In a changing world in which increasingly diverse communities promise to transform society and business as we know it, Charlotte Sweeney is a woman in demand. There are few people who can include being recognised by Harvard University with a Global Leadership Award in their resume, but then Charlotte Sweeney is far from average.
Recognised in October 2015 by The Economist as one of the ‘Top 50 Diversity Professionals in the world’, Charlotte has dedicated much of her life to championing universal social mobility and the benefits of a diverse workforce in business. Charlotte’s specialised work through Creating Inclusive Cultures’ in large-scale change programmes with a focus on inclusion, engagement and wellbeing for over 15 years, meant that when UK Secretary of State Dr. Vince Cable needed an independent review on the Voluntary Code for Executive Search firms in relation to getting more women onto boards, Charlotte was the woman he called on. ‘The Sweeney Report’ is now widely referenced and a highlight of the award winning author whose first book written with co-author Fleur Bothwick OBE, ‘Inclusive Leadership – The Definitive Guide to Developing and Executing an Impactful Diversity and Inclusion Strategy – Locally and Globally’, will be published by The Financial Times in September 2016.
What inspired you to start a business?
I have worked in retail and investment banking for over 25 years. Every time I moved on to the next job my friends and family would ask me whether I was going to go it alone this time, but I kept saying no I need one more big name on my CV. One day I went to see my accountant regarding my taxes and by the time I left his office I had registered my business as a limited company. I’m creative and like to take ideas or concepts and create them into reality – that can be difficult to do in some companies that may be more risk averse or have a different idea of how quickly an idea or project can be delivered. I prefer to have my own business as I can dictate how quickly something gets delivered. It’s always been in the back of my mind that I would go it alone at some point.
What is the greatest challenge and the greatest reward in being your own boss?
When you’ve got your own business the greatest challenge is always making sure you are visible enough to your potential clients to be considered for the next contract. It’s a constant task promoting yourself and ensuring you are very clear about what your unique selling point is, what sets you apart from everyone else.
With your own business you don’t have as many hoops to jump through to get a concept off the ground as you do being in a larger company. Once you have an idea you can test it out and run with it very quickly. It’s a real benefit that you can be really agile and adapt your offering for your potential clients and get it out to market. It took me less than 12 months to launch Creating Inclusive Cultures in it’s first city and that included from having the very first thought and the very first conversation.
What motivational tips can you give to our members about goal setting and managing both successes and failure?
- Be very clear about what you’re here to achieve and remind yourself on a daily basis.
- Challenge yourself to ensure the time you spend on your business is focused on what you want to achieve. We can all spend time doing ‘stuff’ that has no impact on our business and goals.
- Whatever support you want from others ask for it, at worst, they can say no.
- Nervous energy is good – if you’re not feeling nervous about something you’re not taking yourself out of your comfort zone!
- Build an advisory group around you, find those people who you trust and ask for their advice, support or even ask them to mentor you.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a business owner?
Given my background in the corporate world and my additional role as Deputy Chair of an NHS Trust, the biggest challenge is making sure that you create enough time and space to take advantage of opportunities that may arise out of the blue. We all have very busy diaries and there have been times when I have been contacted to speak on TV or radio with literally minutes notice. The challenge is saying yes to those opportunities as well as balancing the other commitments around that.
The other challenge is being everything to your business. For example, I have become an expert in IT issues, facilities management, communications, diary management. The support you may have in previous jobs just isn’t there when you start out in your business – you have to be able to do everything until you reach a stage where you can hire people to take those responsibilities off your hands.
How have you benefited from mentoring or coaching?
Throughout my career I’ve always had a mentor or a coach, sometimes two or three different people supporting me in different areas. I’m always seeking advice from people whose experience and insights can inform and help me.
I’ve recently been accepted for the Entrepreneur programme E-Spark, which seeks to help businesses who have the potential to grow. They will mentor and coach me on continuing to build a sustainable business, which is very exciting.
What advice can you give about the benefits of networking?
Business is all about relationships. Networking is critical to building effective relationships and meeting people from different walks of life.
It’s important to take yourself out of your comfort zone to meet and network with people you may not normally have the opportunity to speak to. It can lead you to discussions and ideas that you may never have had without meeting that person. Some of my best business ideas have been the result of talking to people I’ve met at networking events. It’s important to see networking as part of our business activity and make time for it rather than see it as a ‘nice to have’.
What are your tips for scaling a business and how do you plan for and manage growth?
When you’ve got your own business you can be in fear of getting too involved in delivering the work. It’s important to give yourself space to work on your business as well as working in your business. Give yourself that space to think about where you want your business to go, how you want it to grow and who do you need around you to help.
Take advantage of any business mentoring or support available. One of my first discussions with a mentor was to consider what my business was there for – was it a lifestyle business that would give a good standard of living and enjoyed working in? Or was it a business I wanted to build, scale and sell on in the future? It has been really helpful for me to know this from the start as it helps to inform many of the decisions I make.
What does the future hold for you?
Creating Inclusive Cultures has launched in Leeds and Manchester. Plans are in place to launch in Birmingham later this year and then across more cities, both in the UK and internationally. We will be launching our app in the next few months which will significantly increase the reach of the programme. We’ll continue to support companies to create more inclusive cultures and how to take advantage of the brilliant, diverse talent that is out there.
I also have a book coming out in October which I have co-authored with my good friend and D&I expert Fleur Bothwick OBE. The book, called ‘Inclusive Leadership’ is a practical guide on how to create and deliver impactful diversity and inclusion strategies both in the UK and globally.