Margaret Manning OBE is a Partner at Ernst & Young with a focus on digital transformation across ASEAN. She is also Non-Executive Chair of the UK – ASEAN Business Council audit committee. UKABC is responsible for promoting trade and investment between the UK and ASEAN.
Can you tell us where you started your career and why you chose that career path?
My career began as an Accountant with PwC which was a very conscious decision as I felt, and still believe, an early career in professional services is a fantastic start in business life. It involves so much variety, opens many opportunities and teaches great skills to become a future leader.
However, it was my exposure to Artificial Intelligence as part of my undergraduate degree that started an interest in what has become my career and my passion – all things digital and the fascinating way it has changed the way businesses and individuals operate.
I spent some time in industry but always knew I wanted to start my own business and in 1996 I set up Reading Room with my then business partner, now husband of over 20 years.
Why is female entrepreneurship one of your passions and what has been your own experience?
My father was a successful entrepreneur so I think I was always destined to follow in his footsteps. He remains my biggest inspiration and I learnt a lot from him.
I went very much against the grain by setting up a business at age 36 with two young children which in itself was a challenging but exciting experience.
We have often described running our business as the roller coaster ride from hell; a huge amount of fun and incredibly rewarding but often a psychological battle with two children and a society where being the mother should take priority. For me, a part of being a great mother is being a great role model.
Being an entrepreneur means you need to have a strong appetite for risk. I am lucky enough to have made more good decisions than bad ones and that comes from truly knowing your business and its metrics. I learnt the hard way many times early on in our business venture and learnt that you must move on from bad decisions quickly.
We sold the UK part of Reading Room in 2015 to focus more extensively on APAC, growing a regional business from Singapore which more recently resulted in selling the business to Ernst & Young in 2018.
Have you ever felt that gender has either positively or negatively impacted your progression?
As an entrepreneur you have full control of your destiny, but it was definitely obvious to me that there was no gender parity either then or now. The big difference to me was back then, there was optimism that there would be change and that my daughters would not face the same challenges, that they would not be in the minority sitting at the table. What is key is both females and males feeling like it is their problem to solve.
In which areas have you seen employers fail to attract, develop and retain high potential females?
I can certainly talk about what has worked for us. Firstly, understanding that when we talk about diversity & inclusion, we are talking about more than just gender equality.
Secondly, creating an environment where everyone has a fair chance of being successful and a level playing field. We would often take a chance on people when hiring and give them a fair shot but with high expectations. These expectations have to be communicated which comes from having transparent conversations and high levels of trust. Trust, reward and promotions based purely on ability are deeply important in creating an inclusive culture.
Many hiring managers focus on things that just don’t matter to me when hiring, such as years of experience. You may be looking for a talent pool that you just can’t get, in which case you should focus on the intrinsic qualities then teach the rest as this will greatly open up your options.
What are your top tips for other aspiring female leaders to overcome the challenge of work-life balance in demanding industries like management consulting?
Being an entrepreneur is challenging so you have to really want it, especially when the voice inside your head reminds you of the other things you are compromising on. Resilience is one very important competency for an entrepreneur.
You also have to have a clear story. Create a story. In just 6 words, create your personal brand that means something to you. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room but you do need to find who you are and your own style. Chuck away the rule book and just really think about what makes your business work.
You have to get comfortable taking risks and making decisions. Get comfortable with the fact that there is no science to this, you just need to make more good decisions than bad ones.
Lastly, create a support network. Even if you are early in your career, actively seek out a mentor or two. These should ideally be people who see the world differently to you to give you a different perspective. I have been lucky enough to have some fantastic mentors over the years. If you are a business leader, get yourself a chairperson who is an independent 3rdparty. A good one will challenge you and keep you real.
Posted almost 4 years ago