Inspirational Woman: Sue O’Brien | CEO of Norman Broadbent

Sue-OBrien-thumbSue O’Brien is the CEO of leading search firm Norman Broadbent. A consumer girl at heart, she campaigns for organisations to make adjustments in order to attract talents, particularly those talents in their mid-career. Sue is a founding member of the Women’s Business Council and a board adviser on several organisations and charities she values. She talks here to Myriam O’Carroll about career management, social media footprint and personal branding.

You have been the CEO of Norman Broadbent since 2008 – a firm you’ve turned around to become a leading business in its market . One of the first changes you brought in was to change your corporate colour from blue to a warm red – why is that?

Because we are a challenger brand and offer more intensive services to clients – go beyond the obvious is what we do. We are different in our behaviours, in our presentations and in what we are prepared to say to the market, to candidates and to clients.  If our proposition was going to stand out – so should our brand identity.

What does it mean for the brand to be red?

Red for me is vibrant. Being red is about excitement. It can be associated with danger but it can bring life into something that needs building up.  You have to be careful with the tone and the depth – deep and warm enough to be meaningful without being so bright as to be garish. When people come to our offices to talk about their lives and their careers, they should feel like they’re having a chat with somebody who cares and wants to help, almost a fireside chat, that’s why we chose reading room red – more a home than a business colour as we at Norman Broadbent offer a bespoke service.

Is recruitment becoming a more personal business?

Definitely and organisations understand that. Managing your career and making career decisions is not just about the executive sitting in the room with you – it’s about their partner, their children, their families and friends.

You are a founder member of the Women’s Business Council – what is its mission?

The Women’s Business Council was set up by Teresa May and Maria Miller and led by Ruby McGregor-Smith. We’ve been looking at what pragmatic recommendations we can make to business, government and individuals on how women can make an increased contribution to the economy. ‘Starting out’ is for school-age kids who need to understand what the world of work is and the importance of economic contribution. For the mid-career, the ‘’getting on’ phase, this is where we look at how to make women’s on-ramping and off-ramping for maternity easier or we make their career discussion more pertinent by talking about agile working. For the final career stage, also known as the ‘staying on’ phase, we ensure that working part-time as a senior person isn’t regarded as a bad thing. Organisations need to consider it as having an agile workforce.

What is the difference between part-time and agile working?

Language is very important. If you say say ‘part-time’, people automatically assume female/lack of contribution/not committed and the pain of childcare. Interestingly, if I use the term ‘portfolio career’ it makes you think of probably a male who contributes at board/senior director level, in a very committed way and it’s all about governance. So the language that is used to describe agile working is emotive and does not reflect engagement.  We should encourage men not to be ashamed of working in an agile way in order to open more doors for women.

How is social media affecting people’s careers?

Today’s market is driven by your social footprint. Understanding the impact of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is  vital – from young kids to senior executives they need to understand that once something is out there, it’s there for a long time. So, if you are a Board Director of a FTSE100 organisation, the first thing that any candidate is going to do before they meet you is look at your social profile. If your social profile is old, incomplete or if it does not represent your organisation, then you’re missing a trick. Every quote or statement you ever make, every commentary you ever give… it will all be there.

So, I think being in control of your own brand and social media profile is vital.

What advice would you give to women who want to be in control of their personal brand?

The most important thing to do is to know who you are as an executive. If you haven’t worked out for yourself what your brand is and what it stands for, then you can’t expect anyone else to know you.

So, identify who you are, what you want to be and stick to it.

The second thing that you need to do is to work through the most appropriate way for you to externalise that brand persona. You have to externalise and internalise at the same time. Don’t just go speaking on platforms for the sake of it but if you do, make sure what you say matters, that it’s different to the rest of the speakers and that it’s authentic. Don’t do the “management” speech piece. Also, remember your internal audience needs to understand that too.

Why are women said to be shy at managing their own image?

The biggest thing that holds women back is they think that having a mentor means they need fixing or that having a stakeholder map is a negative thing to do. It’s not.  When you want to pursue a project or business plan, work the group first; make sure they know you own the project.  Female executives often resist owning success, they never want to be an “I” person, but they are missing that there is a me in ‘team’.

As long as you can say ‘I led my team to…’ it’s making the me integral with the team that is key.

What did you learn from the senior executives you’ve worked with?

I’ve learnt that the more you stand up to someone, the more respect they’ll give you.

The second learning point was in understanding the psychology of other people’s behaviour. The more you listen as an executive the better you will be, because that means you’re receiving information, you can process it, you can make a judgement and you can come back with an incisive comment.

What I also learnt from the people I work with is the importance of understanding and interpreting financial language.

If you go to a board meeting and you don’t understand the financials of the decisions that are being made, there is no point in your being there. The minute you can talk to the board members about business case, numbers, objectivity, you have an enormous power because not only does it give you the language, but your emotional intelligence and listening skills will give you the insight into how to use it.

You are a board adviser for many companies, institutions and charities – Emma Bridgewater, Come Round marketing, Walpole, KidsOut and Unlock the Cure for breast cancer charities – how do you choose your involvements beyond your current role?

For me there are two fundamental things. The first one is

‘Can I actually do something constructive to help this organisation make a difference?’

The second is

‘Do I care about the business?’

I have to feel their business in my heart. If I link it back to Norman Broadbent, I want Norman Broadbent to be bespoke, almost tailor-made for your career, and therefore there is a common thread here about the integrity of the products, the service ethics that go into it and the quality that is behind it. These are the common things that run through what I do. That’s why I choose to lead this brand and no other.

How do you manage your energy level?

(Laughing loudly) I have always been energetic! The more excited I am, the more inspired I become.  I also take time out at weekends, never bring work home and walk with my dogs in silence.  Watching two energetic Jack Russells get excited in approaching the same walk every time we go out, reminds me how simple and infectious enthusiasm can be.

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