Sir Ian Cheshire said that his time as a retail chief executive at B&Q was peppered with one very particular frustration.
Speaking on a Retail Week Be Inspired panel, Cheshire said retail businesses needed to tackle the “institutional barriers” that stopped women from progressing to the upper echelons of management, through initiatives such as gender-equal shortlists when recruiting for senior roles and properly mentoring “high-potential female employees”.
However, he lamented the “self-limiting beliefs” that some women impose on themselves when it comes to career progression, which he said “drove [him] absolutely batshit” during his tenure at the helm of B&Q.
Cheshire said that, in the course of his career, he had only met two men who had turned down leadership roles, and that they were the “absolute screaming exception”. By contrast, he said women had a much higher propensity to question their ability when offered a promotion.
He explained that he had seen plenty of “fantastic” female employees say they “couldn’t possibly” take on a role with more responsibility, where, by contrast, “the blokes would always say ‘yeah, I’ll give it a go’”.
“We’re not blaggers a lot of the time. If we don’t feel we’re ready to take on a role, we think that we can’t do it”
This sentiment was echoed by Beaverbrooks chief executive Anna Blackburn who explained that, when she was first offered the top job at the jewellery specialist after years with the firm, her initial response was to turn it down because she didn’t feel she was sufficiently qualified.
“I think so many women suffer from that,” she said.
“We’re not blaggers a lot of the time. If we don’t feel we’re ready to take on a role, we think that we can’t do it.”
Blackburn said it was only upon realising that, if she didn’t take the role, it would be offered to someone external who might not understand Beaverbrooks’ internal culture that she decided to “bite the bullet” and take it.
”Five years on it was absolutely the right decision and I absolutely had it in me to do it,” she said.
Cheshire, who was chief executive of B&Q parent company Kingfisher for six years before building a non-executive portfolio at Debenhams, Maisons du Monde and Barclays, said that taking the top job in any business came with its fair share of self-doubt.
“Anyone who doesn’t have self-doubt I would be quite worried about as a CEO because they’re likely to be over-confident in their decisions”
Sir Ian Cheshire
“Most grown-up CEOs will tell you that there is a strong sense of the impostor syndrome – you’re always expecting someone to tap you on the shoulder and say there’s been a huge mistake,” he said.
“Anyone who doesn’t have self-doubt I would be quite worried about as a CEO because they’re likely to be over-confident in their decisions.”
However, he said that occasionally questioning your ability should not stop any retail employee from progressing into leadership roles, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
“I was succeeded at Kingfisher by Véronique [Laury] and we’ve just appointed at Maisons du Monde a female CEO [Julie Walbaum],” he said.
“We’re not putting up bunting or anything – they just happen to be two really good people.”
Ann Summers chief executive Jacqueline Gold said that, for retailers to achieve gender equality and pay parity in the workplace, the onus lay on its leaders to show the way.
“It’s our job as leaders to try and remove the barriers that prohibit talented women from coming back into the workplace [after maternity leave],” she said.
“It’s equally important that all senior people demonstrate more flexibility, because until we do that there will be these gender stereotypes.”
Retail Week’s Be Inspired campaign aims to help develop the next generation of female retail leaders by providing women in the sector with access to inspirational role models and educational content across digital, print and live events.
The annual Be Inspired conference will take place on June 27 this year, with 50 of the biggest names in retail speaking on whether women can really have it all, why you don’t have to be alpha to succeed and how to overcome unconscious bias.
For more information, visit BeInspired.Retail-Week.com