‘My ongoing challenge continues to be how to lead as a woman – like me, not like a man’
Building a company is a difficult task. Whether starting their own or growing an established business, these leaders have made a name for themselves as some of the best of the best. So, what makes business leaders tick and what are they aiming to achieve when all is said and done? We spoke to Sharon Whale, Deputy Global Chief Executive of OLIVER, about her journey in business.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
Most of my challenges have been defined by the pure fact of being a woman in business. In my early days, the myth you could have it all put a lot of pressure on aspiring female leaders, and I bought into that wholesale. It was a mental drawback at times when the juggle seemed impossible.
Coming back to work from my second maternity leave and facing redundancy – a change in leadership meant I was invisible to the new guard – took a toll on my confidence that took time to rebuild.
But the ongoing challenge continues to be how to lead as a woman – like me, not like a man. I believe you should mentor, manage and develop people in a safe environment – that no one operates at peak performance from a place of fear and that you can be honest, direct and compassionate in business.
Other than being a female leader, the biggest career challenge was when I joined Oliver – working for a founder, in a young but extremely high-growth company, full of entrepreneurial leaders. It unleashed my potential to be a CEO and the first couple of years put me on the fast track to being a good one, but the resilience and sheer dogged determination required in the early days of my career here was a big challenge.
Is there anything you wish you knew before you first started out?
For a lot of people in my industry, work is part and parcel of their personal lives. I’ve learned that for me, it’s important to maintain a healthy distance between the two: I like to separate my work life from my home and personal life. So I wish I’d known how to compartmentalise when I first started out.
I also wish I’d known how to advocate for myself – when I started out in advertising, I’m pretty sure my male counterparts were on higher salaries than me!
Did you always want to be a business leader or did the desire develop over time?
My leadership journey has been a bit fickle – I had the desire in my early days, I lost it, and then it came back… with a vengeance!
I recall being in charge of a large team at an advertising agency in my 20s, at a point when my ambition outstripped my ability. When my team lost some big accounts and we had to let people go, I struggled hugely with the negative impact that would have on people’s careers and I stepped back from the business. Life took over – I got married, had kids and declined all sorts of opportunities because I just didn’t want a massive level of responsibility.
It’s only at OLIVER that I’ve rediscovered my desire – and ability – for leadership. I like to get things done, I love it when a plan comes together! That, to me, is practical leadership.
What is your top tip for other business leaders?
It’s so important to lead with your values at the forefront, especially during turbulent times when it’s easy in business to go down dark alleyways and get myopically focused. Being clear on your values means there’s always a North Star.
That clarity also enables you to flex your leadership style. Brilliant leaders don’t have just one speed or gear or style – they flex and build their leadership muscle in tandem with the needs of their people and their organisations.
The other tip I’d add is leadership is less about how much you speak, and much more about the depth to which you listen. People need to be heard, and you still need to drive forward, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Finally, be decisive. In most situations, execution eats strategy for breakfast.
What are your plans for the future?
Continuing the journey I’m on now to offer the unique competitive advantage of our inside model to as many clients as will listen! To make OLIVER a company that has continued long-term growth and success, where you can build your career in many different ways, in many different directions and countries. To be an inclusive, diverse place to work. We’re continuing to build a business that has a sustainable foundation, with a long view. That’s still incredibly exciting.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I like to think that I’ll leave a business where what’s important – honesty, inclusivity, diversity, sustainability – are as much a part of its DNA as growth and profitability.
What makes a great business leader?
For me, best-in-class leaders are those who are constantly learning, who are humble enough not to think they’re better than anyone else, who listen hard, are decisive – and who live their core values, which for me are honesty, loyalty, empathy and kindness.