Advice for life from our IMAGE PwC Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Fiona Dawson
21st Apr 2022
Fiona Dawson CBE received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2022 IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year Awards ceremony last night.
A true trailblazer in her career, CEO of IMAGE Media, Clodagh Edwards described her as “the most incredible woman”, praising her for her “abundant business skillset and her inclusive leadership style” amongst other things.
Addressing guests at The Clayton Hotel yesterday evening, Fiona’s speech was met with a huge reaction from the crowd and attendees left the room motivated and inspired to emulate her success. Sharing snippets of the highs and lows of her career, golden tidbits of advice and some of the many life lessons she’s learned along the way, it was a definite highlight of the night and we are excited to share the full transcript of her words with you below.
Congratulations Fiona and thank you for your wonderful speech!
Thank you so much for this incredible award, which I am very humbled to accept. Tonight, is a wonderful celebration of Irish businesswomen and I would like to dedicate this award to the importance of women supporting women and in recognition of the many Irish women, from across the generations who broke down barriers and paved the path for us to achieve what we can today.
Throughout our shared history there have been female trailblazers who went to extraordinary lengths to challenge the system.
If we go all the way back to St Brigid, the first and only female patron saint in Ireland, she is best known for her female divinity. However, St Brigid was actually a powerful leader, providing refuge for over 14,00 women, and she was a fierce negotiator who secured women’s property rights and freed those who were trafficked.
In the following centuries, there have been countless examples of women who have broken various stereotypes, often taking the most extreme paths to pursue their dreams. An amazing example comes from the 19th century when women were not allowed to study medicine. A young Cork woman called Margaret Bulkey – with the full support of her mother – assumed her deceased uncle’s identity, James Barry, to study and went on to hold the highest medical office in the British Army. Her true identity was only discovered after her death.
Over the years, women have faced significant institutional challenges in Ireland.
I have spoken before about my wonderful mum, who, on marrying, had to give up a job she loved in HR, indeed it’s hard to believe that the marriage ban was only lifted in the 1970s.
Thankfully things have become progressively easier for women, and I was extremely lucky to have been in university during the ’80s when my first role model outside of my family, Mary Robinson, came to prominence. Having been the underdog during the 1990s presidential race, she emerged victorious and reformed the role, remaining true to her convictions and crossing divides. She led with deep humanity and showed us that being a female leader was not about trying to be a man, but being true to your values.
It is wonderful to see Irish women continuing to lead the way in their various fields, whether it is creating breakthrough Covid vaccines or winning Grand Nationals, and of course all the incredible women in this room tonight.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a St Patrick’s Day dinner in London for Irish businesswomen based in the UK. There were 12 of us around the table, and the hostess asked us all to introduce ourselves and talk about our journeys. It was clear that despite having never met, we were bound together by a fierce pride in our Irishness. And as I listened to these wonderful women, all from very different industries, I was struck by the power of their stories – not just in terms of the successes they had achieved but the honesty with which they shared the barriers they had overcome, and the lessons they had learnt.
Yet again it reminded me how important the support of other women in my life has been.
When trying to think of how to name it, the term “sisterhood” came to mind, but I was worried I would sound too cliched. So I did as I always do and Googled it, and came up with the following definition in the Collins dictionary: Sisterhood is the affection and loyalty that women feel for other women, who they have something in common with. As in: There was a degree of solidarity and sisterhood among the women.
So, sisterhood it is!
For me, sisterhood has been about surrounding myself with fabulous women who give me energy.
Women who love you unconditionally – they don’t care about titles and prestige, but rather if you happy, are you looking after yourself, do you need to talk? These women can be family and dear friends made over the years, sharing tears and laughter over many glasses of wine and endless cups of tea. Women who know where you come from and understand the real you, and get all your complexities. These women are your biggest cheerleaders. And my goodness I am so lucky to have some of those very special women here tonight – my wonderful sister, or as she would say, “my much younger sister”, Rozelle, and my sisters-in-law Sandra and Jackie (whose brother Nigel has been my rock since 1988). Also here are my lifelong friends from university, Shana and Grainne. We have all been through so much together and they know stories about me that wouldn’t be of relevance to the business pages of the Sunday Newspapers.
You can also have a “sisterhood” within your business.
In fact, from an early stage of my career, I realised the power of connecting with women in the workplace. These are women who have your back, and sadly not all women do. They can give you confidence and a sense of belonging (especially if working in a male-dominated industry). They push you out of your comfort zone and hold a much-needed mirror up when you are losing sight of what is important.
As I progressed through various roles and became more senior, I realised how lonely it could be. Ultimately, the buck stops with you – you’re dealing with significant sums of money, thousands of people, and making difficult decisions. Sometimes you need an understanding ear, someone who really gets the politics and dynamics that exist in any business.
In recent years, despite sitting on the global leadership team, the women in work who were close to me knew I would never break a confidence of theirs, and vice versa. We also understood that business is business, just because we were friends didn’t mean we agreed the whole time, and we never blurred our work boundaries.
Trust is the bedrock of all sisterhood.
However, it doesn’t have to be all about serious business. While at Mars a number of us including my female CFO started a WhatsApp group called “very strategic choices”, of which one incredibly important topic was fashion advice before big presentations.
Another wonderful woman I worked with, would give me cards with fabulous expressions on them, they were light-hearted reminders that I was taking myself too seriously. At the wrong time from the wrong person, they could be seen as cheesy, however, from her, they were brilliantly timed and insightful. After one particularly fractious board meeting, where, let’s just say things didn’t go as smoothly as I wanted the first time around, she gave me one which said – I will paraphrase out of respect to the audience! – “Never underestimate the power of an angry woman”. Which is very true by the way and it gave me the kick I needed, not to retreat and feel sorry for myself, but to ensure a more successful outcome the second time around. Another one that I have framed is an Oscar Wilde quote – “Be yourself – everyone else is taken” – to remind me that despite being a feedback junkie, I shouldn’t take everything to heart but rather focus on my strengths and try to be as authentic as possible.
You can find these relationships throughout your organisation, not just in your teams. I found a most precious friendship with a woman who at first terrified me. Audrey Cook was 15 when she started working for us on the chocolate production lines in the UK, she left when she was 85, after 70 years and I first met her over 20 years ago when she was running our employee sweet shop. I was sales director at the time and she would berate me for not selling as much as I should. Fast forward a few years and I was promoted to head up the chocolate business. I had never run a factory before and had to make some really difficult decisions around closing a site and changing shift patterns – decisions that were absolutely needed to secure the long-term sustainability of the business.
I was met with a lot of initial hostility, and it was Audrey who reassured me that the teams would get to a good place and she gave me the confidence to spend more time on the factory floor, which I came to love (and still do).
If you want to hear the truth in your business – walk the shop floor.
I had the honour of speaking at her funeral and shared my firm conviction, that despite having shown the Queen around our factory in 2013, it was 100% Audrey who was the real queen of Slough.
Your sisterhood is a precious thing and should be nourished and treasured, but there are of course other support networks of all genders which should be cultivated.
On getting a promotion a few years ago I was asked by the head of our PR firm “Who is in your kitchen cabinet?”. I genuinely had no clue what he meant. Once he realised that I thought he was talking about the Heinz ketchup, he explained that it was a political term for having a small group of informal advisors, within and outside of your organisation, whose business advice you trust implicitly.
Likewise, when recruiting your team, make sure you surround yourself with diversity, and here I also mean diversity of thought, people who will really challenge your thinking and compliment your skills. It is important however to have common values and a shared purpose. Purpose really is so incredibly powerful in driving alignment, and frankly, setting people free to get on with their jobs. As an aside, If you can work for a company whose purpose inspires you and whose values line up with yours, treasure it as it is a powerful combination.
From a business perspective, when thinking about building your network, be it your sisterhood or broader, it can seem very daunting and somewhat calculating. However, I have to let you in on a secret, I am rubbish at what I would call a traditional networking.
In fact, Networking events fill me with deep angst and you will often find me in the loo rather than the bar! What I have found works best for me has been when there is a mutual chemistry, be it spontaneous or built over time.
So treasuring the women in my life, and surrounding myself with people I trust, who give me energy and compliment my skills is one of the most important lessons in my life.
There are a couple more pieces of advice that I would give to my younger self, as I set off on my career, if of course I would have listened! Firstly, I would say… don’t confuse being nice with being kind. Girls are often told to be nice, which can lead to not rocking the boat, not speaking up, a desire to please, however, you should treat people with kindness and empathy especially when making contentious decisions or giving difficult feedback.
The next one would be, keep prioritising what is important to you, and remember this can change over time. In doing so, learn the art of saying “no” – though I have to admit, I am still a work in progress on this one.
And most importantly, I would tell my 20-year-old self, you don’t have to try to be perfect. Indeed your mistakes and tough times will be your biggest learning period.
If you try to be perfect, you will play it safe. Don’t worry about taking risks and do things that make you feel uncomfortable. Keep learning.
So as I embark on this next phase of my life, I am lucky that I have a chance to again step out of my comfort zone again and to continue to learn. Without doubt, it’s thanks to the women who are with me here tonight and those who have supported me through my career, that I had the courage and confidence to do so. I simply wouldn’t be standing here without them.
So tonight, I would encourage you to celebrate those women in your sisterhood and remember we have a responsibility to those who have blazed a path before us, both in and behind the spotlight.
Returning to Mary Robinson, in her Presidential acceptance speech she said, “I want to be a President for all the people. Because I was elected by men and women of all parties and none, by many with great moral courage, who stepped out from the faded flags of the Civil War and voted for a new Ireland, and above all by the women of Ireland, mná na hÉireann, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system and who came out massively to make their mark on the ballot paper and on a new Ireland.”