International Women’s Day – An interview with Claire Lee, Commercial Director at System Group

International Women’s Day – An interview with Claire Lee, Commercial Director at System Group

#IWD2021 #ChoosetoChallenge #InternationalWomensDay2021

System Group celebrates successful female careers on International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day is all about celebrating women’s achievements and highlighting role models for others to aspire to. In that spirit, we asked our very own Claire Lee, Commercial Director at System Group, to share her career story and reflections on what it’s like to be a leader within her industry.

Tell us about your current role.

As Commercial Director at System Group, I have responsibility for growth. Specifically pertaining to customer experience, client acquisition, bids and tenders, marketing/our commercial division, as well as contracts and partnership within our AEB division. Quite a diverse role, but also enables me to keep busy, keep close to the world of Education and Skills, it also keeps me learning (as they say, every day is a school day).

How would you describe your career journey to date?

I would describe my career as ‘interesting’.

I had my two children young so, naturally, I was viewed very early on as a mother. I also found myself when my children were 3 and 5, unfortunately, separated and on my own as a single parent. This did not deter me, nor did I use it as an obstacle to not succeed, it added to the challenge of needing to focus on building a career. I made the decision to go back to Education where I spent my days balancing childcare, home life, work and study. Learning very quickly the need to multi-task. So although I was unsure of which career path I wanted to take, what I was sure of from an early age, was that I wanted to be successful, an Austin Powers ambition of wanting to make my mark on the world as a woman.

I didn’t know what it was exactly I wanted to do, I worked whatever job I could to ensure I could support my family. This gives you determination, resilience and focus. I didn’t know where my path would take me. So I initially trained to be a community mental health nurse, which was an extremely worthy job and really taught me the meaning of resilience. Then I went to work for a recruitment company where I temped as part of one of their bank staff and decided that sales wasn’t for me. I then got involved with a start-up business in South Tyneside, where I was able to develop a construction training business, all funded provision, which is where I got my first understanding of how to access funding and I quickly released I had a passion for networking. That then catapulted me into the world of education.

From there I was clear on the path I wanted to take. I moved from that business to another where I worked as a Sales and Marketing Manager working with big names in construction, a real male-dominated environment. This then progressed me into my first Director role, from manager to Business Development and Marketing Director. I really started to understand what it was I really wanted to do with my career and developed a real hunger for the sector. This meant that I had a broad breadth of opportunity through business development, engaging with people and developing solutions. (You get paid to talk and support clients, what’s not to like). I started to see through the rich client relationships I had built, that I had a real skills for identifying and working alongside various teams to support people development, focusing on workforce development strategies that had impact and gave businesses the opportunity to access funding. It was really important to me from there to progress my career and it’s got me where I am today, as a senior leader.

Has being a woman ever impeded your career opportunities?

Transport and Logistics is a very male-dominated environment, whereas the wider Education and Skills sector I would say is more balanced in terms of gender equality. I think for me, being a single parent, has really helped me become a strong female. I’m sure anyone who knows me would agree I don’t struggle and I’m not a shrinking violet and a very strong, confident, driven individual. This can sometimes be deemed by others as being brash, too aggressive, confident and possibly too ambitious. Sometimes I find as a strong, determined women it can be difficult, as strength and confidence can be perceived differently. Woman who have the aspiration and desire to succeed can often be stereotyped which doesn’t support gender-equality. You feel like you have to be that bit stronger, work that big longer, grow thicker skin and be seen to balance family and work effortlessly. It takes years of experience to see that those things aren’t important and what is important is doing the best you can, leading from the front and being respected in the role that you’re in.

What obstacles have you and women around you had to overcome at your seniority?

I thought that reaching the top job was so important for many years. Being CEO was my ultimate goal, that was my aspiration initially. However, now, I sit back I think to myself ‘I’m not quite sure that is my goal anymore’. A large portion of my life was making sure I could provide for my family and that I worked hard, sacrificed family time and committed to my career in order to progress to the next level. But then I started to realise, actually there was a ‘me’ in all of this and that one day my children would grow up. So I began thinking ‘what did I want’, ‘where did I want to get to in my career’ and ‘how do I get there’. What’s important to me now is having the right balance. It’s about making sure I do the right thing. But mostly about leaving behind the right legacy.

What does the International Women’s Day slogan, #ChoosetoChallenge mean for you in your work life?

#ChoosetoChallenge in the Transport & Logistics sector is so important, as women are a massively under-represented group. Diversity and inclusion is really important to promote women in logistics and promote women across the sector in general. It’s important we do what we can to highlight the benefits of careers in logistics. We are struggling with an ageing demographic and that’s why we have to choose to challenge, promote the benefits of a career in Logistics, be more inclusive, offer diversity and be bigger and bolder to ensure we attract more women into the industry.

What advice would you give other women pursuing a spot on their company’s executive board?

Don’t give up. Have conviction and believe in yourself, your ability and what you bring to the table. Self-belief is a powerful tool, as is resilience. Perseverance and determination has been the main driver in my success. I encourage you to believe, I know I did!

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