Tackling the female pipeline

Vanessa Vallely tells workingmums.co.uk about her new book Heels of Steel about her rise up the corporate ladder.

Heels of Steel


Vanessa Vallely’s book Heels of Steel tells the story  of her life and a guide to other businesswomen on how to survive and thrive in the corporate world. Vanessa set up WeAreTheCity.com,  a networking group that helps other City women get ahead, while working her way up the corporate ladder in the finance industry. Workingmums.co.uk asked her about the book and her working life.

How long did it take you to write the book and what inspired it?

Vanessa Vallely: The book took approximately nine weeks to write and it was inspired by my list of 40 things to do before I was 40. I had this vision that I would complete the first draft of the book on International Women’s Day and I did. Nine weeks is some achievement for a 85,000 word book. However, I was extremely disciplined, rising at 5am on weekends and working most evenings when I returned from work to get it done. My life is generally one big set of plans and to do’s so this was just another task for me, albeit a big one.

What has the initial feedback been like?

VV: The feedback is that the book is very real and doesn’t play to the “this is how you do it” model that some other books have adopted. Its very much my experiences, my advice with the caveat that I am not the all-seeing eye and different things work for different people. It was written to provoke thought in seasoned corporate workers, but also to inspire the future pipeline of corporate workers. In my eyes, it’s the pipeline that is key as they are future of our economy. We should all be doing our utmost to support them, be it by mentoring or opening doors of opportunity.

How important do you think your childhood was in preparing you for a career in the City?

VV: Exceptionally useful, as I cite in the book, growing up in the East End and in my case with financial restrictions, you become extremely good at solving problems with no money, therefore when 2008 came and everyone was pulling in their purse strings, I came in to my own as I had experience of solving problems with little resources. One of the best aspects of a couple of roles I held was when I was running cost saving plans. It is only when you start to look at things at a granular level can you see how much you can save if you just think in a different way. This applies to home too.

You mentioned that you were not a natural at networking. How did you break the ice?

VV: I don’t think it’s a case of women aren’t natural networkers, more the fact we don’t consider it to be something we have to consciously do. When I first started, I struggled with it, as I had to work out what my story was and get that right in my own head before attending events and engaging with others. This involved working on how I introduced myself to others, so people I met would interested in what I had to say. I learnt very quickly that the key to building relationships is always give first. Luckily this is a trait of mine, so once I started to help others, networking and connecting became a little addictive. I just loved seeing two people I connected become friends or do business, it’s a great feeling that you have helped in some way.

Do you think women go about business differently from men, particularly after having children?

VV: I think our journeys are different to men and I do believe we have in-built skill sets that we should maximise. I know when I had my children my career took a back seat for a while as I knew where my focus needed to be. That said, as time progressed and my roles became more demanding, the boat began to rock because it is extremely difficult to have it all, all of the time. You ultimately have to get comfortable with the decisions you make and what works for your family. There have been times when I look back and think, well that was a bit of a set of messed up priorities. However, you live and learn and invariably don’t make the same mistakes twice.

How does your mum view your success?

VV: My mum has to be my biggest fan, to the point that I think people probably avoid her now. I met someone at a City event recently and through conversation it came up that she lived locally and then that she knew my mum as she gets on the same bus each morning. She then went on to tell me how the whole bus knows everything I do and feel they already know me! Joking aside, I wouldn’t be what I am without my mum. She is my best friend and the very person that told me if you work hard and focus there is nothing you can’t achieve. I owe her a great deal and her unwavering support has been invaluable over the years.

What would be your biggest piece of advice for women coming up the ladder now?

VV: There are a number of pieces of advice I would give them. Firstly, people will always have their opinions of what they are capable and those opinions are important. However, they are exactly that, opinions! Only you know what you are truly capable of and if you get your head down and are focused enough on your goals, there really is nothing you cannot achieve. Secondly, it would be around asking. Ask for help, ask for mentors, ask for advice, ask for feedback – if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And finally it would be that it is OK to make mistakes. Career journeys are not necessarily linear and nor is the road smooth. Therefore if you take a wrong turn or make what turns out to be the wrong decision, don’t beat yourself up over it. Dust yourself off, learn from it and keep moving forward towards your goals.

You seem to transfer a lot of your business skills to home eg organisation and planning. How much of a crossover do you see between running a home and running a business?

VV: The two are extremely similar. Organisation, planning, mitigating risks, running finances, dealing with multiple stakeholders, time management etc, I don’t really see much of a difference. At the moment I am trying to do both having just left the corporate world. There are some mornings when I am trying to get the kids out of the door to school, attend conference calls and answer emails all at the same time. It is at these times that I think that I had it so much more easier when all I did was get on a train every morning. However, this is the path I have chosen and I have learnt, probably even more so now that having everything in its box is a complete rarity. When I do feel balanced (even if it is for a hour or so), I have learnt to savour the moment.

What are you most proud of?

VV: Like any parent it would have to be my children. I have two girls who are extremely grounded and who actively enjoy giving back to others. I love their engagement with charities and I love their feistiness in terms of how what they believe they will go on to achieve. I suppose the beauty of youth is that you see no boundaries. If I could keep them in that bubble and enable them to carry that characteristic through life, then I would be very happy.

What did you do in your sabbatical and has it changed in any way your plans for the immediate future [Vanessa took time out earlier this year]?

VV: I took my two little girls across Europe for three weeks. We spent lots of quality time together, we saw some amazing sites, we laughed a lot and of course, we argued – everything you would expect from three girls on tour. However, by taking that trip I felt I got to know them a bit better by spending that time together. Part of my decision to quit the corporate world for a while was that I felt I really need to be with my daughters as they headed towards their teen years. Part of me is dreading having two teenagers, but the other half of me is pleased that I am now home when they walk through the door and if they want to talk about things, I am physically there to listen. For now, it feels like the right place for me to be, so here I will stay, trying to run two businesses, being a 24-hour taxi, a friend, a parent and any other role life happens to throw at me.

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

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