In this interview, Sarah Chambers, Head of HR - Middle East Markets, FCA Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, shares her experience of gender diversity in the workplace and details how she progressed into a leadership role.
1. Tell us about your progression into your current role
My passion and energy for working in HR was ignited in one of my earliest roles. I followed this passion and completed my Degree in Business with International HRM and was lucky enough during that time to secure an internship with General Electric (GE). Hard work, commitment and being results-driven enabled me to expand my responsibilities to cover a multi-site (across the UK) and a multi-business client group. I relocated to London some years later where I took progressively more senior roles with various global MNCs across finance, semi-government and retail sectors.
In 2013 I moved to the Middle East, where I had the opportunity to work in the premium automotive industry with MENA remit. That role enabled me to leverage my experience of strategic HR planning and change management/transformation which I followed with an international assignment to Head HR for the European region. I returned to the Middle East in early 2016 taking on my current role where I am able to continue to utilise my experience and skills within a successful and growing business.
2. Did you always aspire to reach a leadership role in your career?
I have always been ambitious and wanted to be the best I could be at whatever I was doing. I have always been energetic, driven and passionate in all of the roles I have undertaken and I think these personal qualities have certainly helped me in my professional development. Being able to continuously demonstrate a consistent and high level of performance and output, I have been able to leverage opportunities to work across roles that have given me a much broader level of accountability and responsibility, as well as having greater exposure to other senior business leaders who have supported and encouraged my leadership development.
3. In your opinion is there a difference between how men and women plan to progress in their careers? Do you think that there are any differences within the automotive sector in which you work?
Looking to my friends and colleagues, I think career planning is as individualistic as we are. I see both men and women approaching their careers from many different mind-sets, including:
- Individuals who have an early or clear idea of what type of career they want. I’ve seen both men and women in this camp be equally self-directed, vocal and very driven to achieve their career goals.
- Individuals who are ambitious and will always strive to be the best at whatever it is they do and therefore drive their development and progression accordingly
- Individuals who look for careers that motivate and/or inspire them with the right balance of work/life. For generation Y or the millennials, I don’t see gender necessarily influencing how they career plan. I think it’s becoming more about roles and companies that match their lifestyle and values.
With regards to sector, I don’t see any differences in how males or females career plan. In my current organisation, career and talent planning are very much based on performance, which encompasses having the right attitude and behaviours, as much as meeting KPI targets and deliverables. Gender is not an influencing factor.
4. Have you encountered any gender linked challenges or obstacles in your career?
I can’t say that I have ever experienced any gender related challenges during my career.
More of a challenge has been the cultural adjustment when I moved to Europe and then to the UAE. In both regions, you need to be sensitive to how cultural differences are reflected in the workplace and accommodate accordingly.
5. In your experience, do you think women have the same career opportunities as men?
Within the organisations I have worked, performance and output have always been the driver for career opportunities whether it be for men or women. If an individual, regardless of gender, is prepared to give 100% commitment, then I don’t see any obstacles for anyone to excel in their chosen career. It comes down to hard work and how much personal drive you have to succeed.
6. Do you think flexible working has any bearing on career progression opportunities for women or men?
Not as much as it used to. Two of my previous colleagues working in the UK job share at HR Director level, working three days per week with a cross-over. This for me is a sign that the approach to and perception of flexible working has changed, or certainly is changing. For millennials entering the workforce, I think that flexible working is going to be a key factor when considering job offers and therefore it will be a critical means to attracting and retaining top talent. That being said, there still needs to be more focus on management and leadership skill development to truly leverage the potential of flexible working and virtual teams. Most of the rhetoric behind flexible working still seems to be focused on managing and leading people who are physically in the workplace.
7. Does your organisation have any diversity and inclusion programmes in place? If so, what are they and do you think they are successful?
As a global organisation yes, diversity is an important corporate policy standpoint. In a commercial environment, performance, achievement and behaviours are always used to assess and progress emerging and top talents.
8. Going forward, what more do you think can be done to create a culture that enables women to thrive in their careers?
Certainly there can be more enablers for flexible working given that women can often still be the main carer if they have family dependents. Organisations need to ensure they have the IT and technology that enables people to connect and work effectively wherever they are. Strategic workforce planning must include a deeper understanding of how and where virtual workforces and resources can be best utilised and how these roles might be used for career path planning for women. More support for female networking or exposure to executive female leaders is also very important and organisations could do more to facilitate and support these types of forums and networks for key female talents at all levels under their employment.
9. Do you have any advice for female professionals who are in or looking to progress to a management or leadership role?
Always be committed, driven and prepared to make some personal sacrifices along the way. Delivering results is ultimately going to be the main driver of your success so don’t be afraid to highlight your achievements, as well as using mentors and peers to help you reflect on your development areas. Spend some time talking to inspiring senior leaders who are around you to really understand what their role entails. I also think it is important for women to establish their credibility within the management or leadership teams that they are part of. You therefore need to understand the business you are in so that you have the ability to critique and challenge others in a commercially relevant way. Don’t be a ‘yes’ person and focus on becoming a ‘credible’ person.