Written by Tracey Duke, Photography by Pip Andersen
Head of O2’s Public Sector, Louise Fellows is both dynamic and values led. As mum to three, Chair of Governors at Berkshire College of Agriculture (BCA), Board Member on the Young Enterprise Committee & Board Director at Slough Business Community Partnership, she’s no stranger to challenge.
Chatting with our Editor Tracey Duke, Louise speaks with passion & honesty about her journey to the top.
Ok Louise, as always, let’s jump straight in… We’ve known each other a little while now and, as a working mum of three myself, you never cease to be able to inspire me as to how well you seem to balance your work and private life; especially given your position with O2. But let’s start with a little background and how you began your journey.
For sure! So I have been in Telecoms for about 26 years now. I started out working for Hitachi in Maidenhead, where I was born and bred, as PA to the Head of Customer Service; it was my first big job out of college and I absolutely loved it! As a PA you get to see everything that’s going on within the company; it’s a great overview.
After a couple of years doing that, I was moved into customer service, progressing from a PA to serving lots of the Hitachi main customers.
Again, I did a couple of years of that and then moved into a sales support function role; supporting salespeople, placing all their orders and doing their invoicing. I quickly realised that the salespeople were getting all the money, but I was doing all the work! So from working in customer support, it wasn’t too long before I moved into sales.
These were my early 20’s and I stayed with Hitachi for quite a while actually, before I got headhunted to work for Nortel Networks at their HQ in Maidenhead. It was a hugely exciting role back in sales support, supporting a big wireless division; I loved it! I wasn’t on the front line, but it was a door opener and with 120,000 employees globally, Nortel was the main company to be working for at the time.
It was a hugely male-dominated environment to work in. Nearly all the salespeople were men; there were only 2 women working in sales at that time.
And then I guess, as I moved into my late 20s, I started to come into my own; I was doing a lot more work than the sales guys and finally after a lot of hard graft, building great relationships with customers and a lot of stakeholder management got myself promoted into sales, which is where I wanted to be.
Interestingly enough, I worked there for 8 years doing different roles but in my final role, I had O2 as a customer; Nortel was building the wireless 3G network for them. We won a significantly large piece of business from O2, worth millions, and it wasn’t long, probably a year and a half, before I got headhunted & tapped on the shoulder by O2, landing my dream job as Account Manager in the Retail & Services sector.
I’ve been there ten years now. I guess the beauty of O2 is that they’ve offered me a different role every couple of years; I’ve moved right around the organisation. I’ve built my brand, I love what I do and I love the company.
When you work hard it pays off. I’m incredibly ambitious and I’ve earned my stripes. Most importantly, I’ve got there by being authentically me.
You hold a position of authority and leadership within a typically male-dominated environment, Louise. What would you say are the biggest challenges facing women working in your industry?
I think that some of the things that I see, in terms of behaviors, are women not really being themselves or lacking in confidence to be themselves. They’re getting to a position where they feel that they have to act in a different way, in order to get things done, in a male environment. For example, they may start to act in a more masculine manner or they might start to display behaviour that makes you wonder where the woman you once knew, went? There’s a different edge to them.
I also think that women lose a lot of confidence the higher up the ladder they go; almost as though they don’t feel like they’re good enough to hold those positions of authority. I’ve often approached women to ask why they hadn’t applied for a particular role when I know they could do it standing on their head. Most often the reason comes down to their unfounded fears & insecurities, or they don’t feel like they’ve got the support behind them, to be able to do a bigger job. And maybe there’s also some associated guilt of not wanting to leapfrog their partner, who might not be doing an equivalent job.
As women, we do tend to overthink everything. We don’t just jump in and take the plunge and so I spend a lot of time encouraging women to take the next step and to not be afraid.
It’s so important that we encourage and instil self-esteem and belief in each other. As a leader & friend, what processes would you put in place to encourage women to make that next step?
Although we live in a telecoms world; everything is very digital in my world, there’s nothing like picking up the phone to my team or having one to one with them and talking. I’ve got a couple of ladies at the moment who want to go for bigger roles, but they’re worried about leaving the team that they’re in because they know they’ve got that support there.
My message to them is simple; if you don’t try you’ll never know. Take the plunge. If it doesn’t work out then we look at how we structure your development differently and help you get there. But if you don’t go for it, you’ll always regret it.
And what about you? You’ve climbed the career ladder over the years and I know you’ve sat on a couple of Boards yourself. You’re so supportive of other ambitious women, in particular, but who’s backing you? Do you have a mentor or influencer that you turn to?
So for probably four or five years, I had a personal coach; a lady called Sarah Brummitt. She’s my absolute inspiration and has been for quite a number of years.
Gillian May; the head at BCA in Maidenhead, was another influencer. She was the CFO for PepsiCo; a really prominent character who left the private sector world and moved into the public sector to run a 1500 student college with a £20 million P&L and a £5 million deficit to deal with. She was such an inspiration; she turned that college around.
She taught me that you live your values through your team; if you put your values through your team, they will believe in you as a leader and you will excite them to exceptional performance and things will roll for you. I genuinely believe that; I’ve seen the proof of it in my own team.
I loved to just watch and observe her in meetings. She has such gravitas; there was absolutely no mistaking, when she walked in a room, that she was in charge.
Because she delivered her message with confidence and belief?
Absolutely! She knew her stuff; she was calm and measured in her approach. I think that as a woman in business if you are confident, but in a measured, passionate way, then no-one can touch you.
And so that brings me onto thinking about vulnerability. The reality, no matter how confident and calm we appear, is that sometimes we can all feel a little vulnerable, despite having our game face on. Do you have any anchors to reground yourself when you are feeling like that?
I think the thing is that I stay very true to who I am. What I mean by that, is that if I feel vulnerable and I don’t know the answer, I’m just honest about it. That way they can’t call me up on my vulnerability because I’m being honest.
Sometimes, if it’s going to be a tough meeting, I’ll nip somewhere quiet and do the old power pose for two minutes and give myself a good talking to.
And that’s so true! What we tell ourselves, we believe; whether that’s a negative thing or a positive thing. Self-talk is so powerful!
It is. Incredibly so! But equally, on the flip side, you can have those days when, if you’re tired, haven’t eaten properly, haven’t been out for a nice walk or done anything, that negative energy just sits there and you have to try and get yourself out of it. For me, I do that by being outside; going for a walk with my beautiful dog. Just literally getting that fresh air into your lungs and getting out for half an hour.
Because I am a flexible worker, I work from home, I do have that luxury.
So Louise, what’s the bigger picture looking like for you? Obviously, as well as everything else, you’re the Wellity Kid’s mum and that’s a really exciting time for you as a family.
There’s a definite focus on supporting Simon (my fiancé) and the Wellity Kids; I am so very proud of them, but I also have to keep my eyes firmly on my job and the team I have. My ambition is to stay as Head of Public Sector and to really grow that area; I have a real passion for all of the different types of organisations in the Public Sector, I believe that doing good in the public sector is good business & I have a great team of people. I can see huge future success there and I want to be the one leading this great team.
My ultimate goal is that I’ve always wanted to be a Chief Executive on a FTSE 100 company by the time I’m 45; that’s the big goal. I started on the ground floor and I want to make it to the top.
I’m not going to be negative about the University route, but I think starting on the ground floor of business, brings with it its own qualifications. I haven’t just stepped out of University into a big role; I literally started life as a PA and worked my way up. It was always the non-academic studying that I loved; the getting stuck in and learning.
And that’s the thing; the University route isn’t for everyone. The acceptance and understanding that you can get ahead through alternative routes is so important.
And that’s why I went for the Chair role at BCA. It’s a further education college and I do believe in further education; I believe that on hand learning where you get real-life, practical, learning, is just as good. That’s also why I’m on the board of Young Enterprise in Devon; I passionately believe in helping young people and Board Director at Slough Business Community Partnership (SBCP).
Louise thank you so much for your time today. As always, it’s a pleasure talking with you and we wish you every continued success on your journey.
You can keep up to date with Louise on Twitter @Lfellows_O2UK