Carving out a successful career can be hard to accomplish, sometimes made even more difficult for women raising a family. We spoke with Jennifer Atkinson, CEO of International Travel Connections, a luxury travel and holiday group, about her inspiring story along with her thoughts on how we can help more women to the “top of their game”.
Since becoming CEO of ITC, Jennifer has turned the business into to a highly profitable company... all while starting a family. After recently participating in the BBC documentary, ‘The Millionaires’ Holiday Club’, both Jennifer and ITC have garnered significant national attention.
Jennifer was promoted to CEO of ITC at 34, after the company suffered significant financial loss and the loss of the previous CEO. Having joined the business as the marketing manager, she came into the company in a time of financial uncertainty and had to quickly make tough decisions to keep the company from going under, including making immediate redundancies.
Also during this time, she realised there were not a proportionate amount of women in leadership positions in many industries, especially at board level, and that many of the women she did come across in leadership positions were doing things to be "popular and liked" amongst colleagues rather than for the long-term strategic plan of the organisation. Jennifer quickly realised this was not the way she wanted to lead.
"I learned early on I needed to stick to my own values. I realised even though I was making difficult unpopular decisions, I was doing it for the best of the many rather than the few," Jennifer said.
"Even to this day, as the company continues to grow, I have more people telling me how to do something, or explaining why the way we are doing it is wrong. I don't listen to them if they aren't helpful. I make the decisions I think are best. Ask for advice. Get advice from as many people as you can and that you trust. Then make your own decisions."
Achieving a balance between work and family
Having progressed into the senior management position so soon in her career also meant she was taking on the CEO job at the same time she started a family. Many people wonder how to achieve their dream career and still find the right balance between work and family
Jennifer shared, "Unfortunately there is no magic pill... although wouldn't it be great if we could just take two pills and in the morning all the problems would be gone? But realistically I do believe you can have your cake and eat it too - but you can't do everything."
"There will be times to have both a healthy work and family life you will need to make sacrifices and realise you can't do everything yourself. Help is there to be accepted. Sometimes that means building a good team around you and delegating more, taking less of an operational role. Other times it might mean taking help through childcare or a nanny," she continued.
Also, from an employer's perspective - being flexible is extremely important. If your staff are producing the outcomes you need, in less time, why not allow that? Don't listen to advice that isn't helpful. Make the decisions you think are best. Ask for advice. Get advice from as many people as you can, then make your own decisions.
Jennifer explained, "As long as you are still performing you should be able to work in a way that works to your schedule. If your employer doesn't support that now, show them how allowing flexibility is presenting a good role model to the company."
Coaching or mentoring
Having a support system and a team you trust is integral to helping any professional to the top of their game. This includes everyone from staff and colleagues to a professional mentor or coach.
Jennifer highlighted, "I have worked with a coach for 5 or 6 years now. We can discuss anything and do crazy stuff to help stay focused, and to really think through everything."
"One of the things my couch encourages me to do is remember 'What is the value I am doing this for?' and to remember the goals both professionally and personally I am working towards."
"Think of Olympians. They have coaches for everything, from nutrition coaches to sleep coaches, to many other coaches. Why, in the business world, we want to bumble along on our own I have no idea," she said.
Getting to know people is key to networking
Networking can't always be easy, especially if you are doing it during your personal time while still raising a family, but is still an important part of many people's jobs.
"I make it a goal to find out about people. I enjoy getting to know people and rarely have I come across someone who I think there really isn't anything to them, but if I did come across them then that's a challenge and I want to get to know them better," Jennifer shared.
If you are finding it hard to make small-talk with other professionals you can always fall back on asking questions.
She continued, "Women are great at asking questions. Ask people about themselves, their work, their company. Even ask personal questions. You will get to know people much better and really figure out how they work which can be extremely beneficial in business. If you have to be there you might as well make the most of the opportunity."
Learn how to retain women retuning to the workforce and help them to hit their highest potential here, or download a copy of the latest whitepaper Attracting and Engaging Women Returning to the Workplace.
View a full list of future Empowering Women in the Workplace events here.