* Since this Q&A was published, Hannah has taken up a new role as Financial Director at SA Brain and Company.
Hannah is the Finance Director for JoJo Maman Bébé, the maternity and baby wear retailer with 80 stores nationwide. When Hannah joined, the company was turning over £7-8 million; this has since increased by over 600%.
Before joining the company in 2004, Hannah qualified as an accountant at PwC and spent six months with HBOS card services. Aside from a brief sabbatical working for an architecture firm, she’s been at JoJo Maman Bébé ever since.
Tell us a little about the role you’re in now
I’m responsible for running JoJo Maman Bébé’s finance team and all financial processes. This includes responsibility for financial systems; preparing management accounts and financial statements; managing forecasting, cash and currency within the business; and managing relationships with professional advisors, banks and insurers.
I now have 16 in the team. When I started it was me and one other person who was on holiday at the time – I was on my own, having never worked in industry before! I worked from the bottom up, running the purchase ledger, payroll, sales ledger as well as preparing the accounts and forecasts; there’s nothing I haven’t done.
What parts of your role do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy the diversity and pace of the work; because we’re a small, fast growing company, we’re really agile and not afraid to change things if it’s the right thing to do. I can honestly say that every single day is different.
People say it’s hard for people in retail to leave retail, and having been with JoJo Maman Bébé for almost 13 years I would agree with that!
Which experiences have helped you in reaching a leadership role?
At my all girls’ school, we were always encouraged to do whatever we wanted and I think that played a big part. I’m aware there are barriers to women progressing into leadership roles and there’s been a lot of talk recently about lack of diversity in the workplace, but I’ve been fortunate not to have experienced either myself. PwC had a good split and we were given the same opportunities regardless of gender. HBOS was also very diverse, and both there and at the architecture firm, I had female bosses. I never felt there was a limit to what I could achieve.
What has been the key to your success?
I have a strong mother who gave me a great grounding. She gave us lots of confidence and always encouraged us to do what we wanted. I always wanted to be independent and make my own money; I started working at 14, and then worked for Lloyds Bank before and during university.
Which achievement are you most proud of and why?
Being made a Director at a large retail company before I was 30 gave me a big sense of achievement.
What is the main challenge you have you encountered in reaching your current position?
I had to fight for my role here; there was a perception I was too young, but I had already proven I was capable of the job and managed to convince the board I was ready. In hindsight, I may have been a bit young, but I grew up very quickly.
What’s the single most important lesson you’ve learned?
There are two really: one, I would never expect anybody to do something I wouldn’t do myself. I always show my team respect.
The second is you have to fight for what you really believe in and what you want; choose your battles, stand your ground and really believe in yourself.
What benefits do you believe female leaders bring to organisations?
Empathy is a big one, the ability to acknowledge that maybe something isn’t quite right and change direction, and listening. Active listening is really important for empowering your teams.
If you could name 3 qualities, you think are most important for aspiring leaders what would they be?
Respect, for the people working for you, ambition to keep pushing forward, and communication. It’s easy to get too busy to communicate, but I have a monthly meeting to update my team. They’ve got to know the bigger picture if we want them to be engaged in where the company’s going.
What can Directors and CEOs do to help other women advance their careers?
By giving them the chance, providing opportunities, and being more flexible.
What is the greatest challenge for women in business?
The first is the self-belief, the second – which I don’t have any personal experience of – is how hard it must be to balance work with kids; it must be an enormous stress. Flexible working is the only answer, and I’d like to believe the workplace is heading that way regardless because of technology.
In your view, who is a good female role model?
Emma Watson – she is a real heroine of mine. Her prominent ethical stance both in regards to the planet and female equality is hugely inspirational. She is UN Women Goodwill ambassador and helped launch the UN Women campaign HeForShe, which calls for men to advocate gender equality which is hugely important to me.
How important is the role of your male counterparts in business in helping reduce the gender gap and to raise awareness of the importance of women leadership roles?
Ironically, we have the opposite challenge here, where we have a disproportionate number of women in the company. It’s not for want of trying; it’s just that not many men want to work in maternity and baby wear. Until recently, JoJo Maman Bébé only had females on the board, so we’re actively trying to integrate more men!
What advice would you give to young women who have ambitions to reach senior leadership level?
That you can. That was something that the CEO of Barclays said at a breakfast seminar I went to; he felt part of the problem started in school, with boys believing they can achieve their ambitions and girls thinking they can’t. Why that happens, I don’t know. But if you believe in yourself and believe that something is possible, it is. Even though the FTSE 100 board make up doesn’t reflect it, we are making strides; we’ve only had the vote for 100 years!
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