International Women’s Day – An interview with Claire Bassett

Claire-Bassett-2015-webTo celebrate International Women’s Day, our chief executive, Claire Bassett, discusses everything from taking opportunities and understanding your values to her awesome intelligence gathering granny and the makings of a great leader.

Within 10 years of graduating university you were made chief executive of Connexions, a youth service organisation, what steps did you take to get there?

I went to Connexions as their operations director and after a year or so I got the opportunity to act up as chief executive, a role I then got permanently. So a big chunk of that was about luck, which is really important to say, but I guess you have to put yourself in a position where you get lucky. For me that’s meant taking any opportunities that have come my way and taking a job which many saw as difficult.

I’ve never been the person who has just done one job. I’ve always taken on different projects to build my skills. It’s where I’ve met different people who have opened up doors for me. If you are ambitious, building a full range of skills and knowing a wide range of people is a great way to help you move up.

What advice did you receive early in your career that has stayed with you?

You need to know your own values and understand why you have those values.

This is one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever received. It came really early in my career when I was doing some work that I was finding really hard and I wasn’t sure I liked doing it very much. A very helpful colleague made me realise that this was because it was tweaking my personal value system and how important it was for me to understand what really matters to me and then live by that.

I believe if you do that it’s very seldom that you can get to the end of the day and not want to look at yourself in the mirror!

Can you tell me about a female role model who has inspired you over your career?

I am really lucky to have had the most extraordinary grandmother. She was born around the first Women’s Day. She was everything really; she was an adventurer, she was a model and socialite. She was smuggled out of Germany at the outset of WW2 over the Alps and then worked on the team at Bletchley Park and was almost dropped behind enemy lines because she was a colloquial German speaker. She then went on to support her husband running a rubber plantation business in Malaysia coming back to England when he died and starting again. She had the most amazing life. She was also incredibly kind and could talk to anyone and make you feel special. She was brilliant and has left quite a legacy on me, including the love of dachshunds.

One of the benefits of working in the public sector is that you get to meet and be influenced by many strong, interesting women. As a member of the Association of Chief Executives (ACE) I have been lucky enough to see several women who are senior leaders in action. For example, Lin Homer, the chief executive of HM Revenue and Customs, was particularly impressive because she has never been scared of doing a difficult or unpopular job and she has done those jobs really well. I also recently attended a great speech from Leslie Evans, permanent secretary to the Scottish Parliament, about her experiences in Scotland.

Why do you think diversity is so important in the workplace?

For me, what is really important is what I call ‘thought diversity’ which is about having a range of people come together who think differently from each other. The most difficult boards I have been exposed to are where everyone thinks the same and has the same approach. I think mixing it up across gender, ethnicity and age is really important for a team to work well.

If you look at the boards of really successful organisations they have diversity in numbers but they also have diversity of thought and embrace different ways of thinking and different people. That’s the part I am really interested in because that’s when innovation happens.

International Women’s Day was first marked in 1911 – over 100 years ago. Why do you think the day is still relevant?

Sadly, there are some appalling things being done to women across the world today. There is still so much need to champion women’s rights wherever you are in the world, perhaps now more than ever in some ways.

Thinking about here in the UK, when I worked at Connexions we were working with marginalised young people and the thing that really used to upset me was the lack of aspirations many girls had. It’s so important that girls have female role models from a variety of backgrounds so they can see that it’s possible to go out there and do what you want. Not everyone aspires to run the world but highlighting to young people, girls in particular, that you have options in life is essential. I try to still help with this in a small way through my role as a mentor for Uprising.

What does gender equality mean to you?

For me, it’s meant being able to choose my own route in life and succeed in the way I want to succeed. Whether that was not confirming to stereotypes of what is expected of me, being given an opportunity to be a chief executive at 29 or whatever it may be. Every time I have made every decision myself and I’ve made that decision because it is what I wanted to do. I think to be able to do that is pretty cool. It’s what you should expect but I know my granny didn’t have those same opportunities in her time.

Lastly, what three skills do you think are essential to be a great leader?

  1. To be an authentic leader you need to have learnt to like yourself

To be an authentic leader you need to like yourself and be reconciled with yourself, faults and all. A great leader will always try to do better but they don’t try to be something they are not. I think people can sniff out when you aren’t being genuine 100 yards away.

  1. To be a modern leader you need to be a modern communicator

To be a modern leader you need to be a modern communicator which is about talking and listening to people and not sitting in an ivory tower. For me, I am still working on the listening part. I am a talker, I like talking but it is really important to listen and to also listen to what is not being said. The flipside to that is you need to be able to tell people what’s going on, even when you don’t have all the answers. To be a leader today where information is just a click away, you can’t be afraid to put things out there and tell people what’s going on.

  1. To be an effective leader you need to be brave

To be an effective leader you need to be prepared to make decisions even when they are the really difficult ones. My favourite bit of feedback I’ve ever received is from someone I made redundant. It wasn’t all positive but part of the positive bit was, “she was brave enough to make the decisions and explain why” and then he went on to explain what this meant to him. Part of this is also being prepared to admit when you get decisions wrong.

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