Here’s the scenario: a person with a 1st class degree in physiology and biology plus a doctorate in neuroscience. A brain box, right?
But what if that person was a blonde woman with a Geordie accent, what would you think, then?
My Page 1 Woman is all those things and a brain box too. And over the years she’s faced confidence- knocking stereotyping when people didn’t believe she was clever enough to have a PhD.
Looking at her portfolio of experiences, you’d think she could turn her hand to anything and be successful – for example, academic research (whilst doing her PhD part-time); project management in the pharmaceutical industry and in the property development and construction industry; voluntary work in an Ecuadorian women’s refuge; medical education; freelance business developer and now, director in her own business. What’s more, in the background, since the age of 22, she’s been developing the art of buying and refurbishing properties on a budget, which she later turned into a career. And yet, she describes herself as ‘not naturally bright’ and having only achieved through sheer ‘hard work and focus’. Call her modest, if you like. But in many respects, my Page 1 Woman is mirroring a characteristic of many bright women - attributing their achievements to mere luck and hard work.
Meet Dr Joanne Clinton. Hailing from a humble background, where domestic violence was a feature of her early childhood, she was driven to succeed by an overwhelming need to not let people down, namely her mum and her teachers. They saw her potential and she felt compelled to live up to their expectations. So, yes, a combination of drive, hard work, courage, risk taking and determination has contributed to her success. But she wouldn’t have got there without a huge measure of self-leadership, talent and intellect.
Here’s Dr Joanne Clinton in her own words.
Describe your work.
Dr Joanne Clinton: I’m a co-owner and director of Chartered Accountant Online. Based in North London, we have clients throughout London and the South East, as far north as Newcastle and as far south as Brighton. I look after business development and marketing, practice management and general client liaison. We specialise in streamlining accounting and business processes in an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective way. We use some of the latest tried, tested and easy to use technology such as online accounting software which gives instant access, flexibility and control to both client and accountant enabling quicker and better-informed business decisions.
We’re also a member of the Organisation for Responsible Businesses and we work in a way that reduces paper, postage, storage space and travel time. Our clients choose to work with us because ultimately, we save them tax, time and money.
What one essential step did you take to get to where you are today?
Dr Joanne Clinton: Getting a decent education. My mother always said that we should study hard, always try our best and get a good education because that would give us better opportunities than she had and a chance of a better life. She brought us up on her own – my parents divorced when I was 10 and I’ve not seen my dad since then.
My mother is loving and selfless. It wasn’t easy for her when we were younger. She worked very hard. We didn’t have a lot of money but I never felt like we missed out. I’ve never wanted to let her down. And I didn’t want to let my teachers down. So I studied hard and put in the time.
What was the most significant thing you did as a woman that got you into your current position?
Dr Joanne Clinton: I’ve known from a very young age that I didn’t fit the stereotypes for women. I knew at 15 that I was never going to have children. That’s not that I don’t like children – I just knew I didn’t want my own.
You have to defend yourself a lot about that decision. People automatically think you don’t like children or there’s something wrong with you physically. If I’d had children my career pathway would have been more difficult. Not having children gives flexibility and that’s one of the many reasons for choosing not to have them.
What was your greatest challenge on your journey and how did you overcome it?
Dr Joanne Clinton: My lack of confidence. I was a very shy child which stemmed from my violent father. He was around until I was 10 and there were the after effects of that – fear, no home, all of that kind of thing. The after effects went on for several years and affected my confidence.
My mother wasn’t a very confident person and you pick up things like that from your parents. But she was very positive, encouraging and funny. She used to make us laugh as kids with her antics – dressing up and doing silly dances.
At university, my tutor said to me on several occasions that I had plenty of ability but my lack of confidence would hold me back. I remember him saying at the end of my first year that I had a choice – to get a good 2:1 or put in extra effort for a first. I thought, “I can’t let him down, now.”
I didn’t want a repeat of what happened in my O levels. Although I did well, I didn’t get all the A grades my teachers expected. My biology and physics teachers couldn’t hide their disappointment, which devastated me. I felt like I’d failed them, because I got a B instead of an A.
My confidence got a boost when I got my degree. My tutor and my mum were absolutely delighted. I came skipping down to London thinking the world was my oyster. But I took a lot of flak for my accent and for being blonde and a woman. All the confidence I’d built from getting my degree was knocked out of me. I felt I was constantly justifying and defending myself and showing that having an accent, being blonde and a woman doesn’t mean you’re stupid.
It caused me to waiver over doing a PhD despite my first class degree. But then, I got to a point where I was so angry that I did my PhD to prove a point.
Although I’m older and wiser now, I’ll throw it in that I’ve got a PhD and it does take people aback sometimes. I do it to make a point because I’ve been in situations where people say, “You’ve got a PhD? You?”
What was your most revelatory moment?
Dr Joanne Clinton: I’ve got two, if that’s allowed. The first was realising in my 30s, while working in the pharmaceutical industry, that success equates to being happy and content, not to the amount of money earned. There’s a lot of pressure to take on more, tempted by titles and larger salaries.
For me, going further up the corporate ladder in that industry just meant more stress, compromising myself more, more money but less time to enjoy it. I looked at people higher up and thought ‘that’s not what I want and it won’t make me happy. What I want is to actually feel content and happy inside’.
The second thing came in 2008, realising that I wanted to work from home in my own business. I got made redundant and I’d been thinking that I needed to be in a corporate environment and I didn’t. I started working from home and saw the benefits. It’s not without pressure but it’s never so much that you think ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’. I always want to get up in the morning and do my job.
What resource has been crucial to your success?
Dr Joanne Clinton: Definitely my mum’s encouragement and her belief in me. And in my career over the last 18-20 years I’ve had support from my partner and good friends. And I’m very organised, determined and professional. I also think I’m warm, approachable and sociable. In the past, I wouldn’t have felt confident enough to say that and I hope I don’t sound arrogant. I can say it now because I know that’s how people describe me.
What do you understand by ‘leadership’?
Dr Joanne Clinton: Leadership is about providing guidance, facilitation, enabling others to contribute and shine. A good leader is approachable and makes their team feel valued. Honest and timely communication is essential to good leadership as well as being organised and following through on what you say you’re going to do.
I’ve been in teams where the leader has been dominant and you’ve got to second guess what they want. They don’t let you take anything on or come up with ideas. It’s just what they want, on their terms all the time; that demoralises a team.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a natural leader. But when I’ve managed and led teams previously, I’ve been a facilitator and aimed to get the best out of members, listened to their opinions, enabled them to come up with solutions and take on tasks that developed them and their careers as well as the team generally and the project. I don’t have staff now. But I suppose I could describe myself as a proactive self-leader.
What are your top tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Dr Joanne Clinton: Be prepared and organised whatever the situation, then you won’t be caught on the back foot or come across as the wrong person for the job. In some industries, such as construction, you have to prove yourself as a woman, so you need to be prepared when you are challenged.
I remember taking over a meeting with an external company, from a senior male colleague when it went wrong. The outcome could have cost the company tens of thousands of pounds. I was prepared and organised, I knew all the issues, their grievances and I knew how we could compromise. When the other side’s representative stormed out, I went out and apologised on my colleague’s behalf and convinced him to come back. I agreed to take over the meeting and we reached an agreement. He would only deal with me in the company from then on.
Also, when you’re challenged, it’s important to remain calm. In property development, the company owner admitted that he thought I was stupid because of my accent. I said to him, “It’s a common misconception and a bit antiquated but people associate accents with being less educated.” He responded with, “It’s not accents in general, just yours.” I was taken aback but I remained calm, laughed it off and walked away. I could have blurted something out but it wouldn’t have been appropriate. I developed a reputation for being very efficient, organised and a good negotiator. Word got around to him and he took it back. He then asked me to accompany him to some of his more strategic meetings.
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