Have you ever swum the English Channel?

For many of us, swimming the Channel ranks alongside walking on the Moon – high risk adventures attempted by a ‘super human’ few. And usually, the ‘super human’ few are never ourselves – always someone else.

My Page 1 Woman is definitely not ‘super human’. But, she’s fearless, persistent, driven and has a tendency to ask ‘bold questions’ that other people might shy away from.  She spots opportunities, calculates the risk but goes for them anyway. And she has dared to dream big and take on challenges that push her personal boundaries. She has the usual self-doubts – well, she’s human – and she’s definitely inspirational.

She’s a Page 1 Woman with a twist. 

Not only has she swum the Channel several times, she’s managed to do so whilst holding down a senior management job in a global pharmaceutical company.  

Her name is Emma France and were you to spot her on the streets you’re likely to see her as a regular midlife woman, like me or you, leading a regular life. But her appearance belies her extraordinary achievements. 

Here she is in her own words.

Describe your work?

Emma France: I’m a global process owner for GSK. I’m responsible for creating world class standardised accounting processes, globally. Professionally, I’m an accountant. Products like Beechams and many prescription medications are manufactured by GSK. I’ve been there for 2 months. Before that I was doing something similar in Serco for 17 years.


What essential steps did you take to get to where you are?

Emma France: I wasn’t good at A-Levels but I seemed to come into my own after that. I did an HND in Business and Finance and then 2 professional accounting exams because I thought I was a bit thick and figured I’d got through the first by chance. I then did an MBA. But I think I’ve got to where I am today through a combination of good fortune, demonstrating my capabilities, carving my own direction and having the nerve to have bold conversations.

For example, I was in Serco and saw one of my managers sacked. I didn’t see this role being replaced and I was interested. I said to a very senior person dealing with that role, “In my opinion, this is what he did wrong and this is what I would have done. When you’ve decided what you want to do, let me know because I’m interested.” I got offered that role the next day. I’ve learned to trust my instincts and I’ve learned which battles are worth fighting. You have more impact when you’re selective about when to have that bold conversation.


How did you get into swimming?

Emma France: I’ve always done sports. When my youngest was born, I joined my children’s swimming club. I could swim with my head out of the water, not fast or elegantly. I was 32 years old.

Over time, I improved a little and qualified for the European Masters and the World Masters Games in 2005 in Edmonton. I’d just won a bronze medal there, and whilst dining with my family a friend calls and says. “Would you like to join my Channel relay team?” Me, “Yeah. When? Next year?”  Friend, “Three weeks’ time.”

In those three weeks, I had to get to Stockholm for the European Masters and then return to this event. I realised how ridiculous this was. I tried to fail the medical, but I passed. The next thing I know, I’m doing my bit for the relay team in the middle of the Channel.  It was so cold. But it was the most amazing feeling, doing something that I didn’t know I could do and that few people experience. I was left thinking of the next logical step – “I’ll do a solo.”

Since 2007, despite fighting my inner demons and ovarian cancer, I’ve swum the Channel solo twice and have done 6 Channel relays. 2014 was my big year. I worked on my stroke to become a better swimmer. In July, I took over 4.5 hours off my channel time and did it under the radar, which captured the Channel swimming world.  7 days later I swam around Jersey, that’s 2 ultra-marathons in 7 days and a relay in September. Somewhere my mentality changed from being someone who couldn’t to someone who could.


How do you fit swimming into your work life?

Emma France: I brought people at work into my Channel swimming world. I’d had cancer and I found some biodegradable paper in the shape of cancer ribbons and on them wrote names of past and present cancer patients known by my work colleagues. At various points during the swim, the ribbons were released into the sea. People found that inspirational.


What’s the most significant thing you did as a woman that got you into your current position?

Emma France: By not making it about being a woman. I am me and I always aim to be true to myself. I see women who try and act like men who come across as aggressive. I don’t try to be anyone else. If I’m not good enough as me, I’m not good enough as anyone else.


What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

Emma France: Being true to myself and my values and not accepting the pressure from others to be someone else. I need to be liked or respected and sometimes you feel like you have to fit into a mould of other people to do that. You’ve been chosen for your role because you’re you and it’s easy to try and copy other people. I’ve had managers who work long hours and therefore to be successful, I could believe that’s what I must do. And I might have done so a while back.

Swimming has become so much of what I am and what I do.So I have to maintain time for training in the morning and evening two days a week.  In the  summer I train all weekend. Swimming helps me maintain balance.


What’s been your most revelatory moment?

Emma France: When my son was 6, he was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy which was life changing because you don’t know whether your child will live beyond his teens. I was working long hours and I changed my work life balance. My priorities became a lot clearer. My son’s now 21 and doing well in Canada.

What key resource has been crucial to your success? 

Emma France:  I dared to believe I could swim the Channel; that I could swim it faster; that when I moved to a new role I could actually do it. If you dare to believe, or even act as if for long enough, then you can.

What does leadership mean to you?

Emma France: Doing the right things rather than doing things right. It’s about acting ethically and inspiring others to follow you. A good leader is able to use their team’s resources to deliver the objectives and be the best they can be. A team will follow a good leader no matter what if they trust them.

How has that informed your role as a leader?

Emma France: Good leaders have inspired me and have brought me into their vision, passion, energy and enthusiasm. And that’s what I always aim to do. I try to lead by inspiring rather than some of the more negative methods that people use.  If people don’t follow willingly then there’s something wrong with my communication or they don’t buy into the vision.

In swimming I did it my own way this year and enjoyed it. But I needed the pilot and crew that I took on the journey. I had a swimmer friend who took annual leave to volunteer to crew and support me. Perhaps that’s leadership in a different guise for that outcome to have happened.

I now have people asking my advice because I’ve had such a massive change in swim speed. And my training approach is very different to other people’s. So I’ve helped people to believe that you can go a different way.

What difference does it make being a woman leader? 

Emma France: In the workplace, you have to try a little bit harder. People assume different things of men and women and that’s a challenge. I’m okay with it. I have no issue with being a woman. I’m not trying to be a man. If that’s not good enough then that’s not somewhere I’d choose to be.

It makes a huge difference knowing you’re inspiring someone. This created a virtuous circle for me last summer with the swim. If people can say, “Maybe I can do something similar in my area,” then every last bit of effort is worth it.

What are your top tips for women who want to be leaders in their field? 

Emma France: Always be true to yourself and your values. It will only work if you are. Trust your instincts, your intuition is based on experience and is normally right. The times when you ignore it are the times where you think, “I should’ve listened. I shouldn’t have ignored that.”

Also, find what you’re good at and make it exceptional. You’re employed for those things. If you’re lacking confidence because you’re in a new role then act as if. Do it for long enough, and it‘ll become natural.

Surround yourself with the right people. In Channel swimming, I need a coach and a chiropractor. At work, you need people to go to when it’s tough and people who are experts in their field. Surround yourself with an excellent team and celebrate their successes. They’ll show you up as a good manager and leader.


For more about Emma France and her swimming adventures, visit her web-site here.

Did you enjoy reading about Emma France? Did you find her inspiring?

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Thanks a million.