Clodagh Hughes on career highs and lows and her passion for female leadership

Clodagh Hughes, who leads WomanUp, is passionate about female leadership and isn’t shy about sharing her strong views on the subject. She also has a fund of stories on this theme from her corporate career and from her work as one of Ireland’s leading specialists in top team and senior leadership performance.

Clodagh spent the first 12 years of her life in Zambia where her Irish-born father, a judge, had worked for 20 years. She was 12 when her father died suddenly leading to her mother’s decision to return to Ireland with Clodagh and her sister Derval. She initially found it difficult to adjust to a different country and culture, but that changed when she went to secondary school and met girls who would become lifetime friends. 

Clodagh was an avid debater at school and featured in many all-Ireland debating competitions. She showed leadership qualities from a very early age. She was elected schoolgirl of the year twice over her six years she was in Loreto Abbey Dalkey in Dublin and was Head Girl in her final year.

Clodagh then went to UCD where she studied for her primary degree in Social Science. She subsequently did a Master’s degree in Business.

Our Q&A interview with Clodagh picks up the story of her progression from college to the workforce

How did your early career progress?

I got a job in banking through the milk round (where employers selected graduates for roles). I remember when I got the call to say that I'd been accepted saying: "Are you sure you are giving me a job because I'm not very good at maths you know." I spent three years as a graduate recruit in different areas of the organisation. I ended up in a Head of Marketing role and then finished my corporate career as a Director or Marketing in stockbroking.

Early on in my career I felt a bit like a fish out of water. My first instinct, as a girl, was to be myself and be honest about my strengths and weaknesses. My male counterparts never admitted any frailties and I don't think they even saw any frailties in themselves. I also remember when different ads came up for various promotions the guys would say "I’m perfect for that job “and they'd apply. I’d say: "I couldn't possibly apply for that job. I don’t have all the qualities they are looking for."

I soon realised that this wasn't quite working for me. Five graduates started together – three guys, two girls – and the guys went up that corporate ladder far quicker than I did and because I am ambitious it really irked me.

I learned very quickly that I had to fit in or get out. So I soon became much more assertive, much more I guess like the best version of a man I could be. I went up that corporate ladder very quickly once I decided to adopt that mind-set

Clodagh, aged two, sitting on her mother’s knee.

How did you manage work/life balance?

I was absolutely fine until my children arrived. I struggled because I loved my job, the sense of achievement and fulfilment, but I also love my kids. I remember working very late one evening standing outside the office waiting for a taxi to go home when a friend of mine pulled up and offered me a lift.

As soon as I got into the car she burst out crying and she said: "Look at you, you're a woman of the world, you're a power house, so successful and I've just been at home all day with my kids, totally frustrated." With that, I burst out crying and said: "Look at you. You're an amazing mother and I've been away for 12 hours and I feel awful because I’m not with my kids."

I remember thinking that actually, neither of us was happy. We both thought the other was doing the better job. I think that's a problem – women feel this constant guilt.

Clodagh (back row, second left) in her first school photo after she relocated from Zambia to Ireland

Had you regrets about quitting your job?

My husband also had a big career and both of us were working very hard and to be honest spinning those plates just became too challenging. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t have role models who told me that this challenging phase would be over, it would get easier.

I have regrets about quitting my job because I'm not sure I was ever, frankly, challenged enough when I was at home minding my kids. I had this drive and ambition that wasn't being fulfilled. I remember one day standing in my kitchen roaring at my kids. I was supposedly there to be a much better mother, but actually I was being a dreadful one because this balance, or this desire, to achieve wasn't being met.

The big lesson for me is that as a woman, you should do what makes you happy. If you're happy, your kids are happy. So if you are happy being a stay at home mum that’s wonderful. But being at home and miserable is not good for anyone.

What made you restart your career and how did you make it work for you?

I went back to work because, very simply, I wasn't happy not working, nor, did I want to go back to the madness that working in a big corporate job entailed.  I wanted to have a bit of flexibility and freedom with my hours. I was more than happy to work really hard, but I wanted to be home for my kids when they needed me. I wanted to go to the rugby and hockey matches. I wanted to be have flexibility around exams and other important times in their lives.

I wanted to have a flexible environment that fuelled my ambitions, my desire to work, but also gave me flexibility. Working for myself has given me that balance.

You specialise in developing teams and their leadership skills. What differences do you identify in how men and women behave in teams and in corporate life?

I’m always very cautious about making sweeping generalities but I do think there are some differences. Women tend to make their opinions known far less or with not as much ease as men do. I think that as women we are not always as comfortable as men are being visible. It all comes down to conditioning. We were told to be good girls at school, to keep our heads down, not to take the limelight, and that just plays out in the world of work.

Do you believe the lack of female progression to senior roles in business is all down to women not having confidence?

If you asked me that question three years ago, I would have said yes. All I could see when I was interacting with the young women in my work was that they lacked the same confidence that males seemed to have. But I've totally changed my mind on that. I now think that we lack cultural fit rather than confidence.

Women don't always feel they belong, and when that happens you start questioning yourself and your confidence.

 Clodagh pictured with her first ever mentor Sister Camilla and Karen Hand, her best friend and creator of the WomanUp brand name.

Why did you decide to do something about female leadership?

Over the years, I've come across amazing women who were incredibly capable. But for whatever reason didn't get to the same levels as their male counterparts.

I remember reading a book on leadership where the author, in  trying to understand what made the leaders so successful,   found  that the only thing they had in common  was that someone at an influential stage in their career told them they were great . They took that belief as read and, guess what, it played out in their lives. That really resonated with me and got me thinking what if we could engineer something similar for the young women I was meeting.

I also was frustrated by the fact that gender diversity despite over 20 years of lots of talk and concerted action has progressed very little   The proportion of women reaching senior roles is still abysmal.  So I gathered together 10 women who I really rated and admired and who'd all been very successful in their careers and asked them to help.  They were all excited about the opportunity to do something practical, and pragmatic, and very solutions-orientated in this space and that's how WoW was born.

Clodagh at the conferring ceremony for her Master’s degree one week after her first child Jack was born

What did WoW actually achieve?

Some amazing things. We got our mentees to write down their goals and their intentions about making a step change in their career. We got them to be brave and step out their comfort zones and we mentored and supported them as they did it.

 

We heard lovely stories about our mentees asking for and getting pay increases when they would never have asked before the programme. We heard about them pushing for promotions when they've never put themselves forward before. We heard about them going for opportunities to make themselves more visible -again all of which they put down to WoW.

What happened after #WomanUp was published in November 2017?

People kept telling us that we had uncovered something pretty special. We were told "for the first time a whole amount of research that's already out there has been pulled together in one accessible place." "We were told that instead of banging on about the problems we were giving practical solutions.  We were also told that such a practical approach was missing in the market and that many companies would find what we did to be hugely helpful in their efforts  to improve their own female leadership pipelines. 

In fact on the night of the launch of #WomanUp, we had lots of approaches from senior leaders saying: "we need your help, please, come and talk to us about how you might help us replicate what you did with WoW in our businesses”

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The five of us who were behind WoW knew we couldn’t continue working with WoW on a voluntary basis. It had cost us all hugely both in terms of time and in terms of impact on our own individual businesses.  We were all very happy to give of our time voluntarily for two years but if there was a desire for what we had created going forward we needed to value our time and start commercialising our offer.

So,  the five co-founders banged heads together about commercialising our proposition.  Two of the five co- founders decided against moving forward for their own personal reasons and three of us decided we would. So WomanUp the business was formed.

What do you believe it will take for that all-important dial to move on female?

There has to be a systemic approach to change and our change model represents this. The three levers in our model – leadership, culture and females – have to be worked on. The danger is if you just pull one lever  you won’t achieve the sustainable change that we are after.

The best case scenario is for companies to create the culture that helps women to thrive, for businesses to see this as a business issue that they need to set targets for  and for women to celebrate and be proud of  the difference they bring to the leadership table but also to flex their management styles while getting there.

What is your ambition for WomanUp?

My  ambition is that we make a real impact. Firstly on all  the females that come through our programmes. Secondly, on the organisations we work with in terms of their culture.  And thirdly on the leaders  who I hope we can influence to move this agenda forward with real integrity not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it makes business sense to do it.

My biggest ambition, however,  is that in my lifetime there won’t be a need for WomanUp  - and that gender will become a non-issue when it comes to leadership and career opportunity.

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Looking calm and professional for the corporate photo shoot but …at the time this photo was taken in 2000, Clodagh was spinning lots of plates between a corporate job and being a Mum to her two children (her third was born 2 years later)

Finally, if there was one message you’d give to your 30 year-old-self working your way up the corporate ladder, what would it be?

Jump in. As women, we tend to over-analyse, to fret, to worry, to wonder are we good enough – conditioning again.   That means we sometimes lose out on the opportunities that present to us.

I remember working on an event early in my career. I impressed the guy who was organizing it to the extent that said he asked me to leave the bank and come and work for him. The first thing out of my mouth was "but I can't “.  It was that maths thing again. I literally saw the disappointment etched in his eyes. He thought I was better than that. I was but the opportunity had gone. He went on to launch a multi-million euro business. I could have been part of that journey.

Welcome to Clodagh’s Global Headquarters, or

GHQ for short. She has a 15 second commute to GHQ at the bottom of her garden. A friend once introduced Clodagh to a client as an amazing business woman who just happens to have her global headquarters in Dublin!

@ Woman-Up 2019

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