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Cognito’s London office held a breakfast to mark International Women’s Day. Nearly 20 women gathered to discuss the idea of “break the bias” and compare notes on how to succeed and empower colleagues.

The event was hosted by Yvonne Maher, the managing director of Cognito’s London office. After the conversation we asked her to reflect on a few of the themes discussed and how she works to support and encourage females in the workplace.  

What does the International Women’s Day slogan #BreakTheBias mean for you?

 IWD is a chance and opportunity to come together to reflect and celebrate women’s achievements in the last year. Reflection is important – often we don’t spend the time to think back and reflect on our achievements individually but also collectively. Women are great at ‘the doing’ and ‘getting on with it’ but it’s important that we also openly discuss obstacles or challenges that get in the way, or challenges we need to overcome. IWD is a great platform to bring about positive change and every year clients and friends of Cognito come together to connect and share experiences. We have open dialogue and are united on our shared drive and purpose for global diversity and inclusion. 

What motivates you as a leader in Cognito?

100% the brilliant team at Cognito. Their energy, ideas, intellect and kindness inspires me. Most of all, they are great fun! We all love a cup and tea and the occasional glass of wine (!). The team really respects and looks after and supports each other. We did a huge amount of this over lockdown and we came out the end stronger and closer together. 

I would also say our clients – the challenges and opportunities for our clients in financial services – at a time of digital disruption, intense geo-political landscape, and the drive for purpose and ESG – is huge. Therefore that  need to keep ahead of these issues every and come up with campaigns and ideas to build reputations and brand is motivating. 

Why is gender balance and having a more diverse workforce important?

It's one thing building a diverse team, it’s another to be truly inclusive. For me it’s recognizing similarities and more importantly differences. Diversity and inclusion is so important as it means we approach problems and issues with a different perspective. By celebrating and encouraging diversity, we can approach problems differently. An inclusive workforce equates to a thriving business model – it’s good business sense.

What strategies can work well to promote inclusion in the workplace?

Clear communication and building relationships creates the foundation of trust and inclusion in the workplace. Commit to being available to listen and importantly commit to having open and difficult conversations instead of avoiding them. These open conversations enable the team to discover and respect each other's differences and discover common ground and share interests, which is the basis for close relationships.

How important is it to have a mentor to grow as a leader?

If every woman had a mentor or coach, I’m convinced there would be more female leaders in business. A mentor or coach will not only support but will challenge you to look at things from a different perspective and help you find a solution. Envision where you want your career and life to look like in five years’ time. Then create a list of the different types of support you will need to get from where you are now to where you want to be. Be specific on the type of support you need – career advice, tactical advice on your current role, support in aiming for a promotion. Then ask your managers, colleagues at work, look in your network – in my experience mentors always say yes. 

How do you engage and empower others?

This starts with active listening. Listen carefully to views, take them into consideration and put them into action. Leading by example and being a role model. As a senior female in the business, it’s important to be a role model for the aspiring females in the industry. You can have children and have a successful career. I’m not going to deny that it’s easy it’s not BUT it’s hugely rewarding and challenging. I wouldn’t change it for the world!  

What one piece of advice would you give any aspiring female business leaders?

Grasp every opportunity you get and trust yourself. All too often we overthink and can come up with lots of reasons why we’re not ready to go for that promotion or why the idea isn’t 100% fleshed out or we’re too busy to focus on own priorities. Find your champions, be confident and challenge yourself – you have to go through the sticky and hard parts to get to the best part. Embrace a growth mindset and go for it!

Yvonne Maher is the managing director of Cognito’s London office