After starting work at 16 with British Gas and working her way up to Director in Wales, Lynda is proof that a university degree isn’t always a prerequisite for success. Leading the company to more than 28 brand enhancing industry awards and increasing customer satisfaction by over 400%, Lynda’s determination and drive helped the team in Cardiff completely transform British Gas Customer Service.
Currently Director of Culture Angel and LJC Associates, Lynda now uses her wealth of experience to support businesses with high performing ambitions optimise their culture and put their people and customers at the heart of everything they do.
Tell us a bit about how you got into your current role
When I finished at Willows High School, going to university was never really an option. But I think that made me more determined; I wrote a letter to six companies and ended up getting a data prep job with British Gas. With 45 women and 1 man in the office, there was a real sense of community – it was fabulous.
I don’t think I’ve had an interview since; I’ve just spotted opportunities and gone for them. Before I left, I had three simultaneous roles: Director of British Gas in Wales, General Manager of the Contact Centre in Cardiff where I managed 1,300 people, and managing 450 staff in the Leeds branch. Just over a year ago I decided to enter consultancy, using my experience at British Gas to help other businesses.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
Working with other companies keeps me interested. I am involved in such great variety, there is never a dull moment. I’ve finally managed a work life balance after a health scare last year, so I try and aim for an average of 3 days a week depending on clients and contracts. My main specialty is culture and service strategy in organisations, and this is the main part of my work. I’m currently on a six-week contract with one company helping them sure up their culture and service so they can grow. My other area of specialism and expertise is leadership, and I’m involved in a number of leadership training activities with various clients. My USP is that I don’t just talk about the theory of leadership – based on 15 years as a senior leader in a major FTSE company, I help develop leaders.
What kind of leader are you?
Most people say I have a caring style of leadership. I class myself as firm but fair; If someone shows me they want to do a good job, I will help them all the way, clear the barriers and let them flourish. If someone is a nuisance and tries to bring things down, then I’ll try and work with them to turn it around, but if I can’t I’ll move them out. I don’t suffer fools gladly if they destruct the team dynamic.
What has been the key to your success?
I had three leaders at British Gas who had a huge influence on taking my career to the next level.
The first was Jan Reed who went on to become Chair of the CBI in Wales. You knew where you stood with her; she was very transparent and I completely trusted her. She recognised something in me and encouraged me to push a bit higher.
The second was Chris Jansen who ran the Premier Energy division responsible for 55% of the company’s profit. He was so strategic, so creative, quite inspirational. He really ‘walked the talk’ and that stood out to me. Chris did not accept failure or ‘I can’t’ and would be more supportive if you tried and failed rather than say you couldn’t try at all. He was a stickler for plans and accountability, and you made sure you delivered on your part of the plan.
The third was Adele Barker; we didn’t hit it off well; we were complete opposites. It took me a year to convince her I could do the General Manager job. Our relationship completely turned around after some external personality training; once we understood how to handle each other, we were a great team. I learned so much from her. She toughened me up and really taught me how to think outside the box.
Which achievement are you most proud of and why?
Winning the European Call Centre of the Year two years running. No company in the UK had won it at the time and British Gas didn’t have the best reputation back then. We won best place to work, best improvement strategy and one of the best engagement strategies, as well as the overall award twice – which was unheard of.
What is the main challenge you have you encountered in reaching your current position?
I’ve worked with some quite difficult people, but I’ve always tried to understand where people are coming from. Sometimes it’s been a lack of confidence, sometimes they’ve seen me as a rival. But I never had an ambitious plan to beat everyone; I just wanted to be the best I could be. One person used to call me ‘sweetheart’ and ‘darling’ and was very condescending but I tried to understand where he was coming from and why he behaved in this way. It actually came down to a lack of confidence and the fact that he saw me as a threat, so using this knowledge I learned how to handle him and what he needed from me to overcome this.
What’s the single most important lesson you’ve learned?
You don’t necessarily need skills or intellect to achieve what you want. I was probably one of the only leaders in British Gas that didn’t have a degree, but I’ve got 30 years’ practical experience. I focused on learning new things every day; I watched others and learned from what they did. What I’m trying to do now by studying for a Masters degree, is understand the psychology of human behaviour. It’s really interesting reflecting on my past interactions within the theoretical context.
What benefits do you believe female leaders bring to organisations?
Female leaders bring a different style to any organisation. Every organisation should encourage different thinking and different viewpoints and ideas to get the very best outcome. That’s why a diverse board should be welcome, which is not just about female leadership but diversity in general. You often hear the phrase ‘female style of leadership’ – this doesn’t just refer to female leaders but organisational leaders who genuinely care about their people and want to help nurture them.
If you could name 3 qualities you think are most important for aspiring leaders what would they be?
You have to be quite driven, be the leader you want to see and demonstrate you care and understand people. Not everyone’s the same and you get the best out of people when you understand their personal make up.
What is the greatest challenge for women in business?
The cost and availability of childcare; when I was working my way up in British Gas I was juggling work with caring for a young child and running a household. Many women struggle to make these three roles work. I always advise people to have a secondary childcare plan, but that’s not always an option and when children are ill it’s a real challenge.
What can Directors and CEOs do to help other women advance their careers?
I think they need to be more progressive and help women find a way around the challenges of childcare so they don’t lose out. Whether it’s supporting home working, enabling extra leave and so on, it would make a big difference.
In your view, who is a good female role model?
Adele Barker; she’s very strategic and driven. She’ll always try and find a way to achieve what she wants to. She’s a good friend of mine now. If I really think about worldwide leadership, I have a huge amount of respect for Michelle Obama. She cares, she follows through on her promises and she has this gift of people naturally following her. She’s also a mum and I find her very inspirational when she speaks, as it appears to come from the heart.
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?
Very. British Gas are a good example of a company who have really nailed it. They really recognise the value women bring. They employ many good female leaders and the internal board has a good 50:50 ratio of men to women.
What advice would you give to young women who have ambitions to reach senior leadership level?
Firstly, don’t limit your ambition by just thinking of the next step. Chris (Jansen) used to say: ‘Aim for the stars and you’ll come back to the moon’. If you aim the highest you can possibly aim, you won’t reach that point – but you won’t be far off.
Secondly, ask for feedback and welcome it; don’t take it to heart.
Lastly, don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to prove yourself because ‘I’m a woman’ and take on an authoritarian style or try to compete with the men. Women are succeeding in leadership because they are passionate, driven and genuinely care about helping other people develop and succeed.
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