International Women’s Day – an interview with our COO, Alex Gardner

Tell us about your career progress to board level? What has your own experience been? What support have you had and what challenges have you faced?

After leaving school I started my career in on the Isle of Man in Corporate Services as an Assistant Administrator in 2006. I quickly learned that this was a job I enjoyed doing and despite it being daunting at first, I could see myself working in the Corporate Services for a very long time. I suppose I was right as I am still in the Industry today and have the same passion as I did when I started out.

In the first Corporate Service Company that I worked for I was so lucky to have inspiring female role models to look up to. Overall there was a strong female management team, our Global CEO was a female and an industry leader and my own Manager was well respected in the Industry too, I thought to myself if I can do half as well as her I will be proud of myself! My mum was also an invaluable figure and played a significant part when it came to my career progression. She is such a strong women and role model, she always encouraged me and taught me that there are no limits to what you can achieve if you put your mind to it, female or not!

My career progression stems from the good start I had in my career with the support of a strong team behind me. I was lucky that that I had opportunity to undertake training which allowed me to build the right foundations and develop my expertise in order to progress. A member of my team back in 2006 was Andy Morgan who I now work closely with on a daily basis, as CEO and COO for Affinity Group! After some years of building my experience, I joined Affinity as a Senior Administrator in 2015. In the 6 years that I have been with Affinity, the support behind me has been unparalleled. It is Affinity’s mission to ensure staff are motivated through trust and empowerment, to go the extra mile to get results regardless of gender. Each employee brings a unique value to the company and the environment encourages a place to lean on and learn from on another. I believe my journey in the company, progressing to Manager to Director of Group Board and now COO, demonstrates the value that the company places employee growth and progression. The hard work and exceptional skills our team hold are recognised and we do our upmost to promote from within while supporting staff with opportunities for them to progress through training.

Affinity’s stance on diversity speaks for itself when I say that our split of executive board members male and female is 50/50, which unfortunately is still unusual for our industry. I am very proud of the approach we take and the voice that both female staff and male staff have is completely equal, our equality places the same value on every employee, regardless of gender.
In terms of some challenges that I have faced in my career, this might be an unusual response for an article in respect of women in business. Whilst I have had some amazing female role models as I have mentioned, the biggest challenges I have faced in my career progression by far has been witnessing some female ‘leaders’ whose management style was questionable!

Looking back on this now, I think that these particular women felt like they had to behave more aggressively to get ahead in a male dominated industry. Perhaps the lack of inspiring female role models to look up may have created this attitude and if they did have some more female support early on it could have been prevented. We as women need to work together to put a stop to this, women must champion other women and support their growth and development, we are not in competition with each other and best results are achieved when everyone is working to get the best out of each other.

As a leader in the business, how do you see your responsibilities, particularly relating to your female colleagues?

My main responsibility relating to my female colleagues should be for each and every one of them to know they are valued, they need to know they are important to our company and that they were chosen for a reason and I know without any doubt they can achieve amazing things both in work and personally. I believe that allowing female employees to feel like they can speak their mind, express their ideas and feel valued alongside other female employees creates a really positive environment where we can guide and support one another. I think motivating and praising each other goes a really long way, there should be no reason for females to feel like they are in competition with one another when we demonstrate our support and show that we want to lift each other up. We are achieving amazing things at Affinity and this is down to our employees and the respect they hold for each other, we really have such a strong team and I am so proud to be a part of it. Many female employees of mine have become close friends, from when I joined Affinity to today.

As women leaders our responsibility should also be to let our female colleagues know that they can stay true to their personalities and not be afraid to be themselves. It is often the case women feel like they need to be overly aggressive to fit in and progress higher in their career, or even tone back their personalities to not seem too strong or over emotional. This should not be the case and if women continue to do this we could be missing out on valuable skill sets and aspects of personalities that are hidden because they think it’s the right thing to do to progress. It is so important that we work in a non-judgemental environment, where we all build one another up and appreciate the unique attributes that each person brings. I believe the difference in personality’s in women in the workplace is a positive contribution, we can all learn something from one another and inspire each other in a different way.

How does Affinity Group support the development of female colleagues and why does the company believe it’s important to take these steps?

Affinity hold a modern approach to equality, female employees are recognised with the same value as the male employees and this is clearly represented in our 50/50 split of gender in our executive board. In matter of fact 66% of our workforce are women, not because we deliberately employed women over men, we select each individual based on their talent.

That is the approach every company should have, gender is absolutely not a considering factor when you hire somebody, it is the experience and skill set they hold and how it is suitable for job. Our female and male employees both receive the same support and development to progress in their careers and this is demonstrated in our management and the equal opportunities that we provide. We have instilled these beliefs into our practices by ensuring there is equal pay between men and women. We want to ensure women know they have the opportunity to progress and grow with the company, which is why we provide female employees with career development opportunities like training, which male employees receive also.

I think the fact that our 50% female board demonstrates to our female employees that they are valued and there are no limits when it comes to their progression. We hope that it is inspiring for our female employees and the fact that we have such strong females in our management team, I would hope as it was for me at the start of my career, it provides our young female staff with female role models to look up to. As I have mentioned previously, many female colleagues of mine became close friends and I believe our management style and team promotes the right attitude towards female relationships at work. All our female employees respect each other and share friendships, which is the same for our male employees also. I think our workplace dynamic shows that we all support one another and regard each other highly.

Speaking to peers at other companies, what is the general feeling about the opportunities for women to progress to leadership roles?

I think in general it varies from company to company. It is obvious that we have come a long way to get to where we are now, however that does not mean that all companies take a modern approach and recognise the importance between equality between men and women. I think the feedback I have had from some of my friends demonstrates the dedication that they are making to ensure women receive the same opportunities as men.

A few of my friends work for high street banks who are running campaigns to promote women into leadership roles and others run training courses designed for women in leadership. It’s amazing to see the support that women are giving each other now and are realising that working with one another is far more productive that competing against each other. I know from my peers that most want to get to a place where campaigns and targeted courses for women are not required and that there is still room to be done. Women in every company should be seen as equal to men and targets to meet gender quotas should be a thing of the past when women are automatically recognised on an equal footing and employed / promoted because of their talent. I think that a lot has changed and women are receiving equality in the workplace, but that does not mean it doesn’t happen.

Affinity are extremely lucky to have the staff we have employed and every single one of them will do amazing things, we recognise how talented they are regardless of gender and my peers want to be valued in the same way and I hope other female leaders are making this happen.

What would you like to see from other businesses and the CSP sector as a whole to support the development of women into leadership roles?

In order for the progress that has been made so far to be impactful we must continue to learn from past mistakes and mentor our young female colleagues to have the confidence to achieve their goals. I think we have to work together in order for developments to happen across the whole sector, not just parts of it. Although companies regard each other as competitors in the same sector, it’s important to recognise the steps we each take to all develop and grow in the right direction, aligning our morals and values will create better world for us all. As I have mentioned, the fact that our executive board members is a 50/50 split between male and female is unfortunately still unusual for our industry, which it shouldn’t be. I think women empowering women will create more leadership roles for women and I think mentoring and guiding young women is so important for companies to get the best out of their employees, not just women. I think women leaders have become more recognised in these times and they are seen leaders for the future just like men.

I think to support the development of women in leadership roles businesses must recognise the importance for work life balance. It is a key principal that management should prioritise, employees have a life outside of work and some with families that they need to spend time with.

By understanding this, your employees will be more motivated at work and happier to come into work. I think having this flexible approach it will aid businesses to get the best out of their staff and be a contributing factor towards career progression. Both women and men should have these opportunities in the workplace, an understanding that we are all only human and that we are doing the best we can goes a very long way.

Christina Patterson a journalist for the Guardian sums up what we and others can do perfectly “Companies can learn to listen. Men can learn to listen. We can all learn to listen to people who have different voices, and different sex organs, and different views.” If we reflect on this quote, it tells us we are different, but all hold the same value. It also acknowledges that things do change and we as humans change too, if we want to learn something and make it change we can. Whether that’s our attitude towards each other, of same sex or different sex, we are all learning and growing.

We need to stop creating divides in society and by promoting equality in everything, whether that’s in gender, race or social class, everybody deserves opportunities in life, no one should be limited of their potential.

Looking back, what three pieces of advice do you have for your younger self?

Expect your plans for the future to change but believe it will be for the better.

Stand up for yourself.

Most importantly believe in yourself.