If we want equality for women, we have to allow for men and women to reframe what equality really looks like at home and at work, for both men and women. I wish we would stop using men as the model of success that women have to achieve equality with, and instead look at this the other way around. Men could have more fulfilling lives if they could look more to how women are and how they can shape the workplace for the future. They have to be our allies at work, and we need them to be our allies at home too.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gemma Postlethwaite.
Gemma Postlethwaite is Arizent’s CEO, responsible for the company’s 30+ brands. Prior to joining Arizent, Postlethwaite served as CEO of PIRA Energy Group, where she led a major transformation of the company and established PIRA as a leading integrated, research, and data provider to the global energy markets. In 2016, Postlethwaite led the sale of PIRA Energy Group to S&P Global.
Postlethwaite has spent several years in leadership roles in the business information sector. Prior to PIRA Energy Group, she was SVP, Strategy and Operations at Altegrity, a global provider of risk and compliance solutions; and Chief Product Officer and President of Infogroup’s SMB business unit. She also spent eight years at Thomson Reuters in various leadership positions spanning from product to commercial management and also led the channel partnership business for the Investment and Advisory Division.
Additionally, Postlethwaite is an Advisory Board Member at BizEquity; and proudly serves on the New York Board of the All-Stars Project whose mission is to transform the lives of youth and poor communities using the developmental power of performance, in partnership with caring adults.
She is a graduate of the University of Kent.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Itook a winding path to my current role. Like many people, I graduated from college not really knowing what I wanted to do. After first attempting to find a job at a London investment bank, I applied to the Dow Chemical Company’s graduate finance rotation program, which was based in southern Germany. The qualifications were fluency in German and a finance degree, but I spoke French and had a degree in European studies. I got the job because the leader at Dow took a chance on me. Twenty years later, he is still a friend and I’m still grateful.
I next moved to a start-up software company and had the most incredible learning experience. When you have to pitch a prospective client’s executive team, then go home and figure out how you might actually set up an invoicing system to bill them, you rapidly are exposed to all aspects of a business.
Together, these first two jobs post-college taught me two things: First, that it is much harder to get things done in a big company, where common sense does not always prevail. Second, I learned that I am drawn to companies where you know there are great assets at the core and a value proposition that is meaningful, but that value has not been fully realized. It is the most fun thing in the world for me when you find a company with deeply valuable customer solutions and get to unlock all that value for your customers, your people and your investors.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson(s) did you learn from that?
A common piece of advice new CEOs receive is that it’s important to have a detailed 100-day plan. And this is good advice — without question, a well-planned checklist will help you stay organized during a time when there’s lots to learn.
But a 100-day plan alone won’t guarantee success. These tend to be long checklists and somewhat inner-directed, if you focus only on the plan you might not be spending enough time listening and relationship building. Almost everything you say or do sets the tone for your leadership style in the minds of employees, and it’s these things that can derail you and your organization much more than whether you actually got through your 100-day checklist.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Transparent and authentic communication. It is so much scarier, and frankly more frustrating, when your team don’t know where or why a company needs change or needs to evolve. Not everyone is going to like your vision, but if you paint it clearly and you bring everyone along on the journey, you will retain the right people. Growing a business is always about delighting our customers, the results of which will show up in our company’s financial performance. But it is always and equally about the growth of our people, the results of which will show up in their rewards, recognition and career growth, and that only happens when your people are connected to a mission and own their part in achieving our goals.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This one is really hard. I am so tired of reading articles about CEOs, nearly always men, talking about their morning routines of working out and meditation. It just misses the mark for nearly all of us living in reality. I have twin 11-year-old daughters, two dogs and recently two leopard geckos. My mornings are about pitching in at home.
We must stop idolizing the near impossible ideal for most of us and embrace the chaos. Give in to the fact that some days we feel like amazing CEOs and not so amazing parents, and another day you may be crushing it at home and feeling the heat at work. It’s about constant and fluid prioritization. Work life balance is not a women’s issue — we need to talk way more about work life equality and how men and women can share the workload and therefore the opportunity to thrive.
Finally, don’t seek perfection. Surround yourself with honesty, those who will tell you they couldn’t get to work fast enough today because their kids were driving them nuts, they screwed up that day at work — it’s healthy and it’s grounding to celebrate the imperfect. It’s reality, learn to love it. These people will celebrate your failures and your successes, and you theirs.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
On my first day of my first job out of university, my father gave me a piece of advice. He told me that at the end of our careers, there are only two things that will matter: our reputation and our relationships — nurture those two things always.
It took me a few years to fully appreciate this, but I know now that it’s the basis for all the support and success I’ve had, both personally and professionally. I’ve won large new deals, identified incredible talent, been invited to participate in events and so many other things because I’ve valued these two things all along. Not everyone will reciprocate on the relationship front. It won’t always feel equitable, but the reputational gain from showing up is priceless.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Get to Data Fast
We all create stories about our companies’ journeys and our roles within them, but before you fall in love with any one narrative, you need to get the facts.
By quickly establishing fluency in your company’s data-backed business metrics, ideally before you even step foot in the building, you’ll be able to keep the early meetings you have with your team grounded. The goal is for the narrative to become context to the facts, not the story that gets in the way of the truth. Taking this approach also sets the right tone, one that makes clear you intend to be data- and insights-driven.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still listen carefully to the context — it’s incredibly important to understanding what matters to your people, what their challenges have been and where they see opportunity for the business and themselves. But a data-driven approach ensures that you’re all starting from the same shared fact base.
If you don’t get this right, you risk falling into the trap of creating just another narrative that may or may not be correct.
2. Seek the Good and the Bad
It is as important to learn what’s going well as it is to understand where things are going wrong. That’s why I always make it a priority to ask everyone I meet not just what can we do better, but also what do we do well. What do our clients love and value from us? This tells us what to nurture and what to change.
When I joined PIRA Energy Group as CEO in 2014, one of my earliest observations was that our offices could use a little sprucing up, especially since we frequently entertained clients. But when I asked our employees what they liked about our workplace, I heard over and over again that they were proud that when clients came, they could see that we were a no-frills company. They perceived our modest workplace as a trademark of our no-nonsense quality analysis culture.
While we did eventually make some improvements to our workplace, we made sure we didn’t lose sight of our culture and the pride our people took in our image.
3. Don’t Admire Problems
It’s easy to identify problems, but much harder to identify solutions. New leaders often fall into the trap of fixating on the challenges they inherit — “Please tell me it’s not true that we haven’t raised prices in five years” — but it’s much healthier to roll up your sleeves to start fixing them on day one.
Your team will feel you are in the trenches with them, you will build trust and credibility and often find quick wins in the process. You’ll be able to celebrate small successes together early on and set the tone that it’s not just ok but expected for the team to share bad news and raise problems when they need support from you.
Often, these problems don’t require you to solve them yourself, you just need to empower others to make changes that they may have felt impossible under the previous leadership team.
4. Get Outside Fast
Get out fast and meet your clients. It really is not as scary as you think it is. Our clients are the ultimate arbiters of our success, and getting their perspective is essential.
Do not let your team dictate which clients you meet, or you will more than likely meet your company’s fan club. Make your own list and meet clients whose spend has been growing and whose spend has declined and meet a few clients you may have lost all together.
It’s actually a lot of fun being able to meet clients when you’re new. You can ask questions that a few weeks later you’ll be expected to know the answers to, and clients will feel comfortable in telling you their honest opinions.
If your company hosts conferences and client roundtables, attend those. Join your team in pitching a new client. There is probably no more powerful way to learn your organization than to see it in action. Most importantly, you will demonstrate to your clients that you intend to engage with them frequently and directly.
5. Communicating early and often is better than being right,
It’s important to articulate a vision and a strategy at your first town hall with employees, but don’t feel like you need to have all the answers right away. Employees want to be engaged in your discovery process, and they value transparency above all else. If you communicate, early, often and with honesty, you’ll be able to bring your employees along with you on your journey.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
A woman peer gave me groundbreaking advice recently: Replace the word confidence with conviction.
Don’t tell yourself you don’t have the confidence to make a decision, or to speak at an event, or to challenge your board. Ask yourself instead if you have the conviction. This sets in motion all the right things: Do I have my facts together, am I prepared, do I have something worth talking about at that event. These things focus us on the doing instead of the worrying, which is the real burnout for me.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
After several years of intense discussion, you would think women would be more prevalent at the top of America’s largest companies by now. So why are just 26 of the S&P 500 led by female CEOs?
With this snail’s pace, there has been too much talk and too little action — we need to make tangible change much faster. This includes implementing equal-rights parental leave, rather than framing it as a women’s rights issue. Problems like the gender pay gap cannot be fixed until figures are disclosed, as the first step to acting on a problem is admitting you have one. There also needs to be a clear ladder to the boardroom. Women who get to the board table must not rest on that achievement. It is our duty not to be the token member but, rather, to be an active member, one who is always looking to introduce new talent.
We have to make this discussion utterly inclusive. If we want equality for women, we have to allow for men and women to reframe what equality really looks like at home and at work, for both men and women. I wish we would stop using men as the model of success that women have to achieve equality with, and instead look at this the other way around. Men could have more fulfilling lives if they could look more to how women are and how they can shape the workplace for the future. They have to be our allies at work, and we need them to be our allies at home too.
I am sad to say that there are too many women’s networks who gather only women to talk about how to manage work-life balance as if it is a women’s issue. It is not!
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