March 6, 2020

Why women need the confidence and gusto to bet on themselves

by Aalastair Sibley in Staff Blogs

Rachael Sansom, Managing Director London, Red Havas

I started my PR career as a graduate trainee at Hill and Knowlton before eventually moving to Consolidated Communications – one of the hot shops of London PR in the early noughties. There, I progressed rapidly, becoming a Board Director at the age of 28. I was incredibly fortunate that a couple of years after that an opportunity presented itself to me (with some of my colleagues) to actually buy the agency out. I was in my early 30s, with the chance to take a gamble and try my hand at the business side of the industry – I went for it (and remortgaged my house along the way).

I was at Consolidated for about 10 years, then followed that up with a couple of senior in-house roles to broaden and diversify my experience. Then, another gamble came my way in a new agency called MHP which had just started. They asked me to join the senior leadership bench to help grow the business and set up the brand team. I thought this was too good of an opportunity to miss, so, once again – I went for it.

It was a fantastic journey; we took the company from an approximately £5m to £17m over three years and did a couple of acquisitions along the way. Rapidly growing a business and integrating acquisitions had its challenges but I learned a lot and it gave me the blue-print for how to scale a business at pace.

Upon reflection I can see much of my journey has been about having the confidence to say “yes” to the opportunities at hand, and ultimately betting on myself. What’s interesting is, I never thought of myself as a risk taker. In fact, I always saw myself in the “err on the side of caution” basket. But looking back on my career there probably has been a fair amount risk involved – from borrowing money against my own house to invest in Consolidated, to taking a bet on an unheard start up at MHP. The key lesson through the ups and downs of any opportunity I’ve had has been to ultimately follow your gut – you will know whether it’s right or not.

I have been fortunate to work with some fantastic men and women who have championed and supported me along the way, everybody from James Wright my current boss, Global CEO of Red Havas and the Global Chairman of Havas PR Collective, to the indefinable Alastair Gornall at Consolidated and Sally Costerton our chair at MHP.

It does sadden me the more senior you get, the less women you see – it is still the case that men over-index at Board level, and in the FTSE 100 only about 20% of businesses have women on the board. In the communications world guys over-indexing at Board level is a travesty considering we over-index on females at a junior level.

To get more women into these positions, I believe it is key that feminine traits and soft skills start to be valued for what they are – an alternate way to manage – but by no means less effective than more commonly deemed strength traits associated with men. The truth is even as a senior woman, I’ve found myself on occasion questioning my management style, simply because it’s different to my male colleagues.

I continue to navigate the realities of being a working mum and the many additional time commitments that come with this. I have been incredibly lucky to have supportive employers along the way, however if you ask me “did I make choices based on family over career progression?”, the uncomfortable truth is yes, because sometimes you cant have it all and family comes first.

I’m so glad to see flexible working policies start to become the norm at many organizations today. At Red Havas London we recently launched 10am-4pm as our core working hours with the option to work from home as needed, to offer greater flexibility to all staff. For me, flexible working provides the opportunity for women like me to stay in the workplace, however flexibility is just one measure of many needed to keep women in the workplace and help them advance.

So where am I today? I’m six months into a new role at Red Havas (and before you ask, yes, it was another ‘bet on yourself’ moment), where we’ve decided to launch a new agency in London. Growing an agency from the ground up is a challenge, but also a thrill. We’re using a gusto mentality to not only bring in a diverse, blue-chip client roster, but London’s top talent to support our ever-growing team.

I’m taking what I’ve learned through my career, turning it up a notch, and instilling that self-belief within my team too.

We’re betting on ourselves.