Rising up the career ladder in Sodexo


Jane Bristow, a managing director at Sodexo,the international food services and facilities management organisation, talks to Workingmums.co.uk about her role, how she got there and what she thinks can help encourage other women’s career progression.

Workingmums.co.uk: What does your role entail?

Jane Bristow: I am the managing director of Sodexo’s Education business, providing catering and facilities management services at schools, colleges and universities across the UK. I manage a team of 3,500 people and we had revenues of €125 million in our last financial year.

WM: Did you have a career plan when you graduated?

JB: Not really! After university I applied for graduate-level jobs through the milkround and accepted a position with Whitbread, because I very much liked the people I met in the interview process. I progressed through various managerial roles, partly steered by the company but also directing my own course.

WM: What has helped you to rise up the career ladder? Have you, for instance, benefited from mentors, good role models, etc?

JB: Sponsorship has played a big role in my career progression, particularly as I developed into more senior roles. I have also benefited from coaching and mentoring at all stages of my career. My very first big break came when I was just starting my career and the MD of the business unit gave me an area in Cambridge and East Anglia when I had no experience, but bags of enthusiasm. He saw potential and was happy to support my appointment.

WM: What have you found to be the most satisfying parts of your job over the years, and the most challenging?

JB: I have always been most motivated by working with people and managing the performance of teams. When people fulfil their potential it can be incredibly motivating, but equally when things don’t go to plan, it can be frustrating.

WM: Have you faced any particular challenges as a woman in the workplace?

JB: I have faced various challenges. Things have come a long way in terms of diversity and career progression for women. Quite early on in my career I was the first female area manager in my pub company. It was in the days when many of my counterparts travelled from pub to pub, conducting business over a pint. I had to change things and do things my own way – indeed that’s what the company was looking for me to do. In several roles I was the only woman in an all-male team. It could be lonely and I had to be confident in my approach.

WM: What do you think helps most in supporting women’s career progression? Do employers need, for instance, to take a different approach/ offer different benefits to people at different ages and stages in their career?

JB: Professional support and development are crucial. Sponsorship, mentoring and coaching can be very important to help women make the leaps. Research shows that women won’t apply for more senior positions unless they feel they tick every box, which is very different to men. It is important to encourage women to stretch themselves in terms of recruitment and promotion. Of course, after having children, the ability to work flexibly is very important to women, and indeed to men. It is important that companies take a longer term view on career planning to accommodate this.

WM: What do you think older women can teach younger women employees and vice versa?

JB: As a senior woman in the business I hope I can share my experience, but it is always very refreshing to work with younger women. For that reason I really enjoy mentoring. People assume that mentoring only really benefits the mentee, but, in actual fact, I find that being a mentor helps me to keep in touch with younger women in the business and helps me understand the career challenges they are facing.

WM: Why did you join Sodexo’s Women’s International Forum for talent (SWIFt) and what is your role on it? What are its aims and what have been the main developments since it was founded?

JB: I was invited to join SWIFt in 2011 and I sit on the steering committee, which brings together senior Sodexo leaders from around the world. As part of the role I have worldwide accountability for our ‘flexibility’ strand, which is one of six programmes of work. The aims of SWIFt are to increase the number of women leaders in Sodexo and to achieve better gender balance, particularly in operational roles. In the UK we have done this by setting up a women’s employee network group (also open to men) which has delivered mentoring programmes, client engagement events and provided a platform for promoting positive and diverse role models internally and externally. In 2007, 16.5% of Sodexo’s top 300 leaders globally were female; today that figure is 23%. In the UK & Ireland [UK&I] a third of Sodexo’s leadership team is female. As a result we have been named as one of the Times’ Top 50 Employers for Women and, in 2014, won the Global Award at the Opportunity Now Excellence in Practice Awards.

WM: What difference does having an international forum make from having a national one?

JB: Sodexo is very much a global organisation, with a huge range of different cultures and origins. I value working with colleagues from different countries on SWIFt enormously. It is important to get different viewpoints, share best practice and work together to drive innovation in this area.

WM: How important are female role models?

JB: Very important. It is vital to have a diversity of role models with different traits and strengths. Through our Sodexo UK&I WomenWork Network we have championed successful women at all levels of the business and brought in external role models who can help inspire us.

WM: How old are your children?

JB: I have two sons who are 19 and 21.

WM: What is a typical working day for you?

JB: There isn’t really a typical day. Every day I am dealing with employees, clients and customers. I especially enjoy meeting our teams and hearing about all the great things they have been doing. I attend meetings and also have paperwork and emails to get through. It’s a bit of a juggling act to fit everything in and you have to be happy to occasionally reassess your priorities to fit the time available! When my children were younger I had to be careful to ensure I was home at the agreed time. I would always take my children to school on one day a week and even now when the boys are home we eat dinner together as frequently as possible.

WM: Do you need a certain resilience to get to top as a working mum?

JB: Absolutely. Inevitably you have to make tough decisions and you have to compromise. I always thought of myself as a mum first, businesswoman second. At times I have had to be confident in order to do the right thing for my children.

WM: What helps?

JB: I have been very lucky to have support from my husband and was fortunate to have been able to afford good childcare. I also have a great wider network of family and friends who I have been able to call on. On the other side, I feel very fortunate that I have worked for people who supported and championed women’s careers, and were happy for me to manage my work and family commitments in a way that worked for me.

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