To celebrate and support International Women’s Day this year, we hear from Alice Williams, VP of Strategy UK & Ireland. She gives us insight into her diverse career journey from the military to her role today. Sharing her personal challenges and lessons learned and how she has been able to #BreakTheBias.
Finding my ‘Why’
I am fortunate to have grown up surrounded by powerful women as one of three girls with an awe-inspiring mother.
I also spent my secondary years in an all-girls school with, on reflection, an empowering, almost “St Trinian’s” approach.
We were expected to achieve highly but were equally given a lot of freedom to express ourselves in things like debate, dance, sport, music and technology.
Later in my life, I would recognise that this strong support network and narrative meant that I left school at 18 with an absolute conviction that I could be anything I wanted to be.
This has not only shaped how I have gone about making career decisions. But also has made me realise how fortunate I was to have people who listened, believed in, and championed me. That there was a real place for being the cheerleader of other people’s dreams.
Lesson 1: We can’t deliver other people’s dreams for them but we can believe in them and celebrate them
From a fairly young age, I had my first run-in with the F word…. Failure.
I had applied for a scholarship and subsequent bursary scheme with the Royal Air Force, to become a pilot.
I was a little under 16, had spent months preparing in verbal and nonverbal reasoning, physical training, current affairs, planning exercises, and fine motor skills ahead of the 3-day selection process.
On day one I was told that my fingertip to elbow length was under the minimum required standard. And that meant I could never be a military pilot.
I got the ‘No’, but I stayed on through the selection and was awarded a scholarship and bursary to study and then enter the military as an engineer.
Lesson 2: I got the ‘No’ and I learned that the No was more valuable and exhilarating than never knowing
At University I identified the first of what I now see as my value-generating skills (the things I’m really good at and can contribute to a team) in my career journey.
I studied for a Master’s in Aeronautical Engineering, and I use the term ‘studied’ extremely loosely.
The thing I really learned through the endless sports interests, two part-time jobs, military duties, and a very limited amount of study was that I am really good at assimilating complex information quickly and recalling it with high accuracy.
I tried to do it all and had to dig deep into my strengths to just about make it work.
Lesson 3: No one is good at everything but everyone excels at something
We have to pay attention to ourselves and identify what we excel at so we can maximise that in whatever setting we are in.
I joined the Army following University. Those 9 years I spent serving have undoubtedly shaped who I am and my expectations.
The Army is a Leadership First organisation, where you commission from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in my case at the age of 23, and are expected to lead large groups of experienced soldiers immediately in often hostile environments.
You learn very quickly that your role as a leader cannot be to know or to do everything. Rather your role is to give clear direction.
Give the time and space for the team to execute whilst you ultimately stay accountable for the outcome. The thing I came to value most was accountability; everyone being prepared to fully own their part in the team.
Lesson 4: Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility where your duty is first and foremost to the team you lead
Leading a team in the army is a very complex task. It allows you to realise that to successfully lead a group of people you need real conviction and authenticity.
This is where my obsession with the ‘Why’ was created. I needed to authentically be able to explain to the team the reason behind various missions, tasks, requests or approaches. So they understood the real nature of the ask, could buy-in and deliver with their own passion.
I equally had to be brave enough to challenge upwards when the ‘Why’ was not clear to me. I did so because I knew that if the team had a clear ‘Why’, then they would achieve extraordinary things in creative ways.
Lesson 5: We often focus on the ‘What, How and Who’
If you can step back and get everyone aligned and passionate on the ‘Why’ then the team will take care of these by themselves.
So how do all these things tie together?
When I made the decision to leave the Army I was struck with a lot of decisions to make about what I wanted to do next.
Often when I speak to others about their career journey, it is the choices themselves that seem to make things stressful and, in many cases, lead to inaction.
For me the important thing was finding my own ‘Why’; what was it outside of the uniform and job title that I was passionate about and would feel excited to spend my time doing.
When you are clear on the big topics you care about, then all choices become possibilities that you can weigh up against those criteria.
I recognised that what I had loved about leading teams was combining my lessons one and two; being the person who supported others in identifying their dreams and also being the person that pushed them to go for the no and not be afraid of failing.
Through lesson three I identified that I reveled in complex high-pressure situations with a broad team of multi-skilled people. People who I could support in bringing to bear their unique skills. I confirmed that I love to lead, I love the pressure and complexity, and that I am comfortable in ambiguity.
And finally, in lesson five I recognised the energy, passion, drive, and imagination that comes from connecting authentically with the why. I was passionate about working somewhere with a ‘Why’ focused on sustainability or equality.
Through this lens my decision to Schneider Electric felt natural; an organisation focused on delivering sustainability, with a strong ambition for diversity, equity and inclusion. With people that seemed vibrant and excited by their work.
I had no idea how the corporate world worked at that point but I was excited by the adventure of trying. I was prepared to be accountable and contribute with my unique skills.
In broad terms, if I can be working with a team of amazing people and supporting them to achieve their full potential. Plus maybe on the odd occasion, things they didn’t believe possible, then I’m probably in the right place.
Learn more about Schneider Electric and apply for jobs here: www.se.com/careers
About the Author
Alice Williams, VP of Strategy, leads the Strategy development and execution for Schneider Electric in the UK and Ireland. However, her journey started out as an RAF Sixth Form Scholar. Then Alice went on to graduate through the Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme from Loughborough University. Always in search of a challenge she then completed an MEng in Aeronautical Engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology.
She lives in Suffolk with her husband Martyn and a much-adored dog named Bella. Together they enjoy creating new from old by renovating properties. As a keen sportswoman, she runs, cycles, skis and snowboards. Plus is hoping to get back into the saddle with horse riding when she has the time.
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