Women in Business: Q&A with Sophie Cecil

Next in our Women in Business blog series, we meet Sophie Cecil, Group HR Director and member of the Group Senior Leadership Team who has been part of the New Directions family for 7.5 years.

What does a typical day in your role look like?

I have two roles… one is HR Director, which means I have full responsibility for HR activity for the group of companies. My duties focus on driving people management strategy and managing the HR team, procedures and processes; implementing the HR, Learning and Development and Wellbeing Strategies and working alongside the Commercial Heads of each company in the New Directions group. My other role is working as part of the Group Senior Leadership Team (GSLT), which is more about ensuring that we are on track with the Chairman’s vision, mission and values. We set strategy and structure, monitor and evaluate the implementation of policies, strategies and business plans for the five commercial businesses and ensure accountability to shareholders. The GSLT is accountable to relevant stakeholders. We ensure that internal controls are effective, and we communicate with the businesses accordingly.

I usually start the day by catching up with my HR Manager for an update on our workforce, considering areas of concern and reviewing any projects or reports the team have prepared. 

I try to plan my diary carefully, but to be honest, it can quite easily all go out the window. With people coming in for advice; changing project deadlines; reviewing reports and statistical info which help to make some of the daily decisions; dealing with operational challenges; reviewing policies and procedures; checking budgets against requests; reviewing new learning and development material for sign off; preparing for anything in the pipeline such as the Managers’ Conference or Celebrating Success event; reviewing caselaw with my colleague Andrew Stocks; and looking at areas of risk to the business; all in all, I’m a quite a busy lady and my day often pans out differently to what I had planned – but that’s the nature of HR and leadership.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I love the fact that it is just so diverse. I could be advising on a case, carrying out workforce planning, troubleshooting with the GSLT or Commercial Heads, writing and communicating the strategy, consulting GSLT colleagues on new ideas or best practice ways of working, or meeting external partners/stakeholders. It is very varied and keeps me on my toes.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Being a woman… it’s a man world!

Although the world is improving with their attitude towards women in the boardroom, male leaders still get away with much more than females – less accountability, fewer questions asked etc.

Then there has been the sexual harassment; something I haven’t suffered in my current role, but it was something I experienced on occasions throughout my career. The offenders certainly didn’t do it twice and the less said the better on repercussions.

I earned my position of leadership through challenging the status quo, not putting up with narrowmindedness or dinosaurs, and delivering results in each position I have held.  I am loyal, energetic, resilient, determined and can be strong-willed, so this has set me in good stead to work as a senior leader!

Have there been any defining moments in your career that have contributed to your success?

My manager from my previous position was a fantastic coach and mentor. She was a successful mother of four, who worked so hard and was at the top of her game. She was an inspirational go-getter with a positive attitude, who was calm, professional and supportive at the same time. She recognised early on in our working journey together that I had the skills and attributes of a leader.

Having someone like her believe in me really did inspire me to pursue my dream of becoming a positive female leader, providing inspiration and encouragement to every woman, no matter what their background.

What were your career aspirations when you started your working life? Did you have a clear plan or ambition?

I wanted to be a Chef believe it or not, and even enrolled at college! But over that summer, I worked as a grill chef and realised it was way too unsociable for me and a 9-5 office job was more suitable. This experience made me realise that I needed to be around people. I had had quite a tough upbringing – my parents divorced when I was very young and my mum suffered terribly from depression, spending much of her life in and out of institutions – so I was fiercely independent, very organised and weirdly exceptionally positive in nature, which definitely helped shape my future.

My early years were definitely the making of me and I realised from a young age that people listened to what I had to say, I had influence and with this, I could make a difference to situations and people. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, when I slipped into a role managing a team, that I quickly realised a potential future role in leadership was for me. From thereon in, my aspiration was to be an influential female leader, making a difference because of my passion for people and integrity.

My plan then became simple; go travelling, see the world, gain valuable experiences with different cultures… then come back and get my head down in a management role where I would be afforded the opportunity to study CIPD at University, then work my way to the top by the time I was 40. There were no plans for kids, but I ended up having three boys along the way!

How would you define a great leader? Who is your inspiration?

Karren Brady is an inspirational female leader. She is very much in a man’s world and achieved so much at a young age. I love her famous quote:

Hard work will always bring opportunities.

How do you achieve a healthy work-life balance?

I have become very good at listening to my body. If I get stressed, I suffer from Visual Vertigo, so I have no choice but to maintain a healthy work-life balance. I walk or jog with my dog every morning for a minimum of 30 minutes where I mentally tee myself up for the day ahead. I then try to exercise three times a week, alternating between the gym (weights) and cycling.

I also try to work from home one day each week and fit my working day around my children. For example, I cook dinner, we sit down together and discuss the day and then I log back on later in the evening once everyone has gone to bed, so I can finish any outstanding work.

I am quite bad at clocking off completely, but it doesn’t add stress. If anything it ensures I am less stressed. I like to keep abreast of what is happening in the business. Some people like their time out, I prefer to keep my finger on the pulse (even when on holiday!) by spending around an hour each day sorting through emails with quick wins.

We dine together as a family at least four times a week, which is really important to me. I want to find out what the kids’ day has been like because we can easily get lost in the day-to-day. I see families who just don’t talk or acknowledge each other, and it drives me crazy – we all need social skills because these are fast becoming lost in today’s society. I believe this will really put my kids in good stead when their time comes to find a decent job.

What drives and motivates you?

Success motivates me to deliver in my role, whether that is the success of the business or the success of an employee or even my own success in learning something new, such as a qualification, a promotion, an award or even the achievement of enhanced communication to bring people closer together.

What advice would you give to women who aspire to be in leadership/management roles?

If you want to break into the competitive world of leadership and management, you will need to work hard and really push yourself. Feel the fear about something and just do it anyway – don’t get too hung up on the things you can’t change.

I’d encourage you to take every opportunity that comes your way and always have a ‘pint half full’ approach to work and life, so at least when you do get knocked down you can bounce back and learn from the experience.

I have a good gut instinct and have always relied on it, so if you have one, it will serve you well in your quest for leadership. Never trust anyone, trust is earned through behaviour and positive actions.

What is the most important thing you’ve learnt in your career journey so far?

You can’t please everyone, so don’t try to, and always admit it if you have made a mistake. It takes balls, but people respect you for your honesty and accountability. 

What achievements are you most proud of?

I feel really proud of New Directions achieving Investors in People Gold, especially when (before my arrival) the Assessor had told the business that New Directions had very little chance of achieving it.

I’m also proud of being awarded HR Professional of the Year in 2016. This was an amazing achievement and one of the proudest moments in my career so far.

We hope Sophie’s story inspires you as much as us. Tune in soon to read our next Women in Business blog…