Gemma Archibald, Alcumus: Share your story; it will give others the confidence to believe in themselves

“I believe that as female leaders, we have a role to play in talking about how we reached our positions. If younger women don’t understand your history or journey, they will attribute your success to a certain level of education,” says Gemma Archibald, Managing Director Accreditation and Commercial Division at Alcumus, one of the UK’s leading providers of software-led solutions in the risk management sector.

In this exclusive interview, Gemma shares her thoughts on leadership, on finding the right work-life balance and the representation of women in the health and safety industry. Find actionable insights on how to become a better leader, on how to navigate male-dominated work environments as a woman and how to advance in your career.

In your career, you have worked in traditionally male-dominated industries such as manufacturing, and health and safety; what are some practical things that you have done that have helped you navigate these male-dominated environments?

Gemma Archibald: It’s best to try and connect with people on a personal level.  People will buy into you if they understand a little bit about you and feel akin to you personally. When I worked in manufacturing, I was driving business transformation projects which require an awful lot of people’s buy-in, so I would spend time getting to know people on a personal level to understand their motivation. I would spend time at their workplace, get to know them and ask for their opinion. When you take time to do that, it helps people feel part of what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to achieve.

I  ask people what they think we should be doing and I ask for help when I need it, knowing that people want to be involved and want to be asked what their point of view is.  I think a personal approach stands you in good stead in any type of environment, not only in a male-dominated one, and it has contributed to my success in the industry. This practical tip stands the test of time and it has helped me even when I reached a leadership position. Nobody likes things being done to them. So, use more of your emotional intelligence. Take a slightly softer approach, and you’ll get the job done more effectively. It’s just a different style of leadership; you don’t have to tell people what to do.

What changes do you think need to happen in the health and safety industry to create more inclusive work environments, and what role do leaders play in this?

Gemma Archibald: To me, creating an inclusive work environment means creating an industry that females want to enter, and that starts in schools. Health and safety is a critical industry because it’s about saving lives and preventing accidents. But we never talk about this at school. We hear about occupations such as civil engineering being a viable career, but what about health and safety? When I was in my early teens, health and safety wouldn’t have crossed my mind as a career option because I wasn’t aware of it. It’s just something I stumbled into. To create more inclusive environments, we need to raise more awareness in schools of careers in this industry.

If we want to attract more young women, we need to start talking about women who have gone into the industry and been successful. We should showcase the difference they make and how they’re trying to help the target zero agenda. We should share their stories to give younger people or people on the fringes of the industry, the opportunity to be inspired and realise the options available to them. We need inclusivity because different perspectives and approaches garnered from varying social backgrounds will make a difference.

It’s often said that women need more role models as a motivation to work in traditionally male-orientated industries, how can female leaders become role models for younger women starting out in the industry?

Gemma Archibald: I spend a lot of time with the young women in my organisation. I’m a mum and a business leader so people often ask “How do you manage to juggle all of that?”. I tell them that it helps to work for a great company and that it takes a little bit of planning and structuring. I talk to people about the challenge/juggle and say that it is important to believe you can make a difference and have the confidence to just go for it.

I worked in another organisation before Alcumus, where I had a mentor who was a senior leader. She helped me develop the confidence to keep pushing myself and to keep putting my hand up for different projects. Through her mentorship, I have learned to put myself forward, which broadened my skillset and made me a more attractive candidate for future employers. Speaking up and saying ‘I’ll do that, I’ll drive that’, despite the fear you may be feeling, has been a critical driver in my career. My advice would be to identify people in your organisation that you think could benefit from mentoring and offer to support them. Mentoring is not only important but also incredibly rewarding. When you see somebody coming along, gaining confidence, it’s gratifying for you as well as the individual.

I believe that as female leaders, we have a role to play in talking about how we reached our positions. If younger women don’t understand your history or journey, they will attribute your success to a certain level of education. When you share your story, people realise you are a normal person who has worked hard, had some great opportunities, learned a great deal along the way and had the confidence to put herself out there. Share your story! It will give others the confidence to say, ‘Well, if she can do it, I can do it’.  Lastly, take the time to identify the women in your industry who are willing to push themselves and spend quality time with them.

What advice do you have for women looking to reach the top position in traditionally male lead industries?

Gemma Archibald: Just go for it. Even if you’re scared, even though you have butterflies in the pit of your stomach and you are petrified that something could go wrong or that you’re not good enough, my advice is to find a way to fight those fears and put your hand up.

Go and do something outside of your role, whether that is a project or an initiative or a new thing that’s happening in your organisation. Take advantage of each occasion, say you want to be part of it and treat it as a real learning exercise.

Even if it goes wrong, you will have learned something and added more skills to your toolkit so that when those bigger positions arise, people will see you as someone willing to try and willing to take risks. These are the real attributes that you need for leadership positions and you can start to do these things in junior roles. Don’t wait for someone to come knocking on your door because if you wait for that to happen you will probably get left behind. Be the one to put your hand up and push yourself forward.

The best advice I was ever given is to stop worrying about what other people think. You cannot always change what they think of you and you have very little control over what they think. All you can do is do your best. So don’t worry about what people think. Grab each opportunity, you have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

Having a mentor in the workplace is often an invaluable asset for both men and women alike – what is the best piece of advice you’ve received from a mentor and can you give an example of how it’s helped you in your career?

Gemma Archibald: My mentor taught me not to be afraid of admitting that I don’t know something. As a leader, there are more things you shouldn’t know than you should know – that’s why you’re hiring really bright people to help you. Be OK to say “Well, I don’t know –what do you think?”. It can be challenging to admit that you don’t know something, when you are coming from a place where you feel like an imposter, or you’re worried that other people are better than you. But it is worth investing in becoming comfortable with saying “I don’t know”.

It allows people to see you as vulnerable and human, which makes you more approachable. They will go the extra mile for you when you become honest about your limitations and you will be able to build a team of people who genuinely want to deliver and drive the company forward. Asking for help takes the pressure off you and you also get to let others rise up while being able to lead a team.

It took me a little while to buy into this concept, but when I did, I remember looking back and thinking – it’s the best thing she could have told me in those two years of mentoring.

As businesses worldwide transition from employees working in offices to them working from home – what are some of the challenges that the health and safety industry will be facing and how will those industries adapt?

Gemma Archibald:  Many of the same risks still exist and we have to be diligent and make sure our standards don’t drop. Covid-19 should be considered an additional challenge, not the sole challenge of the industry, while we remain focused on target zero. The pandemic has brought added challenges because we’ve never had to deal with a pathogen before, so making things like cleaning a habit is tricky. Culture changes are always difficult but we need to change patterns of behaviour to make work safer and monitor people as they learn to work in new ways.

As more and more people are working from home, we need to make sure these people aren’t overworking and have the right physical environment to be productive and feel safe. They need to feel able to manage mental stress – particularly as we’re losing some human-to-human interaction. The role of health and safety must evolve to include the rules and regulations around these new problems, while accommodating previous measures. We need to watch out for these new issues while remaining focused on the old ones.

What will HR managers need to keep in mind when thinking of their health and safety policies, post-pandemic?

Gemma Archibald: HR managers need to think about being flexible with policies. Although I probably like the term ‘frameworks’ more than policies, because a policy suggests you have to go by the rulebook – and I think we’re evolving from that.

Most organizations can look at the general framework or rules about how they want to run the organisation, but the reality is we’re dealing with human beings with varying circumstances. Hence, organisations need to maintain a level of flexibility if they want to maintain their workforce and keep their talent. People will leave an organisation if they feel it’s not flexible and it doesn’t take into account their needs. HR managers have to recognise the changes in the work environment and understand the challenges of juggling working from home with parenting, while being committed to the organisation and their roles.

So HR managers need to take a flexible approach, which doesn’t mean we will become less productive – of course not. You can be flexible – as working from home during Covid-19 has proven – and continue being productive. In fact, most organisations are saying their productivity increased due to the new flexibility. The old HR rulebook isn’t fit for the reality that we’re going to have to face now; therefore, HR needs to get ahead and think about how we can sustain high engagement, flexibility, commerciality, and productivity.

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