For a long time in my 20s, I laboured under the illusion that being good at my job meant finding the ‘right answer’

Remind ourselves that the start line isn’t the same for everyone; strive to walk in others shoes; and sponsor those who have not had the same experiences

To kick off our series celebrating women leaders to mark International Women’s Day, Helen Hunter, CDO at Sainsbury’s tells us about the hurdles she’s overcome in her career and offers advice to women looking to rise into leadership positions.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you’ve got to where you are today in your career?

I was appointed Chief Data and Analytics Officer at Sainsbury’s in April 2018, with the brief to maximise value from the data assets of Sainsbury’s brands and channels by democratising access to this information and applying data science and analytics in support of Sainsbury’s strategy. I joined Sainsbury’s in 2010 as Head of Loyalty, and subsequently held roles including Director of Customer Data & Relationships, Director of Marketing Strategy & Innovation, and Director of Digital Loyalty in which I launched customer propositions such as Sainsbury’s Brand Match, and digital Nectar. Earlier in my career I held a variety of commercial and marketing roles at Home Retail Group, Woolworths Group, and Kingfisher Group, having read modern history at Oxford. I’m also currently a NED at Next15 Communications Group plc, and a Governor of Lancing College. I live in central London with my two young daughters (7 and 3). I love skiing, sci-fi and scandi-noir drama.

What do you think has been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome in reaching your current position?

For a long time in my 20s, I laboured under the illusion that being good at my job meant finding the “right answer”. And I was somehow ‘failing’ when I couldn’t. I’ve subsequently learnt how critically important it is to be curious about my business: the pressures and context which extend beyond my specific domain, in which I’m striving for excellence. This depth of understanding helps us calibrate our activity. Because there is, in truth, no such thing as ‘right’.

I’ve struggled for a long time with really believing I’m “good enough”. My lack of belief has impacted my career choices. To give you a couple of examples, as an undergraduate I convinced myself I didn’t have the skills to work in Advertising, so I didn’t apply to any Ad agencies.  I’ve also turned down roles in strategy because I felt I wasn’t financially savvy enough. 

I don’t think I’m alone in having played it safe in the past because I lacked the confidence in what I could do. Which leads me to one reasonably consistent bit of guidance which I think is inherently unhelpful….be more confident. I can no more be more confident than I can become taller. I think most of the time when we ‘feel less confident’, we actually mean we feel ‘fear of being judged’, ‘fear of failure’ or something similar. Perhaps because we’re more likely to believe we need to know more about a topic or situation before we’re able to feel bold? Knowledge gives us more confidence we won’t be ‘wrong’. We need to ask ourselves what’s the worst that can happen? We need to acknowledge the feeling and seek to actively control our negative thoughts. My call to all of us is to be brave and show courage, despite not feeling confident in ourselves or the situation in which we find ourselves.

How would you characterise your leadership style? And why do you think it’s been so successful?

I believe my role is to help every individual unlock their potential. So I allocate my time accordingly, seeking to understand the hopes, dreams and fears of my teams and peers. And then match their talents to our goals. I focus on our operating framework to understand where there is grit in the wheels which prevents people from being brilliant. I believe in empowerment, autonomy, and honesty. I’m curious and connect dots. I’m ambitious for myself and my people. I hold myself to account for building propositions, products and people.

Who’s the woman that’s inspired you most in your career and why?  

I’m constantly inspired by the stories of the legends of my industry like Grace Hopper, Katherine Johnston, JoAnn Morgan, and Stephanie Shirley.  

And I’ve been privileged, early in my career, to learn enormously from Deborah Poll, who showed me what it looked like to be a senior woman in a Commercial role; and more recently from Sarah Warby who is incredible at building teams and followership.

What advice would you give to other women looking to rise into leadership positions?

I wish I’d realised sooner that I was a bit of a Cinderella. I was and am a strong believer in merit. So I idealistically assumed for a long time that if only I worked hard enough, diligently enough, that ‘one day my prince would come’. But through my own and the observed experiences of others, I’ve come to understand the power of advocacy. Success and recognition don’t just come to us, they require a mountain of proactiveness. Because people can’t advocate for us, if we’re invisible to them. I suspect many of us feel uncomfortable with some of the ways, modes and means with which our peers and leaders grow advocacy for themselves. I’ve certainly struggled with the idea of being “jazz hands” and “look at me” in order to build awareness of and advocacy for my contribution. I observe other women often know they’re good at what they do but hold themselves back in a way many men don’t even think about. We’re less likely to overtly seek out public advocacy: more likely to go with private advocacy. My personal way of reconciling my personal values and beliefs with the importance of building advocacy, is to build advocacy for my team first and foremost and therefore by association for myself. I’d highly recommend thinking about an approach which works authentically for you. But please, don’t ignore or deny the need to do it.

For me Sheryl Sandberg has a particularly interesting section in ‘Lean In’ in which she describes the difference in women and men and their questions to her when she presents, or when they request mentoring. If I horribly over simplify, she says that men are more likely to seek to understand her business decisioning, whereas women ask for guidance about behaviours and work life balance. I suspect perhaps we’re more likely to seek approval about the right behaviours needed to progress and women, and particularly mothers, think more about work/ life balance because we’re generally still the ones who run the household as well as our careers. But we need to understand how decisions are made in our business so we can look to contribute in these areas . And focus as much on seeking mentoring on business capabilities as behavioural coaching. Can we read a P&L? Do we understand our business’s balance sheet? What are the big drivers of our operational costs? We need to know these things and  make sure our business stakeholders hear us actively seeking advice and guidance on these issues.

What organisational initiatives or behaviours have you experienced that have helped women executives reach their potential?

It’s a joy to work for an organisation which believes diversity leads to better outcomes and wants to represent the communities we serve. This means we are an organisation which for example, supports colleagues in working flexibly (I work a 4 day week); uses gender de-coders on its job adverts; makes sure colleagues attend unconscious bias training interventions; and has active networks for Women, BAME and LBGTQ colleagues.

The 2020 theme for International Women’s Day is #EachforEqual – drawing on the notion that our individual actions, conversations, behaviours and mindsets have an impact on our larger society. What individual action would you encourage others to take to help support a gender-equal world?

Remind ourselves that the start line isn’t the same for everyone; strive to walk in others shoes; and sponsor those who have not had the same experiences.

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