Karren Brady is tired of going to International Women’s Day events at Downing Street and seeing the same old faces. She wants to inspire the next generation of businesswomen and so she has written Strong Woman: Ambition, Grit and a Great Pair of Heels, a book about her own struggles and successes, describing the ups and the downs of being a woman in business and hopes this will give women a realistic picture of what is involved and what the benefits can be.
Karren Brady is tired of going to International Women’s Day events at Downing Street and seeing the same old faces. She wants to inspire the next generation of businesswomen and so she has written Strong Woman: Ambition, Grit and a Great Pair of Heels, a book about her own struggles and successes, describing the ups and the downs of being a woman in business and hopes this will give women a realistic picture of what is involved and what the benefits can be. So far so good. The first chapter lays out her core aims and beliefs.
She says: “So why am I keen to see other women climb the ladder? It’s simple. I love my career. I’ve combined it with being a mother, and I think I’ve been a success at both. That’s why the description I think suits me best, more than chairperson, vice-chairperson or CEO, is working mother. That is what I am – a mother who works. My work and my children are the most important things in my life.”
In part, she says, she is writing the book for her daughter, now a teenager, and for other working mums and their daughters. The chapter touches on issues ranging from Brady’s belief that childcare costs should be claimable against tax to the need to increase the number of women on boards, something Brady has done her best to address in the male-dominated world of football, latterly promoting three senior women to the board of West Ham.
There then follows a few chapters on how she got started in her career and how she believes a determined desire for independence – in part a result of boarding school - was behind her rise. She certainly doesn’t seem to have done the things most young women do when they are young. Most of her late teens and early 20s appear totally dominated by work, a commitment to which she inherited from her father. She believes this drive and energy is why she worked her way rather rapidly up the career ladder and that hard work and personality compensate for a lack of ability in other areas. The chapters put a huge emphasis on hard work, indeed more than hard work, punishing work. Brady rarely ate at home. She seemed to work all the time. She didn’t take a holiday for 13 years and when she eventually does, she takes a Blackberry with her so she is contactable at all times.
Brady’s straightforward utilitarian approach to business and life – she says at one point that she didn’t want to go to university to become a professional; the book gives no sense of a wider world outside the world of work – and her fearlessness soon got her noticed by none other than Sunday Sport publisher David Sullivan, who is still a mentor figure for her [unsurprisingly, she says she emails him in the middle of the night regularly]. For a young woman she appears to have been amazingly clear about what she wanted and how to get it. She would go to networking events, knew exactly who she wanted to talk to and would make a beeline for them. While everyone else in her team at Saatchi’s where her career began was in jeans and t-shirts she would always come in a suit so that she would be selected to meet clients. Her business instincts and sheer enjoyment of achievements such as relaunching Birmingham as a family brand and hugely inflating its value are well documented. She knows exactly what she is doing.
However, it is in this early phase of her career that the inspiring message she seems to want to impart starts to ring a bit hollow. How many people are prepared to follow that punishing example? Brady is clearly very driven and likes hard work, but her compulsion for hard work seems to border on the extreme. She expects similar hard work from her colleagues. She says if she rang her colleagues up at 3am and said there was a crisis, she could expect them to jump into action. It sounded like that was not an uncommon event in her football career.
Nevertheless, she also likes to be in control so how difficult must it be to fit family life into the equation? She is famous for only taking three days’ maternity leave with her first child, something she now regrets. Since then she has come to a realisation that the way to have both a family and work life is to drop all semblance of a social life, not that she appeared to have much beforehand. She seems perfectly happy to do so.
However, it is when she talks about how she has managed to keep up the work pace while being a hands-on mum that the book gets more interesting. She lays out the kind of issues all working mums struggle with – trying to struggle through work having hardly slept with small babies, the constant questions about whether you are spending enough time with your children and how you get the balance right…Her motto is "Press on". There’s no let-up and in this Brady is no different to most working mums.
She emphasises how hard it is to do both the mum thing and the career thing and recognises that she may have been lucky in some respect because being in senior management she had both more money for childcare and more flexibility to be able to take time out if there was a child-related emergency. Even while she is writing you sense that she is still struggling with getting the right balance. There is no attempt to gloss over the kinds of compromises she has had to make to stay at the top of her career and still be a good mother.
At the moment, for instance, when she is in London working with West Ham or on The Apprentice or in any of her numerous other roles, including non-executive chair positions in organisations as diverse as Mothercare and Channel 4, she admits to working from the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to sleep. She doesn’t stop for lunch or go to the gym – her health scare over a brain aneurism does not appear to have slowed her down at all. She works Monday to Thursday in London and sees her family at weekends. However, she has not always worked such a punishing schedule since having children – she and her husband have taken turns in being the main carer – and she admits she is not sure it is sustainable.
The thing that comes across clearly in the book is that although she might be a bit of a one-off, Brady does get the whole working mum thing and is passionate about it. She also knows her flaws. She says at one point that she simply doesn’t get why women have self esteem issues. At another point she comments that she does not see why people get nervous at interviews since she sees them as an opportunity to showcase her abilities. A male manager has to tell her that a colleague may not be performing to the best of their abilities because they are going through family problems. Brady says she doesn’t bring family issues into work and believes part of her success is because of her lack of emotion in the workplace. However, she recognises that it is important to create an atmosphere at work where people feel supported, relaxed and able to express themselves, even if this appears to be totally alien from her own way of operating.
Unsurprisingly Brady’s top tip for climbing the career ladder is hard work. Her story is about her own business success, but much of what she says about running a large business is very much applicable to a small one, to a large degree because she believes that part of her success is having a small business mentality, creating a sense of loyalty and keeping an eye on the bottom line. She acknowledges that small businesses allow women the flexibility to negotiate what works for them in terms of work life balance. In fact, she says more and more women are setting up their own businesses because their jobs don’t recognise their need for a family life. “I’ll be intrigued to see how many businesses are started by women rather than men over the next few years,” she writes. “It could become a big problem for businesses that will not accommodate women’s needs.”
What you certainly sense from this book is that Brady will not just be watching the rise of women in business from the sidelines, but championing all those women who, like her, love their families, but are also passionate about their work.
Karren Brady: Strong Woman: Ambition, Grit and a Great Pair of Heels, is published by Harper Collins, price £18.99, hardback.