“My father gave me a strong sense of self”… In conversation with Fiona Hathorn
Fiona Hathorn didn’t enjoy her accountancy qualification. After one year with the Big Four, she was starting to look for something more suited to her natural analytic and engagement skills. A business studies degree had whetted her appetite, alongside a love of maths, and she became interested in stocks and shares at university. But a conventional route into the City, via finance, just wasn’t working.
At that time, in 1987, she met a recruiter at a party in Oxford, who suggested that a City asset manager was looking for graduate trainees. The next day, she called him, and he eventually agreed to connect her with the head of HR. With her instinct and conviction leading the way, Fiona joined the City of London, dropping out of her short-lived time in audit.
“In the late 1980s, the City was a very male dominated environment,” she says. “I thrived on it. I had been brought up in a male environment, so I didn’t find it difficult. Did I notice there were few women around me? No. The lack of diversity in the city should have been an issue for everyone at the time, but it just wasn’t ever mentioned, or challenged and discussed. I was also lucky to have terrific bosses who never saw my gender as an issue.”
Fiona puts her self-confidence down to her father, who spent his early career in the RAF, before becoming the principal of a technical college. When Fiona was still a child, he encouraged her mother back into work, to develop her teaching skills. Sometimes that meant taking Fiona to his place of work, and into the boardroom, an early exposure to professional life.
One day some years later, driving along near Nottingham where they lived at the time, Fiona and her father were talking about coping with dyslexia. At school, it had taken her several years to cope with exam pressure, and her confidence had been knocked. As they neared home, she explained why university wasn’t for her because she didn’t feel bright enough.
“He virtually skidded the car and came to emergency halt in a layby,” she remembers. “He just refused to move and was horrified, saying: ‘You know, you could be a captain of industry, you can be anything you want to be in life.’ Looking back, I had this life coach throughout my childhood and a strong sense of self he helped to develop.”
Fiona is enormously grateful to her father for the layby moment because without his support and backing she would never have got to university and ended up in asset management, a career she loved. But like many women, Fiona decided to take a brief break from the City, around 2010, and started making investments in early-stage companies.
She quickly realised that few female founders were getting their businesses funded. At the same time, she says there was increasing pressure on listed companies to explain why they didn’t have more women on their boards. That’s when everything came together; she was “absolutely horrified” that others hadn’t shared her experience of a positive corporate working environment, as a female.
In London, Fiona met the founder of Women on Boards from Australia, who explained that people need to hear about the boardroom earlier in their careers: not just company positions, but opportunities in sports, the arts, theatres and local communities. Most of them still didn’t publicly advertise. Then came the questions: ‘Why don’t you set up a website to advertise board vacancies for free? With your knowledge of the boardroom, why don’t you support people and create a community?’
“I just thought, ‘what a great idea’”, says Fiona. “It was meant to be a campaign, it wasn’t meant to be a business, but we are now running quite a serious business with 15 staff. I’ve just grabbed the baton and run with it.”
Rhianne Williams: It’s amazing to hear you’ve had that experience, especially as a child, and are using your professional position to help others gain access to the boardroom. How have you managed a high-profile career with other commitments in your life?
Fiona Hathorn: If you look at a lot of female leaders, there are a series of factors that make them successful. But ultimately, they have a strong sense of self, they are tenacious, and want to learn and change; nearly all of them have supportive partners. I married a man whose mother was the main breadwinner; my father’s mother was the main breadwinner. I worked with my husband to look after my children and didn’t see it as my sole responsibility.
Williams: How do you think the gender gap has improved?
Hathorn: We know from the research we’ve done on the Hidden Truth report, sponsored by Protiviti, that there has been very little progress on female executives in the FTSE All Share ex350, for example. Every company needs to understand their own issues and their culture because it’s not improving fast enough for me.
This is enormously important because it’s going to affect women’s pensions, life choices and career options. Life is about choices; I just want everyone to have the same choices and options. Financial empowerment is crucial to making those choices and creating the role model of a successful working mother.
Williams: What’s the biggest adversity you have faced in your career?
Hathorn: What’s been harder for me more recently is the success of the Women on Boards’ network alongside corporate D&I consultancy. We’re running a business with a strong purpose, and planting seeds to engage and support people in the boardroom and at the start of their careers. But sometimes it’s tough managing people: the higher up you go, you have to get the business strategy right, you also have to put the right team in place and empower them. I’m a high energy person, I can be quite annoying, slightly controlling, but I’m learning to give that away. That’s been my biggest adversity; it’s enjoyable, but tough at times.
Williams: People work differently, of course, what works for one doesn’t work for another. It’s really helpful to hear how you are approaching that process…
Hathorn: Influence is important. How do you influence? How do people like being influenced? You can learn it: understanding influence is about understanding people, and it’s not all done your way.
Williams: What’s the best work-related advice you’ve received and what’s your advice for others?
Hathorn: To have a career plan, create options and know your value. You may not know where you want to be in ten years’ time. But if you don’t have a plan, be careful, because your boss might have one for you that bears no resemblance to what you need to do. I once got promoted when I was eight months pregnant. My boss knew I was having children, but it wasn’t going to be an issue. You can fake it, even if you don’t quite believe it at the time.
I meet too many young women who once thought they could do anything, but now they have changed their minds. It’s a big issue. What makes me different? I didn’t know this at the time, but I’ll repeat it again: my father, who enabled my mother, and enabled me to have a different sense of self. We need that for everyone, and leaders are recognising it as well, which is great news.
iGROWW is Protiviti’s internal women’s network group and stands for ‘Initiative for Growth and Retention of Women at Work’. It has a strong voluntary membership that tackles women’s professional issues through forums, and facilitates networking events and community service activities. For more information, please contact Rhianne Williams [email protected].
For more information about the Women on Boards UK, visit www.womenonboards.co.uk