Now Senior Vice President of Customer Experience at Abcam, Yvonne shares her advice for women with leadership aspirations, why diversity in teams is so important and how to make flexible working a success at an executive level.
Finding career fulfillment
Career fulfillment doesn’t come from climbing to a certain level on the career mountain, believes Yvonne. “It comes from learning and enjoying what you do.”
For that reason, Yvonne’s never had a set career plan, “I’ve just taken roles that I think would be interesting and this has certainly broadened my experience, with every experience able to be applied into something else.”
It’s this mindset that saw Yvonne go into finance after university. “I was meant to go onto law school, but at the last minute I decided to move to New York and go work in an investment bank because it sounded interesting.”
It took four years for Yvonne to decide that financial services wasn’t for her, largely because in the 90s she didn’t see women at the top able to achieve a work/life balance. So she went back to study.
After graduating with an MBA from Harvard Business School, Yvonne decided she wanted to get into the technology sector, a decision influenced from growing up in Silicon Valley. Throughout her 20-year-career since then, Yvonne has built up experience across a number of disciplines, including marketing, customer strategy and product, but technology and scale-ups have remained her sweet spot.
In 2015, Yvonne took on the role of Chief Digital Officer at global life sciences company Abcam, excited by the company’s bold vision and strong culture.
“Company culture is really important to me, I’ve learnt that life’s too short to work somewhere you don’t enjoy being. The culture at Abcam is open and friendly, yet ambitious. People here are always pushing for improvement and innovation.”
Building diverse teams
It’s this open and friendly culture that enables Abcam, #6 on Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work UK 2020 list, to build a diverse workplace, Yvonne believes, something she’s quite passionate about.
“I certainly subscribe to the idea that having people from different backgrounds and with different ways of thinking can really drive greater outcomes across the team, and enable better learning and conversation,” she says.
And she’s proud of the diverse teams she’s hired over the years. Her three tips to build a diverse team are to:
1) “Actively recognize and encourage diverse ideas and opinions, especially when team problem solving or ideating. This sets a cultural tone of appreciating differences and debate. And in turn can influence the kinds of people your own leadership team hires or promotes.”
2) “Establish clear SMART goals for each person. I find this enables you to evaluate people objectively.”
3) “Communicate to the recruiter that diverse candidates are important to you. Or in Abcam’s case, we set a target for women on hiring shortlists.”
Tips for women aspiring to leadership
Within 18 months at Abcam, Yvonne’s remit expanded significantly. In her current role, she now oversees all customer touchpoints, including sales, service, marketing and customer insights, and a team of 300 people.
“When you work for people who believe in you, which in my case is the CEO, and they’re willing to give you greater responsibility, it makes a real difference in your ability to operate and succeed.”
She advises women to go after what they want in their careers and set the bar high. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get. And there’s lots of great books out there on how to have those conversations,” she says.
“Believe in yourself, have confidence in what you can achieve and push yourself outside your comfort zone. I have seen the fearlessness of many male employees and peers pay off.
“You don’t have to be perfect at everything to be a successful leader, you just need to be self-aware enough to mitigate and manage the things you’re not so good at.”
With two children, aged 12 and 16, Yvonne says the best career advice she’s ever been given was to not leave the workforce. “I realize this may be controversial. I’m not saying that people who take a career break won’t or can’t be equally successful. But as a first-time mother I was torn. It was the stats that I heard and read that made me choose to be a working mother and find balance. After all, who we work for is a choice.”
A typical week for Yvonne includes three days commuting from London to Abcam’s Cambridge office, and two days working from home.
“I use the train ride to catch up on my emails and read the newspaper. Then I cycle from the station into the office, so that’s 40 minutes of exercise each day.”
For anyone seeking flexible work options, she recommends establishing that agreement with your employer upfront.
“When I was interviewing at Abcam, I explained that I wanted to do the school run two days a week and I couldn’t do that if I was in the office. Getting that permission from the start makes it easier.”
She also recommends communicating your work hours with your team. “You need to make it known that if you’re emailing someone at 9pm you’re not expecting a response there and then, you’re just working the hours that work for you.”
One of the dangers of working from home, says Yvonne, is that day can easily slip into evening. “I’m a bit of a workaholic, so I have to be conscious about setting boundaries. You need to force yourself to down tools, and make sure you’re making time for life, whether that’s exercise or spending time with the family.”