Inspirational Woman: Carol Stewart | Founder, Abounding Solutions

Carol StewartKnown as the Coach for High Achieving Introverted Women, Carol Stewart is an Executive, Career and Business Coach and founder of Abounding Solutions.

She helps quiet women to be great leaders. She also provides workshops, training and talks to corporate gender networks and BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) networks on career development, personal development and leadership development. Carol is also a leadership team facilitator.

In 2015 Carol was named as one of Britain’s Top 50 Business Advisers by Enterprise Nation; in 2018 she won a We Are The City, Rising Star Champion award for her work helping women to progress in their careers; and in 2017, 2018 and 2019 Carol was named a LinkedIn Top Voice UK.

Carol’s book Quietly Visible: Leading with Influence and Impact as an Introverted Woman will be published in January 2020.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am an Executive, Career and Business Coach, Speaker and Writer, the founder of Abounding Solutions.  Known as The Coach for High Achieving Introverted Women, I help women overcome the obstacles, challenges and self-limiting beliefs and become great leaders.  I have an emphasis on introverted women and have written a book called Quietly Visible: Leading with Influence and Impact as an Introverted Woman.

I also work with organisations to develop their women and BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) employees and provide training, workshops and talks on career development, personal development and leadership development.

In 2015 I was named as one of Britain’s Top 50 Business Advisers by Enterprise Nation. I was named a LinkedIn Top Voice UK in 2017, 2018, 2019. In 2018 I received a We Are The City, Rising Star award for the work I do helping women to progress in their careers, and in 2019 I was listed as one of Britain’s inspirational Christian women making major impact by Keep the Faith magazine.

I work with/have worked with organisations such as Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays, Asurion, Department of Health, NHS England, NHS London, West London NHS Trust, Westminster City Council, Crown Prosecution Service, Metropolitan Police Service, London Borough of Croydon, London Borough of Waltham Forest, London Borough of Lambeth, National Association of African Americans in Human Resources (NAAAHR), University of Leicester and more.  I also coach private clients.

I am a semi regular columnist for the Sheffield Telegraph. I volunteer as a mentor for the Cherie Blair Foundation, volunteer for a youth charity at their annual award ceremony (having previously been Chair of the Board of Trustees), I’m a school governor and I lead the marketplace ministry at my church.

Last year, along with my sister and best friend, I put on an International Women’s Day conference in Sheffield (where I am originally from) for BAME women in the North of England.  This came about following a discussion we had on holiday about the challenges faced when it comes to opportunities for BAME women in the North, and a lack of such events up there to support them. Empowerment and developmental events for BAME women tend to be London centric.

Our first conference was well received, and we got a lot of media attention for it which resulted in me being interviewed on BBC Radio Sheffield, featured in The Sheffield Star (a daily Sheffield newspaper) and me becoming a semi regular columnist for the Sheffield Telegraph.

After the success of last year, we hope to make it a regular event and are doing it this year under the name Northern Women of Colour, with a tagline, ‘elevating our presence and voice.’

Before I started my business in 2012, I worked for the Ministry of Justice, I started out as a typist (one of the most junior roles) and worked my way up to a senior role with operational responsibility for a group of magistrates’ courts, where I was also a member of the local criminal justice board for four London boroughs.

In 2011 when cuts were being made in the public sector, my role as a Group Court Manager was being deleted. Rather than be redeployed into a role I didn’t want, I decided I wanted to be in control of my career.  I looked back over my career at what it was that I enjoyed the most and what I was good at.  That thing was helping others to develop themselves.

Coaching was always an add on to what I did as a leader and I got a great deal of satisfaction from helping someone who had little belief in what they were capable of, see their potential and go on and soar.  Even if this meant them eventually leaving the organisation.

I decided to take voluntary redundancy, complete an MSc in Coaching Psychology and start my coaching business.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

When my son was 6 years old, I became a single mum.  I was a Team Leader at a magistrates’ court at the time and studying with the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX) in the evenings.  My plan back then was to take the ILEX route and become a solicitor.

After gaining the ILEX qualification, I started to apply for roles as a Legal Executive.  I was offered a position at a law firm, but the starting salary was less than what I was on. Even though I was told that my salary would eventually far exceed anything I could ever earn in the courts, as a single mum with a young child and a mortgage to pay, I made the decision to stay where I was (because it offered more security and benefits at the time) and plan to pursue a leadership position within the organisation I was in.

Before leaving employment to start my business, never having run a business before, I planned for it.  I compressed my hours and did a 9-day fortnight and on that day off, I used that to plan for my business. I attended workshops on business planning, marketing etc so I could gain as much knowledge about running a business before I left employment.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

There were many challenges along the way here are just a few. As mentioned, when I became a single mum, I had to make a decision and change the plan I had to become a solicitor, although this turned out to be very beneficial to me in the long term.

In the early stages of my leadership journey, the organisation restructured, and I had to reapply for my role and was initially unsuccessful. I didn’t even get an interview and was told I didn’t sell myself in my CV. I hadn’t done a CV in years and mistakenly thought that it was a given that I would get an interview, so I didn’t look at how I could create a CV that stood out.  How wrong was I!

They were unable to fill my role, so I had the opportunity to apply again.  Initially I wasn’t going to and because I was bitter that I didn’t even get an interview the first time around, was going to look for another job.  Someone gave me a wise piece of advice and told me not to cut my nose off to spite my face.  I took that advice on board, redid my CV, got an interview and got the role.

Another significant challenge was in the latter part of my senior role as an employee.  After over 20+ years of always being commended for my performance, I was told by my new line manager that my performance was not up to standard because my group was under performing.

I disagreed with this. My group was under resourced, a fact that had been recognised by my previous line manager who before she left, recommended I be given additional budget so that I could recruit extra staff. This never materialised.  Arguments that I put forward as to why performance had taken a hit were not taken into consideration.  My initial response was to fight back, and I became very defensive towards my manager.  I appealed against her decision and lost, but I refused to sign my end of year review because I didn’t agree with it. I would have taken the matter further but I didn’t have the energy to pursue it.

That was a very stressful period and I put up a defence barrier towards my manager.  I eventually recognised that adopting that stance wasn’t beneficial to me or my work and that long term, the stress from working like that would take its toll.  I changed how I responded to my manager, and rather than putting up a defence, I developed empathy.

Things turned around and we subsequently developed a great relationship, and my group’s performance improved so much so that my group was held up as a beacon to other leaders in the Region. In my performance review the following year I was described as ‘a very in control, influential, brave and effective leader… who had demonstrated excellent change management skills… has a pro-active approach to identifying and solving potential performance issues.’

As someone who is introverted, I would just get on and do things without making too much noise about it.  I since recognise that not being vocal about the challenges my group was going through at that time and not being persistent that I get the additional staffing resources needed, attributed to me being seen as an underperformer.  I think that if I had, I wouldn’t have found myself in that position.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

First, I think was getting to the leadership level I did whilst being a single mum and studying part time over the years.

Secondly, making that transition to start my own business after being an employee for 28 years, and getting the recognition I have received for my work.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Being a life-long learner and having a growth mindset so that I constantly develop myself.  This helps me to be creative with my thinking and able to adapt to change.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I have been a mentor in various capacities for as long as I can remember. I currently have both informal and formal mentoring relationships.

I too believe in the importance of having a mentor myself and have had mentors over the years, both formally and informally.  As well as mentors who probably didn’t even realise, they were mentoring me.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Include Gender Equality as a performance objective for leaders. If it has a negative or positive financial impact to leaders personally, I think change will be accelerated.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

You are good enough so don’t put limitations on yourself or let anyone put limitations on you.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My book Quietly Visible: Leading with Influence and Impact is published on 28 January, and in April this year I will be doing an online course for introverted women who are leaders or aspiring leaders, to help them unleash their leadership potential.  I want to run the course twice a year and for women from all over the world to be able access it.

Over the past couple of years, I have been delivering talks and workshops to organisations on introvert bias, coaching and mentoring introverts, and to employees on how to thrive in their careers as introverts in extroverted environments, and want to build on this.  I also want to increase the awareness around introvert bias in the workplace so that personality is part of the diversity and inclusion conversation.

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