies and employers who are aware of the need to constantly change and respond to the changing demographics and world we now live in.

Diversity and inclusion are not a ‘nice to have’ they are a business critical issue – from how you attract and retain the best talent right through to how you develop and market products to new markets. Companies and employers who don’t take this seriously now will really struggle in the future.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

I have recently written a book called Inclusive Leadership with my co-author Fleur Bothwick. The book is published by The Financial Times and guides you through all the critical steps to developing and executing an impactful diversity and inclusion strategy.

The book is receiving rave reviews and is an ideal way to get the message out there. We share stories of our experiences of driving this agenda in large companies – there is some really eye-opening ‘stuff’ in there. I also speak at conferences around the world as well as write for a number of professional publications.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

With leaving school at 16 and then moving into the roles and industries I have worked in there is generally an assumption that you have been to university – which I haven’t.

It has been a real challenge throughout my career to ‘hide’ that fact that I didn’t go to university – especially in investment banking.

Now I have my own business, I’m much more vocal about that and challenge companies much more on where their source their talent for the future.

And your proudest moment so far?

I’ve had a couple of proud moments over the last year – the first being the launch of Creating Inclusive Cultures in three cities and gaining hugely positive feedback from companies as I have spoken to them about the programme – coupling that with the launch of the app, that really is a game changer.

The other one is the publication of my first book. I was more than shocked when The Financial Times contacted me to confirmed they wanted to be our publisher. I have to pinch myself every time I see their logo on the cover of the book.

Why is work so important to you?

I am absolutely passionate about what I do and don’t see this as work at all. My mission is to create workplaces that work for all and for individuals to be able to reach their potential regardless of where they started in life.

Who inspires you?

My parents! Both of my parents are very strong characters, they are hugely resilient and tackle anything and everything that is thrown at them.

Throughout my life they have encouraged me to do exactly what I want and have instilled a belief in me that you can be anything you want to be – but it will take hard work work to get there. I’m hugely proud of both of them for many different reasons.

How do you balance your business with your family?

Difficult one as I’m so passionate about what I do. My family know this is important to me and know that I have been focused on work and my career for all of my adult life. We make it work – although I do get regular warnings from family and friends that I do have to take a bit of time out.

One of the key changes for me in the last year has been to get a personal trainer. I train at least three times a week and is a great way to destress – that is my release from work!

What are your three top pieces of advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?

1) Be patient

Building an effective and sustainable business is a marathon and not a sprint. We all get very excited about our businesses and will work extremely long hours to make it a success – however, make sure you take some time out for you and the people that are important to you.

The work and opportunities will still be there even if you take a day off over the weekend, or a couple of hours during the week. Look after yourself and make sure there is a little more to your life than purely your business.

2) Know your values

Clearly articulate your values and stick to them. It’s really important for me to enjoy the work I do as well as feeling that I’m making a positive impact for those I’m working with. I stated right at the beginning of creating my business that I had to work with people I liked or respected and that my consultancy work had to either progress the business or progress the wider industry.

On the whole I have stuck to that and really enjoyed the time I have had my business. I did stray away from this once at the early part of creating my business and regretted it very quickly. It did take me a couple of months to complete the work and move on – a good lesson for me to stick to my values.

3) Follow your passions

Do something you are passionate about. I’ve had jobs in the past that I haven’t been passionate about and the days have really dragged.

I could not imagine creating a business on something I did not love and feel committed to. You will work long hours, but it makes it that little bit easier when you love what you do and you know that you are making a difference.

Inclusive Leadership- The definitive guide to developing and executing an impactful diversity and inclusion strategy by Charlotte Sweeney and Fleur Bothwick OBE, is available here.