Heels of steel


Vanessa Vallely has written a book on her life and how other women can make it in the corporate world.

At the age of 11 Vanessa Vallely would clean offices with her mum from 5pm to 10pm from Mondays to Wednesdays after school, work in a pie and mash shop on Thursdays from 4-8pm, clean her house from top to bottom on Fridays, work in the pie and mash shop on Saturdays and do weekly cleaning jobs to give her mother a break on Sundays.

It was a routine which instilled in her the strong work ethic and determination that drove her rise up the City career ladder and which is evident in every page of her book Heels of Steel, the story  of her life and a guide to other businesswomen on how to survive and thrive in the corporate world.

When she was helping her mum clean City offices in London Vanessa often dreamt of working in them and at just over 15 she left school and headed straight for those offices to seek a job, not giving in until she got one. Spurred by a desire to make life better for her and her mother, she says she is extremely proud of what she has achieved, including how she set up WeAreTheCity.com, a networking group that helps other City women get ahead.

From a family that includes East End royalty – her paternal grandfather was a Pearly King – she charts her mother’s struggles to earn enough money to look after her, which involved doing several jobs and relying on childminders and self-employed grandparents to care for Vanessa during the holidays.

She says the family would often have less than £3 a week to live on, but that that adversity gave her an amazing amount of inner strength and resilience. “When every day is a mountain, you become a fairly good climber,” she states.

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Rising up

It was that kind of resilience that served her well in the City. In the early days, due to some initial setbacks and prejudice in the banking industry, she turned to IT, learnt the ropes as a secretary and took a job in a small company as a receptionist. From there she moved into the training department and by dint of a lot of hard work, was promoted to a management role. By 22 she was managing director of her own training company, but decided to quit self employment for the stability of a fixed job where there was no need to sort her own taxes.

She describes the various job moves she made over the years and how having children impacted on her career. After her daughter was born, she went back three days a week to a lesser back office role, but describes in detail the confidence issues and swirl of emotions she faced. She felt, she says, as if she was “being left behind”. “I was a new mum in a dead end job,” she states. She lasted a few months, “becoming more and more brain dead”, before she jumped ship and found another job which was fairly flexible. She did the drop-offs and pick-ups and ran the house on top of doing her job. She became pregnant again and this time round that was clear she was not prepared to go back to a back office job. She took four months maternity leave, which she now believes was too short, and came back into a new role with added responsibilities.

She describes a period of intense working, overworking, as her banking career took off and her husband took on the main caring role. She would often work 14 hours a day and return home after her children had gone to bed. She says: “I wore a suit that made me look like a bloke and half of the decisions I made were shaped by others as opposed to what I actually felt was right.” Her work had become her “new family”. “I had lost my way and myself, and at the time I just couldn’t see it,” she says.


Eventually she did see it and decided to cut back on her hours, make a change and do “something in the world that actually counted”. On holiday, she and her husband chatted over a glass of wine about the possibility of setting up a website for time-poor women which focused on their career and personal needs. WeAreTheCity.com was born and Vanessa began to learn the ropes of networking. Now known as London’s queen of networking, she admits that she was quite nervous about networking in the early days and it took her several months to learn how to do it. Support from a US investment bank and ‘supermum’ Nicola Horlick helped the organisation on its way and it has now grown into a significant networking body.

Vanessa still managed to climb up the career ladder while working on WeAreTheCity.com in her spare time, but has recently taken a sabbatical, which has helped her write the book. She says the book was one of the things she had on her things to do before she hit 40 list. It is no surprise that she has such a list, given the immense amount of organisation she has put into keeping all the different balls she juggles in the air.

The second half of her book is a guide to climbing the corporate career ladder based on what Vanessa has learnt from her own experience and that of others. It is no surprise that hard work and planning take centre stage. The section starts with a call to have a “personal mission statement” of what you want for your life, why you want it and when. Then comes goal setting, which Vanessa also uses for the family. She even has different categories of goals – life; financial; work; personal; and home. She says: “Managing your career and your life is a bit like a business, and because there are similarities it is helpful to mirror some of the same processes a business would have.”

It’s a ruthlessly organised world, a world driven by business plans, but it seems to have worked for her. Again unsurprisingly, given the ethos of WeAreTheCity.com, there is a strong emphasis on building relationships and networking, in life as in business, for instance, building school run networks in case of childcare crises.


She exhorts women to be more confident, but at the same time impress their boss by thinking like them, acting as a confidant, always giving an extra 20% and managing their to do list. However, she does later include a section on how to handle a difficult boss [she advises to talk it through with the boss as soon as possible and if the problem is insurmountable to consider leaving, although in a way that doesn’t burn all your bridges should you bump into them again on the circuit].  Other tips include getting a mentor or becoming one, how to use social media and how to raise your profile.

Finally, she asks if women can have it all. She advises that there may be times in your career when you cannot do all that you might like to, but suggests ways of buying yourself time, such as compromising on housework. She says: “Will 80% clean and tidy be OK or do you really need to bleach those skirting boards with a toothbrush every week [or is that just me that goes to that extreme!]?”, to which the answer is undoubtedly yes. Her 80% might be another person’s 200% - although she does admit to paying a man to do the ironing because she hates it.

The book ends with a call to women to push their boundaries and a rallying cry to organisation as the chief weapon in their armour. This embraces everything from weekly planning meetings with the family, to do lists for everything, even holidays and rest periods, to using technology and any free gaps in time to catch up with shopping, friends and family either by phone or, to save even more time, by text.

The book is certainly an insight into the immense organisational skills needed by women to make it to the top in a corporate career in a way that allows them time for other priorities and it seems to have served Vanessa well since she is able to fit work, her WeAreTheCity.com network, mentoring others, being involved in charity work and her family into her week.

Even she is surprised by how much she does, though. At the end she says: “Seeing some of my life and career on paper has made me realise just how much I have managed to pack in in such a relatively short period of time. I honestly haven’t stopped!” Just returned from her well-earned six-month sabbatical, she now plans to devote more time to WeAreTheCity.com and help more women to rise up the ladder.

*Heels of steel: surviving and thriving in a corporate world is published by Panoma Press, price £14.99.

Comments [1]

  • Anonymous says:

    I have read Vanessa Vallely's Heels of Steel book already and as a Mum to two daughters under 5 and an entrepreneur running my own business almost full time I identified with many of her points, but was also deeply inspired…Thanks Vanessa and thanks Working Mums for spreading the word about this fabulous book!

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