Olivia Garfield: a woman to watch

Olivia Garfield was named one of the 100 Women to Watch in a recent report by the prestigious Cranfield School of Management. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to her about how she manages a high-flying job and two small children.

Olivia Garfield was named one of the 100 Women to Watch in a recent report by the prestigious Cranfield School of Management.

Only 35 and with two young children, it is not the first time she has been singled out as someone to keep an eye on in business circles – for instance, she was recently highlighted in Global Telecom Business’ 40 under 40. Now the director for strategy and portfolio at BT, she manages to balance work and family life by working intensively and flexibly during the week and ensuring that she has quality time with the family at weekends.

Her job is a high-powered one. She is responsible for setting BT’s strategic and product direction across its business, particularly with regard to super-fast broadband. She is in charge of BT’s £2.5 billion fibre investment to roll out fibre-based, super-fast broadband to as many as 10 million homes in the UK by December 2012.

BT is only the second company she has worked for since graduating in languages from the University of Cambridge at 21. She says just before graduating she filled in six application forms for graduate training programmes and was offered jobs at four. She chose to take up a job at consultancy business Accenture because, she says, “the people felt like there were most like people I could work with”.

She did a ten-week induction course and then went “live” on a project. She says she was fortunate that Accenture had a structured career map so over the next six years she quickly rose up the ranks to become a consultant.

She decided to leave Accenture when she was 27 because, already the strategic thinker, she was planning ahead for how she would balance work and family life. She reckoned that the nature of her consultancy job at Accenture, which ironically has a very good record on flexible working, meant she would not be able to find an adequate work life balance if she had children. “I felt that the nature of consultancy work was that you were the beck and call of clients,” she says. “If they want you to stay longer in a meeting, you can’t walk out. I don’t mind working hard, but if I had children I would need to have some kind of planning. I had just got married and I knew I wanted to have children.”

She added that her mother told her she was working “mad hours” and asked what she would do if she had children.

Flexible working
She consciously chose BT, which was one of her clients at Accenture, in part because of its approach to work life balance. She had a few years to build her reputation before she became pregnant for the first time and develop a good relationship with her boss and she knew that the company has a very good record on encouraging flexible working, including for senior managers.

Olivia works flexibly across the week which allows her half a day a week when she can leave work at around 2.30pm and put her sons, aged three and one, to bed. She then logs back on most evenings after they are asleep. “It can be for 45 minutes or longer,” she says. “It’s all part of the flexible working and I love my job so I don’t mind getting sucked into it.”

She gets into work early, leaving the house before 7am so she doesn’t see her children in the morning. “I try to do my long hours at a time when they are asleep so I have more time later in the day when they are awake,” she says.

She says she also has a very supportive husband and a nanny. Her husband goes to work later in the morning than she does so he does the handover with the nanny. She adds that she might have a work event one night a week [and can go in later the next morning as a result] so when she does get home to the children her time is her children’s and she doesn’t think about work until they are in bed. She also tries to switch off after 6.30pm on a Friday until Sunday night, although she admits to checking her Blackberry a couple of times on a Saturday. “I don’t perceive it as working all the time, though,” she says.

She is anticipating changes when her children start school, but says so many people in the senior management team have children that it is accepted that things will go quiet in August, at Christmas and Easter, so much so that for two weeks in August the weekly senior management meeting is not run. “It’s an acknowledged situation and it allows people to recharge their batteries,” she says. “They would rather have full attendance for the rest of the year.”

Mobile working
She says some of her friends are “green with envy” at the flexibility she has at BT, which has a 96% return rate for women coming back after maternity leave. As a company which prides itself on being at the cutting edge of technology, it can do nothing less than promote mobile and flexible working, she says. “You don’t have to convince people that mobile working works here,” she laughs.

Olivia doesn’t feel she has come up against any glass ceilings at BT. Indeed, she says she was promoted when she fell pregnant for the first time. “They took the long view,” she says. She adds that working flexibly has not hampered her career because her reputation is based on her experience. Indeed as a “woman to watch” she is approached by a lot of headhunters.

However, she acknowledges that it can be hard to find a new flexible job if you have children because it comes down to the employer knowing how you work and having confidence in your ability to do a fantastic job as well as the company’s attitude to flexible working.

She adds that women who want a work life balance need to be realistic about the type of job they are applying for. Her job, for instance, could not be done part time, she says. “Some roles are suited to part time work and some are not,” she says. “You need to work out what is feasible.”

In her team most people work flexibly. There are unofficial core hours, but quite a few members of her team come in late after dropping off children and others leave early, including men. Three members of the team have just had babies and all work full-time but over four days. “What is important is that they are doing a fantastic job. That’s what matters,” she says.

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