Understanding female strengths and collaboration to build a fulfilling career


By Annie Vernon, retired British rower and Olympic medallist, and recent guest on The Switch, a podcast hosted by St James’s Place Financial Adviser Academy.

Understanding one’s strengths and embracing collaboration are key considerations for women who want to build fulfilling careers. Looking back at my career in sport, I think about how role models, self-knowledge, and teamwork can empower women to navigate male-dominated fields and find professional fulfilment.

Sport offers valuable lessons for the workplace, such as self-awareness, allowing individuals to recognise their capabilities and lean into their strengths when taking on challenges. In female teams, there is a strong sense of community, mutual support, and shared belief in one another’s potential, all of which can fuel success. Appreciating diversity and differing perspectives allows us to celebrate the unique strengths that women bring to teams and organisations.

Resonating with others to strengthen yourself

If you feel unconfident in your career, or in any aspect of life, finding role models to look up to can help. An important element of role models is that they speak to you in some way, that there is an element of connection. Within any industry where men have a greater public profile than women, women can communicate and support one another.

For women there’s often a confidence gap: a feeling they need to prove themselves or a feeling of imposter syndrome. This confidence gap is a well-documented phenomenon and can begin young, affecting girls’ lack of confidence in PE at school (BBC News) and the workplace, where women are less confident asking for a pay rise (Euronews). When there is less confidence internally, women look externally to others to find reasons to succeed. When you see other role models who have walked that path you feel, if they can do it, I can do it.

I grew up on a Cornish farm, and it’s a strong part of my identity. Even now when I meet other people who grew up on a farm, I feel an immediate rapport because we have shared values. As such, my childhood hero was track-and-field athlete Sally Gunnell because she too grew up on a farm. I remember watching her win Gold at the Barcelona Olympics as an eight-year-old and the commentator saying, “She learnt to hurdle jumping over hay bales on her parents’ farm”, and I thought, that’s exactly what I did this summer practising for school! When I was an up-and-coming athlete, I sometime felt the imposter syndrome, that I was “just a farm girl” but thinking of Sally Gunnell would inspire me again.

Feeling inspired to be different

Role models who inspired me in a different way were Venus and Serena Williams. Before the Williams sisters, it seemed like female tennis players were all similar, petite, white and with long, blonde hair. Venus and Serena broke that mould: they were powerful, not afraid to be determined, and aggressive, and show their emotions with shouts and screams. They were bigger: Venus is tall, and Serena is muscular. I loved watching them because they were just so different to what I’d seen on the screens previously, and that really spoke to me. They broke the boundaries of tennis, and opened up the possibilities of what women could be: women are all different, and don’t have to be a particular way, not “girly” or a “tomboy”.

For me, seeing role models who can be both similar and different to me, helps me to firstly believe in my abilities, and secondly to expand my understanding of what I, as an individual, can be.

Collaborating for success

When it comes to teams, I find the connection of the team is far more important to women as an ingredient to success than it is for men – you see that in sports teams, and you see it in life. It is of course not true for all women in the world, but one coach I spoke to said that coaching male and female teams on the field was the same, but it was the treatment off the field that was different. The female teams needed greater, and more in-depth, communication from the coach. Women on the same team are invested in engaging with each other and getting to know each other as humans. This communication style enables them to feel more connected to the sport, to the team, and to perform better.

Again, this relates to the confidence gap. Sport shows us that women want the social support of the team and the support of the coach and lean on these connections as an important source of confidence. This applies irrespective of your level, or discipline, and we see this in the workplace too. This knowledge of different motivations and communication styles for different people can help us lead teams successfully in the workplace.

Taking lessons from one sphere to another

Another positive thing about sport is that it can teach us great self-awareness for the “real world”, or the workplace. Training for sport at a high or professional level is like holding up a mirror to your soul every day of your life: you train incredibly hard, get to know your teammates inside out, and gain awareness of your daily emotional state and daily confidence level every day. When you go into the workplace, you’re able to take the lead on projects knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and you can recognise them in others. I see that across all sports and all genders.

This isn’t to say that one type of person or communication style is better than another, and all differences should be celebrated. Women possess many unique strengths and by learning about those they can be better utilised. We need people of all types in the room—gender, race, social background—so we can celebrate each other and learn from each other. Understanding each other’s differences, and similarities, is the first step.

About the author

Annie Vernon is an Olympic silver medallist and two-time World Champion rower. She spent eight years as a full-time, Lottery-funded athlete, going to six World Championships and two Olympic Games (Beijing 2008 and London 2012).

Born and bred in Cornwall, Annie went to Downing College, Cambridge which is where she first won selection to row for her country. She retired from elite sport after the London 2012 Olympic Games and is now an author and speaker.

Fascinated by how our emotions control our bodies, in 2019 she published Mind Games: Determination, Doubt and Lucky Socks – The Insider’s Guide to the Psychology of Elite Sport with Bloomsbury, which won the Outstanding Sports Writing Award at the British Sport Book Awards 2020.

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