Vanessa Vallely is one of the UK’s most well-networked women and has provided keynotes on a variety of career related topics for over 250 companies worldwide. Vanessa is also one of the UK’s most prominent figures in gender equality and often provides guidance and consultancy to both government and corporate organisations who are seeking to attract, develop and retain their female talent. At the height of her successful 25-year career in the financial services, Vanessa launched the award winning WeAreTheCity in 2008 as a vehicle to help corporate women connect and grow professionally and personally. WeAreTheCity.com now has over 60,000 members and in 2013 launched a sister site in India.
Vanessa Vallely is the also the founder of UK wide diversity forum Gender Networks. Gender Networks (formerly The Network of Networks) brings together diversity leaders from over 120 firms to share best practice. Vanessa is the author of the book “Heels of Steel: Surviving and Thriving in the Corporate World” which tracks her career and shares 13 chapters of tips to succeed in the workplace.
Over the past seven years, she has been named Women in Banking & Finance’s Champion for Women, Financial News Top 100 Rising Star, The International Alliance for Women Top 100 Women globally & Brummells Top 30 London Entrepreneurs. In 2015 Vanessa was in GQ UK’s Top 100 Connected Women and the Evening Standard’s 1000 Most Influential Londoners. Vanessa is a regular guest on TV and radio and also sits on the Government Digital Services advisory board.
Vanessa is also the Pearly Queen of The City of London, a tradition that has been in her family for over 100 years. She is an avid charity worker and sits on the board for Cancer ResearchUK as one of its Women of Influence.
School For Mothers: Who are the members of your family?
I am married, have two teenage children, a fairly eccentric mother (in a nice way), 2 cats and a slightly uncontrollable french bulldog, and yes, I class them as all part of the family.
You’ve been known for the past 8 years as the East End girl who took on the City, by 2020 what will you be known for?
I would like to think I would have left a bit of a legacy around how important it is for women to help other women and support the generations that follow us. By 2020 I would have been working in the gender space for 12 years. I have seen a lot of change for women during this time, the focus on equal boards from Lord Davies, the demand for pay transparency through the pay gap regulations, plus lots of smaller initiatives that all make a difference in the quest for gender parity. There is a lot more to be done to make the world an equal playing field for women, but the conversations have started, small steps lead to big change! We just can’t lose the momentum and we need to keep pushing. The theme for International Women’s Day 2017 was “be bold for change”, I am all for that! You don’t ask, you don’t get!
Following the success of your book, “Heels of Steel” you’re planning another ~ tell us what to expect…
I am planning on writing a second book, it is just a case of finding the time to write it. Heels of Steel was written in 9 weeks as that was the only gap I had in 2012 to dedicate my time to such a labour of love. The next book will very much focus on what happened after I left ‘corporate’ to run WeAreTheCity. An incredible amount has happened in the last four years, I continue to learn, I continue to make mistakes (like every entrepreneur), but wow what a journey it has been. It is the lessons I have learnt throughout that period that I would like to share in the next book. A bit of a story, but above all chapters of tips. My biggest issue is what to call it, Heels of Steel is a bit of a tough title to follow!
You transitioned from corporate to being an entrepreneur, what issues didn’t you think about as you did this?
Truthfully? I thought being in corporate for 25 years had armed me with enough experience to deal with anything that running a business was likely to throw at me. I was naive! I realise now how much support I had when I was in corporate, just simple things like having someone to bounce your ideas off, having someone to fix the printer, the moment where a client asks you to send them something you don’t have or have never prepared before. I think I underestimated the amount of hats I would have to wear in order to get WeAreTheCity where it needed to be. Things are slightly different now as four years on I have a team of people to help, but there are still moments where I think, hmm, how do I do that then.
What ‘plates’ are you juggling?
I am always spinning plates! I am an ideas person, one who wakes up at 3.00am and thinks, why is no-one doing that for women? Then generally by the Monday that idea has become a “thing” and then somehow takes on a life of its own. A number of the initiatives you see from WeAreTheCity started as 3am wake-up calls. I do have to be careful what I mobilise as there just isn’t enough time or people to do all that I want to do (yet!).
Like a lot of working mothers, I have all the normal stuff to contend with on top of my day job, which is another job in itself. The housework, the dog, bills to pay, add in ageing parents and teenagers, but you just get on with it. Every now and then I will have a big wobble or a blow out that I don’t get enough help, but this goes as quick as it comes. I do have a good support network of friends I can sound off to, I also have a husband who is very involved in Wearethecity and our home life, however, he works full time with little flexibility so there are restrictions as to how much he can help. My mum helps and looks after the dog so I can get to London, but that is only two days a week. It’s like most things, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
How do you mobilise so much?
I have a big network of people who help me and nowadays I am not afraid to ask for help. I have an idea, I bounce it off my husband, then I call/text/email those in my personal boardroom. My personal boardroom is a group of about four senior women in the corporate world who I have known for many years, they work in the gender space and are not afraid to tell me whether my latest brainwave is good, needs work or is a no go. I then work with my team to shape the idea and then on some occasions it comes to life and on others, it doesn’t! Generally, things end up bigger than I planned, but that’s the fun part. Kicking something off and not really knowing where it is going to go. I am also lucky that a lot of people are bought into what we do around female progression, so they want to help. I couldn’t do half of what I do without my clients and those who cheerlead for us when we are not in the room.
What’s the toll of juggling so many plates?
Things do get on top of me during busy periods and on occasions, I struggle with my mental health. It’s actually very refreshing to be able to say that, as nowadays it’s OK not to be OK and it is something we need to talk about and not hide our feelings. It is not new for me, when I reflect back across my entire career there were moments when I felt overwhelmed and should have stopped, stepped back and looked after the engine that drives the machine. I have got better at recognising when my balance is going to go too far the wrong way and I do try to put in extra provisions and support during those periods. I don’t always get it right, again, it’s trial and error.
You’re known for saying, “It’s ok to not be everything to everyone” how do you follow your own advice on this?
I tend not to beat myself up as much as I used to when I was younger. During the peak of my career I was trying to raise a young family, accelerate my career, be a supportive wife, best friend, and daughter alongside keeping a sound mind – it was never going to work. On occasions, I would service everyone else’s requests for time even if it meant exhausting myself in the process. It took me years to realise that I am human, this means I am going to get tired, I might forget things and I can’t always give individuals the 120% I want to as there is never enough time in the day, and my family and well-being has to come first. I used to toil over the fact I hadn’t answered an email within the hour, or that I hadn’t picked up the phone to someone for a couple of months. I try not to beat myself up like I used to and I ensure that those around me know my heart is with them, but it is best endeavours in terms of time. Life gets in the way for all of us and even if we could split ourselves into several people it would be hard to be everywhere and to be everything to everyone. Those around you who love you will understand.
What is the difference between the ‘Vanessa brand’ and We are the City, and how do you make sure the focus is placed where you want it?
The brand is the same. I see a lot of my own values in WeAreTheCity, which is what you would expect given it’s my baby. Both our brands are about helping and supporting others to achieve their potential. We both give back in different ways, me through my talks, the book and interviews and for WeAreTheCity it’s the many messages we share about equality and the importance of self-progression to millions of working women.
What’s your version of self-care?
Knowing when I need to stop and step back. As mentioned earlier, this is only something I have learned to do in the past few years. I go to Spain a few times a year on my own for what I call thinking time! Sometimes you just need to take time out, block out the distractions in life, regroup and listen to your own thoughts and the messages your body is sending you.
What’s your relationship to the unknown?
I am a planner, always have been, always will be, it’s how I get so much done. As I look to the future, I am not sure how things will pan out, it doesn’t scare me. I am sure there will be amazing times and challenging times, that’s all part of life’s fabric. On reflection, I have had a wonderful life to date and have had the opportunity to do things I never ever thought I would. My early start in life was a little turbulent, but it made me who I am, I wouldn’t go back and have it any other way. I have to be happy with the “so far” and hope that the future brings opportunities for me to fulfil my purpose of helping others and the strength to cope with the unknowns.
You’re committed to being available and responsive, what are the upsides and downsides to this?
I can be a little bit too available or so a recent mentor told me – I want to help everyone and I have to be careful not to over exhaust or commit myself by trying to do so. I still feel the odd tinge of guilt when I don’t get the time to answer an email or I miss a call etc, but as I said above, you can’t be everything to everyone, and those around you will understand.
Can you share your tips on clearing your inbox?
Hmm, not quite mastered that one yet. I get between 100-150 emails a day, sometimes more when I am out speaking a lot as I tend to get quite a few questions or follow ups. They can stack up when I am time strapped as I don’t like to answer a heartfelt email with a quick response, I prefer to actually sit down and give each email the time it deserves. Sometimes this means getting up early at the weekend and spending four or so hours clearing my inbox. I try to leave the client ones in draft and send them on a Monday as I don’t want to be sending client emails at the weekend.
You’ve been curating quarterly City dinners for some time now – what are these about and what led you to create them?
I have always believed together we are stronger. The City dinners have been running for around eight years. They are about getting like-minded people together who are willing to help each other. The fact they all know me and I have invited them means they are the sorts of individuals who honour anything they commit to do, eg a connection, a coffee etc. A lot of good relationships have been formed off the back of these dinners. It also gives me a chance to catch up with a large group of amazing individuals in one sitting. Although I never get enough time to go round and see them all.
At these dinners, you play a game called ‘What’s my Ask’ – how is this played and what are the benefits of it?
During the dinner, each person gets the opportunity to ask for help with something they are working on. Other people around the table offer to help. The fact they are all in the room means they will honour that commitment.
Can you describe the ‘showreel’ version of your life?
Probably like a bit like east enders, but a city version 😉
Can you describe the ‘behind the scenes/backstage’ version of your life?
Like most peoples, I expect. Busy during certain periods, work peaks, cleaning, kids and family stuff. I am always on various health kicks, at the gym, not at the gym, gain weight, lose it, again it is down to how much time I have available. I have to admit, I do work a lot and at funny times, as I have to fit in things where I can. I do love getting up early when the kids are asleep and getting things done. It’s like having two days.
In the have-it-all-debate, what’s the elephant in the room?
Flexible working for working mothers AND fathers.
And finally, what is the one common denominator between mothers? (beyond children)
We could all do with a good night’s sleep!
Connect with Vanessa and WeAreTheCity on social media