Inspirational Woman: Sophie Timms | Head of UK Corporate Affairs, Zurich

Sophie Timms

Sophie is Head of Corporate Affairs with responsibility for the management and strategy of external communications, public affairs, corporate responsibility and sustainability for Zurich in the UK.

With over twenty years commercial experience and a strong insurance background, she first jointed the Zurich Group in 1999 and has since held a number of senior roles with Zurich UK specialising in the areas of policy, political & regulatory developments, media relations and corporate responsibility.

She has oversight of Zurich’s diversity and inclusion activity and is a founding member and sponsor of Zurich’s UK Women’s Innovation Network, the Gender Inclusion Network for Insurance and a member of the Insurance Supper Club.  Sophie is also an Associate of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability and a member of the ClimateWise Managing Committee and Zurich Community Trust Executive.  Sophie was recently awarded Freedom of the City of London.

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

I am Head of Corporate Affairs for Zurich in the UK. That probably doesn’t mean that much to a lot of people and it’s certainly not an option on those drop-down boxes you get on surveys. But, essentially, I look after the media and government relations and communications for Zurich as well as set our Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability strategy to ensure, as a business, we are doing the right thing in terms of customers, employees, communities and the environment.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, not really and, looking back, careers advice at my school was woeful. I always loved and wanted to work though. I wouldn’t say I was a workaholic (well, only a little bit) but work has always been a bit of a raison d’être for me. I got my first holiday job delivering sandwiches to offices when I was 15, then operated switchboards, sorted Christmas post, did silver service waitressing etc because I liked the independence of having my own money, meeting people and gathering up experiences. I studied politics at A-Level and was fascinated by it. It got me my degree and my first job and the rest has gone organically from there.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Everyone faces challenges in their career at some point. Mine was to break out of a niche area. Politics and Public Affairs is quite specialist but, ultimately, it is developing positions, messages and strategies which is more widely applicable. Fortunately someone saw my potential and have been lucky to have a few breaks in my career.

The biggest challenge I face is juggling a big job with being a single parent. It’s like having two full-time jobs. My head never stops whirring and that is particularly challenging at mid-career level when you can’t afford the luxury of a full-time nanny. It makes you resourceful though and to really cherish your support network. (Thanks Mum/sis/best friend!).

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Can I have 2?! The first one is that once was central to saving the company around £100m through helping to amend a piece of government policy that didn’t make a lot of sense for anyone. No-one’s fault but sometimes it’s best for everyone to sit and work out the impact and downside risk of seemingly innocuous decisions. Probably a lesson we can all learn from.

The second one was being awarded Freedom of the City of London earlier this year for services to Diversity. Building greater career opportunities for people regardless of their background and particularly getting more women into the City is a real driver for me – something that gets me out of bed every morning. So, it was a truly special moment to receive that honour in front of my family and especially my daughter who, I hope, will never face career barriers that women before her have done.

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

Relationships. Above all else, listening to people, understanding what drives and motivates them and nurturing the relationship you have with them is, to my mind, invaluable and why I have had the successes I’ve had. There is a saying “people will forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel” and it sums it up beautifully.

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

Mentoring is one of the most important building blocks of any career. I have had mentors my whole career even when I didn’t realise what mentors were. They come in all shapes and sizes too and I have them in work and in life. I haven’t formally mentored anyone recently but someone has just approached me to start mentoring and I can’t wait to get started. I believe it’s mutually-beneficial for both people although you have to make sure you keep up the contact and have a clear agenda, otherwise it can be easy to let it slide and prioritise workload and tasks. There is a lot of talk of being ‘CEO of your own career’ and that means making sure you are in control of the levers that support your development.

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

It would be the equalisation of maternity and paternity benefits and greater flexible working arrangements. If you sort that, you get rid of the ‘motherhood penalty’ (and probably the ‘part time penalty’ that often comes after it). It’s more pervasive than we realise and leads people to making all kinds of judgements about someone’s ability, performance, plans and ambitions. We can build in long-term costings and projections to all kinds of other business projects so why not into the ‘family years’? I guarantee giving parents or carers more flexibility will drive engagement, loyalty and motivation.

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

Don’t worry so much about what people think! As I have grown in my career and become a business leader, I would say I have become more authentic. What you see is what you get. But when I was younger, I think I played it safe and did and said what I thought I should in a corporate environment. I much prefer not having to hide the ‘real’ Sophie and I’m sure people around me are much clearer about what I stand for.

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

I am trying to move the debate on around Diversity & Inclusion. I think a lot has been said but now needs to convert into action. I also think we’ve all been focused too much on individual strands of diversity rather than looking across the piece and actually I think Inclusion and inclusive mindsets and leadership behaviours are the first brick in the wall. There’s no point having great diversity if people don’t feel welcome or included when they get there so we really need to look at culture within organisations and within the industry and how we build progressive and modern companies where everyone’s value is prized.

The other thing I want to achieve is to keep improving as a leader and making sure my team are all motivated and happy on their individual career journeys and that what we produce collectively moves the dial.

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