Inspirational Woman: Sinead Sharkey-Steenson | Founder & Career Elevator Coach, Generation Women

Sinead SharkeySinead Sharkey-Steenson is Founder and Career Elevator Coach at Generation Women.

As a Career and Leadership Coach, Sinead has worked with close to 10,000 women to help them get the career and rewards they deserve. With almost 20 years’ experience working in global corporates, Sinead draws on her varied roles in HR, Tech, Business Improvement and Leadership Development to help her support women to achieve their ambitions. She has a lifelong love of learning and strives to bring the best academically and professionally to her work. She has a BA Hons in Psychology, MSc Computing, MSc Human Resource Management, is and NLP Master practioner, Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and is an accredited ICF and Positive Intelligence (PQ) Coach.

She’s a mum of two girls who have made her even more passionate about equality. She also loves live comedy and music, sleep, and cold water swimming…in that order!

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

Hi I’m Sinead, and I’m the founder of Generation Women. Ironically for a Career Coach, I had a career by mistake, rather than by design, for the first 10 years…and I wouldn’t change a bit of it!  I was the proverbial square peg in a round hole and even though it made me unhappy and massively damaged my confidence, it’s provided a wealth of learning to make me who I am today. I’m so much better equipped to help women navigate their career challenges, and I’m not sure I would be doing something I love without that experience. I’ve worked for close to 20 years in global corporates.  I started my first corporate job in HR, went into tech (after retraining), and then into business improvement and cultural transformation. As I didn’t know what I wanted, I went down the experimental route which helped me understand who I am and the impact I can and want to make. I spent 10 years in cultural transformation and developing leaders was where I found my passion and strength, and definitely was the platform from which I’ve founded and grown a business I love, Generation Women.

So now, I’m the Career Elevator Coach.  I specialise in helping women get the career they deserve…which means being recognised and rewarded properly.  I’ve worked with thousands of women to date to take their career to the next level and beyond. Once you step on the Career Elevator, you can’t help but keep rising.

I am so passionate about helping women succeed because I’ve worked for almost 20 years in 90%+ male organisations and I’m sick of seeing massively talented women go unrecognised for their brilliant work!  It’s my mission to change that for as many women as possible.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I’ve already shared that I didn’t in the early days, it was quite the opposite.  And when I look back it was a bad habit I’d inherited from my childhood.   My dad had great ambitions for me to be an International Lawyer (he loved LA Law for anyone that grew up in the 80s, lol), and he pushed me hard at school. As a daddy’s girl I went along with it and I don’t really remember ever thinking about what I wanted to do. When I was 15 he died really suddenly, and apart from the obvious challenges that brings, it sent me adrift in terms of my career. The one thing I was sure of was I didn’t want to study law, but I didn’t know what on earth I wanted to do. I headed off to study Psychology as I thought it would be interesting (I was right), but came out with no clue what next.

The next 10 years were a serious of knee jerk decisions and indecision, doing things because they seemed like a good idea at the time.  I tried out HR but didn’t like the grievances and sticky bits of the role. I went back and got a masters in IT and went into tech but knew immediately that wasn’t for me, though stuck it for 6 years as I didn’t know what to do next. That’s when my confidence flatlined.

I eventually realised I was boring myself with my whining about how much I hated my job, and that nobody could sort my career out except me. I went on a journey of understanding my strengths and what I was passionate about, and set myself my first proper career goal. It still counts if it was wine-inspired doesn’t it?!

I moved into business transformation and saw that I could make a big impact helping leaders connect with their people, and that’s what I did.  From there my confidence grew and so did my results.  It was at this time I discovered coaching and I started developing leaders in my business to have a bigger impact and I loved it.

My goals and path changed after having children and recognising how I wanted to have a bigger impact by helping women achieve their goals and step up as leaders…and now I’m totally driven by a plan and path ahead. I don’t just have a vision board I have a vision wall!

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

I don’t think you can escape without facing challenges, and you wouldn’t learn too much either.   Perhaps the hardest was a time when I nearly had a breakdown because of total anger and frustration about being undervalued and under paid. I was in the grip of what I now call Cinderella syndrome!  I was working my ass off and getting brilliant results for the business I was in, but I was becoming increasingly aware that I was working several levels above my grade and not being paid nearly enough. I think deep down I assumed it would be seen as I was working with all the c-suite leaders. But I learned an important lesson. Nobody sees and nobody cares as long as you’re delivering!  I nearly got eaten up with the anger and injustice, and I’ll tell you it wasn’t pretty.

Thankfully I got help and let the anger go, and recognised my strategy was all wrong.  That’s when I opened my eyes to the power of my network and being able to communicate my impact. Instead of packing in my job like I’d been tempted to, I got a great promotion and learned a lot in the process. I became a lot more strategic about my career from that point on!

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

The awards and recognition are good (especially being recognised by the President of Ireland for my work in women’s football), but actually it’s my client results that are the achievement for me!  Women tend to be undervalued, under-recognised, and underpaid…so it’s my mission to change that.  

I’ve worked with close to 10,000 women to date and whilst it’s impossible to track the progress of all of those women, over 60% of women on my programmes get promoted or a payrise within 4 months of working with me. That to me is the big win, that their lives are being changed and they are getting careers and rewards worthy of them!  I’ve had women double their salary in one move, get bonuses back-dated 5 years and much more. It’s really rewarding to see them step up into senior positions, and change things for the better for everyone. I’m all about sending the elevator back down, or even pulling a few people in on your way up!

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

It’s undoubtedly my network. I’ve always been good at building relationships, but it took me a long time to recognise the value and potential of my network. Being more strategic in making and strengthening the relationships, and knowing how to make an ask has been a game changer. It’s helped me get promoted and new roles, get voluntary redundancy, and it’s definitely been how I’ve built my business. I wouldn’t have even taken the step of starting out on my own without having been part of a Lean In network where I met other ambitious women building each other up and helping each other to be successful.

I’m going to be sneaky and add in one extra thing, I’ve really worked on developing a growth mindset too…failure isn’t the end, it’s a lesson and gift for me to step forward (and often up) from!  It may take a day or 2 when something really hard happens, but I always keep going with a valuable lesson in my back pocket.

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

Mentoring is a must!  I encourage everyone to get a mentor and I regularly mentor and have been mentored.  When I started this business I immediately sought a mentor and she’s a big reason why I’m still going strong 5 years later.

A mentor will help you learn and grow, and can also help you be more visible. It’s hard to get across everything you do and all of your achievements to others, but a mentor is someone who gets to hear it all, so can become your greatest advocate (and possibly a sponsor).

I have a simple process I use to help clients get a mentor. I believe you should audition people for the role!  Identify a few people (inside and outside your business) that you believe would have something to offer as a mentor, then seek out some advice from them for something specific. You can even ask to meet and have a chat about their career path.

Make sure you prepare and have a focus for what you want to get out of the meeting, so have your questions ready!  The meeting is then your opportunity to audition…can you work with them, will you learn from them, are you excited about the potential etc.  be sure to follow up, thank them for their time, let them know what you got from the session, AND what actions you’re going to take as a result.  If you want to pursue something longer-term then ask for a follow-up meeting and go from there. You’ve helped the mentor see their value, so the ask to turn this into a more formal agreement will be easier!

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

Outside of global hypnosis, it would have to be the inclusion of women (and other diverse voices) in decision making; at a government and business level. It transforms how we operate in every way. I love the example from a small city in Sweden that does this, even in how they clear snow. Why is that important?  Well the normal approach is to first clear major roads and highways because we have to keep cars moving. What they discovered when they looked at the different movement patterns of men and women, was that this approach dramatically disadvantaged women. More men were drivers and drove a direct route to and from work. Women were more likely to have to walk and go to childcare, visit a relative, pick up shopping in addition to working. So they now prioritise roads and pavements around daycare centres, then the largest workplaces and schools. The result? Fewer injuries!

A more diverse decision-making group will minimise bias and create more opportunities for others, and that has to be a great thing.

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

I’ve had 2 pieces of advice in my life that stuck. One was from my dad and he always said ‘get your foot in the door and you’ll always work the rest out from there’. The older I get the more I agree with this one, once you have the opportunity you’ll make it happen somehow. The 2nd was from a lovely boss who could see my hyper-achiever was causing me stress and she gave me this gem ‘a career is a lifetime, stop being in such a rush’.

But if I was to give myself something that will really make a difference to the younger me, it would be that confidence comes from working with your strengths, not against them. So lean into what you’re great at and you will grow stronger, be happier, and the important parts of life will fall into place.

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

I love a challenge and I’m always pushing myself (the hyper achiever in me).  So I have this goal that I write down most days, and it gets me really fired up…I want to help elevate the careers of a million women!  How?  Well, I run a free 5 day challenge that many women who’ve been through it already have described as life changing, it’s all about helping you kickstart your career and get the pay and recognition you deserve.

I also have a podcast and a book on the horizon, so watch this space!

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