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Five career lessons from Dame Inga Beale

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It must be the buzziest APM event of the year. A sell-out success, this year’s Women in Project Management Conference, held in London last week, kicked off with a keynote from Dame Inga Beale, Portfolio Director and former CEO of global insurance giant Lloyd’s of London.

Working in the City from the 1980s, Beale became the company’s first ever female CEO after an unconventional start to her career. She left school at 16 and later dropped out of university; for the first 12 years of her career, she had little ambition apart from earning a living and having the freedom to pursue her love of rowing and rugby.

“It’s never too late to get focused on a career,” she told the audience. “Aim high, wherever you’ve started your career, and give time to you — you can do it.”

So how did she make it to the top of a male-dominated industry?

Lesson one: feel the fear

“You can climb that ladder no matter how late you are starting,” she said. “It takes courage to take the scariest opportunity, but often they are the most rewarding and lead to the most amazing opportunities.”

Her advice is to “try scary things”. For her, this meant moving to different countries as career promotions presented themselves and saying yes to those promotions in the first place.

The first time she was offered a promotion to become a leader of a team of three people, she turned it down. “Fortunately, the company took talent management seriously,” she said. (She discovered later on that, without promoting any women, her boss would not receive part of his bonus — and she was the only woman on the team.)

Lesson two: get support

Beale was lucky that her company wanted to support her climb up the career ladder. In a bid to persuade her to go for that first promotion, they brought over a senior woman from HQ to coach her and signed her up to a week-long course in assertiveness.

“I came back a different person and said I’d take it.”

Lesson three: use the PIE model

Beale was taught about the PIE (Performance, Image, Exposure) model of career success, and she encourages everyone to use it.

“The P is a given — you have to do your job — but you must work on the other two aspects. Image is about the way you come across,” she explains.

This means getting honest feedback from those around you about how you present yourself.

Beale shared a story of being told by her boss that she often looked like she was sneering. Shocked, Beale realised that the fake smile she’d been sporting to try to look positive wasn’t working the way she thought it was. “It’s serious stuff; it matters. You’ve got to get real feedback.”

When it comes to exposure, you cannot underestimate its impact on your career, she said. This means exposing yourself to new opportunities and getting in front of the decision-makers within your organisation and industry.

Beale’s experience of reluctantly leaving a settled life in London to move to Kansas City was difficult personally but put her in front of senior decision-makers at the company’s HQ.

“It was exposure, not performance, that got me my next opportunity,” she said.

Lesson four: hone your networking skills

“Strategically, you need to think about how to get exposure,” said Beale, and that means going out and meeting the right people.

Having left London for 12 years to work in Switzerland, Beale returned to the capital in 2012 and soon realised that she was out of touch with the insurance market in the UK.

“I didn’t know anyone,” she said. As CEO of one of Lloyd’s of London’s businesses, she asked her PA to line up coffees, lunches and dinners with the 60 CEOs in the market and 20 CEOs of the largest brokers in London within her first year.

“I didn’t know why I was doing it,” she laughed, but it got her face known by everyone who mattered, so that when she was up for the CEO job at Lloyd’s of London, the right decision-makers felt she was a known entity and someone who could be trusted to get the job done.

Lesson five: be vulnerable as a leader

After a year as CEO, Beale was told by her boss that she needed to be more autocratic.

“I thought: ‘I’m not him. I’m not going to change — this is me’. If I don’t know the answers, I ask someone else. CEOs do not know everything.”

Be unafraid to be yourself, especially if that means challenging entrenched stereotypes.

See the autumn 2023 issue of Project for Inga Beale’s top five lessons on leadership


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