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Women Mean Business- Interview with Natasha Clarke

Women Mean Business- Interview with Natasha Clarke

Written by Becky Edgoose

Last edited May 5, 2023

Women Mean Business- Interview with Natasha Clarke

Following our ‘Women in Recruitment’ roundtable event we wanted to shine a spotlight on women in business, so we have conducted a series of interviews with successful women in our industry, to hear from them about the challenges they face and what inspires them. Following our last ‘Women in Recruitment’ roundtable event we wanted to shine a spotlight on women in business, so we have conducted a series of interviews with successful women in our industry, to hear from them about the challenges they face and what inspires them.

The fourth interview in the series is with Natasha Clarke.

Natasha started her career at SThree with Recruitment Specialists Progressive in 1994. In 1997, she was the founding Managing Director of Pathway (now part of Real Staffing Group) and headed up SThree’s first office in the Middle East in 2008.

She has been a senior board member since 2005 and was responsible for establishing new offices in Moscow and Sao Paulo.

Between 2008 and 2011, she sat on the board of APSCo (Association of Professional Staffing Companies), and in 2011 she established the ‘Identity programme’ for SThree, a programme designed to support the development and progression of women within the organisation.

In 2014 and 2015 SThree were recognised by The Times in their Top 50 Employers for Women, with Natasha personally being named Opportunity Now’s Diversity Champion. She was also a founder member of Women In Recruitment, of which she is now the Chair.

In 2016 she sat the board of Opera Global Youth Foundation as a trustee and is also a member of the Leeds Business School International Advisory Board.

Now we have some background information on Natasha, let’s dive into the interview to find out more:

Q: What inspires or drives you as a leader?

A: For me it’s about trying to create real meaning behind what my team do. As a leader really giving people the opportunity to have clarity to where they fit into the bigger picture, a sense of purpose around what they do and the value they create/bring. Allowing them to operate in as authentic way as possible.

Q: Do you have a female role model, if so who and why?

A: No, is the simple answer. Not one individual that has inspired me. I just look around and look for inspiration from people who have overcome difficulties or challenges. Those are the types of people that inspire me and make me want to continue to strive to achieve.

Q: What would you attribute your success to?

A: I put it down to a desire to want to be different. I believe there is a real power in being different and is has become one of my mantras; you should be proud of your differences and your differences become your strength. I never wanted to be the same and always wanted to do things my own way and in a way that said anyone can do this, it doesn’t matter who you are.

Even from when I first started at SThree, as I was the only woman recruiter back then and I thrived on that. I stood out and people noticed me, which gave me a unique position and that difference is powerful and can be utilised in a positive way.

Likewise, a fear of failure sits underneath everything, a fear of missing or wasting an opportunity.

Q: How did you get to where you are today and who helped you along the way?

A: Help came from Gary Elden, CEO at SThree, but everyone within the organisation has contributed and been incredibly supportive. I have had a number of mentors along the way too (non-exec board members).

I have had to use my own initiative though many times, to position myself in a place where I could make a difference and take ownership.

The reason that I have had a 24-year career in the same company and not moved is because I have engineered positions for myself that play on my differences to add value that others couldn’t or didn’t.

I’ve had to rebrand myself a number of times along the journey to give myself the varied roles I was looking but that was only achievable with a proactive approach to develop my career.

Q: After all your success, what challenges do you continue to face?

A: At times I still feel that women are labelled as emotional and less strong which I feel is an area that still needs work. It’s important that the broader leadership team understand and continue to appreciate the value you bring as an authentic leader.

Q: Have you ever struggled to achieve work life balance, or achieved it?

A: Who hasn’t! Yes, I would say so.

In times gone by, presence was more important than output and when you’re working towards targets and being compared with your peers it’s challenging. As an ex-recruiter, I used to be one of those people that thought ‘if you’re not at your desk beavering away, then you’re not working’.

The opportunities are certainly better now than they have ever been. Today with the world of mobile working we are very privileged that we are able to work flexibly. Now we have the capability to work flexibly with the technology available. The challenge now is more about the mindset, for allowing it and accepting it, from a leadership perspective, and about role modelling in a way that allows people to achieve this.

It’s not enough just to have a policy, leaders should buy into this themselves.

Q: What is one leadership lesson that you have learned in your career?

A: It is important to treat people as individuals and understand the people that work for you, beyond just the job that they do. Treat them in a way that gives them what they need, when they need it, both personally and in their careers.

Being able to give people the space and time that they need to deal with the things that life throws at them and supporting them through those things, gave me much more back in the workplace.

Q: What have you learned about leadership and entrepreneurial-ship?

A: I think great leaders do look at different ways of doing things and do challenge their teams to think outside the box.

Entrepreneurial-ship on its own, however, quite often can become the key focus, meaning leadership can become lacking, because people don’t focus on the delivery and outcome.

The combo of the two can work well in the right balance, but the danger of becoming too entrepreneurial can prevent you from achieving as you’re always looking for the next best thing and will stop you from leading well.

Q: Do you or have you ever mentored others, is there value in this in your opinion?

A: Yes, absolutely. We have a mentoring programme at SThree. Most of the senior management are mentors in the business.

From our experience the feedback we have had in terms of the impact that it has had on their careers has been huge. We’ve also demonstrated that the retention of the females within the company that have been mentored is greater than those that haven’t been involved.

We can show that the impact of being mentored has a positive impact on staying with the company and the contribution and value that individuals bring.

Q: Do you think there are barriers for women looking to climb the ladder?

A: There can be, there doesn’t have to be and there won’t always be.

I think it depends on the organisation you’re in and you as an individual. Equally this isn’t just an issue that only affects women, men have barriers too. Although I do think that typically women have to work a bit harder and go possibly 10-20% further than a man might have to in order prove themselves; this is something I observe.

Until organisations genuinely understand how to recognise individuals through their contribution, behaviourally and through their set of values in order to look at them as a rounded individual rather than just a revenue earner for example, then there will always be barriers for people. It is important for businesses to put the right processes in place that create fairness and consistency to help eradicate this.

Q: What advice would you give to women who are looking to become leaders in a business?

A: Work out what you’re good at and understand what your strengths are. Don’t be scared to utilise them. Surround yourself with people that compliment you and the areas that you’re not so good at and don’t be afraid to bring people in that do plug the gaps. Recognise that you can do it in an authentic way and you don’t have to compromise.

Years ago when drinking after work was common place I remember someone asking how I could possibly be a good leader when I didn’t go to the pub after work with my people, but for me that wasn’t one of the ways I wanted to lead.

And a few years later someone said to me ‘we get it now, you didn’t need to be there because what you do was lead your people well when you were at work and delivered on your promises and gave the direction that they needed.’ So, I was really pleased that I stuck to my belief that going to the pub had a role to play at times, but it wasn’t going to be the foundation of my leadership. And I’m glad that I didn’t bend to become someone that I was uncomfortable being.

Q: Are there any strategies that can help a woman achieve a more prominent role in a male dominated organisation?

A: Recognising that organisational politics exist, don’t try to fight it, instead try to understand it so you can navigate your way around it effectively. Too many people say “I don’t want to get involved”, well you are involved when you work in an organisation. You can’t take yourself out of it, you’ve just got to understand what’s going on and what the system is doing and find a way that is comfortable to you to navigate through it without compromising your own values.

I also think that most leaders that get to more senior positions have had profit & loss (p&l) responsibility and I do see that getting that under your belt does make a difference, and that’s not just for women, that goes for anyone.

Having had that experience under your belt does buy your creditability, it buys you commercialism and is recognised as a strength. It’s not gender unique, but I think if women can recognise this, it is definitely something to get in the tool kit.

Q: What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women looking to move up the hierarchical ladder?

A: I think that the biggest challenge that we’ve got now is getting our male counterparts to start role modelling the behaviours that say that being a parent or working flexibly is ok. Having work-life balance is ok, empathising with your team is ok.

Business are going to have to be more agile, able to accommodate differences and accommodate parents, non-parents and people that want more out of life than just work.

Q: In your experience what do you think a business can do to encourage diversity?

A: It’s about any technique that you can deploy that will eliminate and eradicate bias. Whether that is through your hiring process or promotion process, particularly where it is unconscious. It is about educating people, so they understand and see where bias might be kicking in, so they can do something about it. I think it is important that leaders very quickly stamp out anything that they hear or see that could alienate or create a feeling of being alienated within the workplace. Plus being aware of what is going on around you and asking yourself, ‘do we have people of difference here?’ ‘do I encourage contribution from everybody?’

It’s really interesting actually, I asked one of my directors ‘what are you doing to build rapport within your team?’, he said that he took people out for lunch on their birthdays. I asked ‘oh do you do that for everyone?’, he said ‘no, just the ones I know really well’. I said ‘what if I was one of the people that you didn’t know really well? I know what you’re trying to do is a nice thing but actually you’re alienating the people that you’re not taking out and they’re wondering why they’re not being taken out’.

It’s creating that awareness, that even when there’s good intent, reflecting and asking yourself, am I alienating people by separating out individuals and treating them differently?

Q: In your experience, what can a business do to attract and retain female talent?

A:It is really hard to attract women when you don’t have other women visible in your business, so if you haven’t then I think that is something you need to be aware of and perhaps address within the interview and hiring process and be upfront and honest about it.

I think this is also about creating an environment that is conducive to women wanting to stay, allowing them to be authentic and allowing more flexibility in practices. To retain people, the key is understanding how to manage them. The techniques used to ensure fairness should be applied across your entire workforce, not just with women.

Q: What advice would you give to leaders to encourage diversity and a more equal split of male and females in more senior positions?

A: Remember, it’s all about fairness, transparency, valuing difference, encouraging contribution from everybody and challenging your promotion process and making sure it’s fair and consistent.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: The only thing to add is, by means of me closing what I’ve said previously, remembering the value of difference. I just think it is so important that we don’t see difference as a bad thing and we talk about the value of diversity, with difference in opinions and difference in experiences and to be able to have those things to contribute to a team.

I heard a quote from someone recently that slightly worried me. I was at a female leaders lunch and one of the women said, ‘I was chatting to my daughter this morning and we were talking about careers and opportunities’ and she said to her daughter, ‘well you’re just like all the boys so you can achieve whatever you want to achieve and do whatever they do because you’re just like them’, and I had to say to her, no don’t tell her that. Say to your daughter that yes, the opportunities she can go for are the same and she’s no less deserving, but she is different, don’t try and tell her she is the same as the boys.

What we want is boys and girls growing up being proud of their identity and being proud of who they are and recognising that actually its bloody brilliant you’re a girl and its bloody brilliant that you’re a boy.

Don’t put all women in the same category and assume they’re all the same, we still need to recognise difference within women, but also let’s be proud of being female and let’s not make men feel bad to be men.

There is a lot around women at the moment and men are having a tough gig and yes, we’re asking them to do some of the changing because for years they have been the dominant factor in the work-place, but men bring value through their gender and traits that are common within their gender, as do women.

Let’s just be really open about that and realise that we’re all different and focus on really understanding that and enhancing that contribution and how we make the most of it.

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