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Rosalind Searle is a professor of organisational behaviour and psychology at Coventry University Business School in the UK, where she co-founded the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. She also researches topics on gender and diversity.

Prof Searle grew up in Glasgow and Germany. She has an MBA from Liverpool John Moores University and a PhD from Aston Business School. Her first job was with General Motors, working in the human resources department.

1. Who are your business influences?

Nick Reilly, my plant manager when I was working for Vauxhall, who always asked the killer question you hadn’t thought of. He also [believed in] life-long learning. During a downturn in the motor industry, Nick was instrumental in developing training programmes for all employees, to get through the recession without making people redundant or reducing their hours.

Other influences include Becky John, the founder of an organisation called Who Made Your Pants. She’s an entrepreneur who inspires people to fulfil their dreams. But I also [admire] organisations such as John Lewis. They enable their staff to take both little and then giant steps with their partnership model, which gives everyone a say.

2. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

I learnt it in my 30s to always have the courage to ask as you have nothing to lose. The worst thing that can happen is someone can say is no but if you don’t ask then you’ll never know. Women in particular can be quite self-regulating and not always have the courage to ask for things, whether that’s a pay rise or the opportunity to work on a new project.

3. What is your best business decision?

Joining my professional body — the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology. I went from being a committee member as a fresh graduate through to leading that group, responsible for creating their Learning a Living professional development programme that’s still running. This year I was elected secretary-general for the Alliances of Organizational Psychology, which is an organisation focused on sharing work psychology insights and best practice from all over the world.

4. What is an average day at work like?

Other than that it starts very early, all days are different. It can range from working with PhDs, looking at trust and banking, to helping organisations conduct trust audits, judging debating competitions for sixth formers, or speaking alongside the chief executive of Total Oil at the European Business Ethics Forum.

Recently we’ve been doing some work around trust audits with organisations, and from that we’ve helped some understand that their management team is part of the problem in moving the company forward. In one of the organisations we worked with, the workforce was ready to embrace change but it was the managers who were worried about what it meant for them. For example, how their pension arrangements, status and having a more empowered workforce might impact on them.

5. What are you finding the most difficult?

[One] challenge is the current research funding climate. A lot of time is spent working on bids and the success rate is getting lower as competition increases. Overcoming this challenge requires a lot of persistence, especially if you have organisations already onboard ready to give you access and support. Sometimes they will then help fund you, but sadly for some of the smaller firms or public sector organisations there is simply no money they can provide. We worked with one charity and it was so hard as you could see what they wanted to achieve — it was a great project but we could not buy out our time.

6. What are the gender dynamics like at business school?

Gender barriers definitely exist in academia. It’s often harder if you’ve taken a career break to have children — I found that if you want to develop a strong relationship with your child early on then it counts against you with funders and your colleagues — especially those who have chosen not to have children. Then you develop gaps in your CV and if you go back part-time you just end up teaching, so you never get to catch up. I think there can be a real bias against women and not seeing what they offer.

About eight years ago, I started working on a project looking at organisational trust across cultures that involved working with seven female researchers from different countries. All of us said it was a completely different experience. We were much more open about sharing ideas and the project led to two publications and a nice series of studies. I think everybody on that team was surprised by how liberating it was to work with other women, particularly in a [research] environment. It’s all about trust.

7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

I am used to them from my days in the motor industry [and] there is often less gender equality at the top of universities if you look at vice chancellors and deans. Coventry was quite an exceptional place as it has had a much higher proportion of women in senior posts, including the executive dean Denise Skinner.

We’re running a conference in May looking at what happens to business when women have more power and influence. Research has found that organisations that take steps to attract, develop and retain top female talent perform better in terms of return on sales and return on invested capital. Issues of transparency and compliance are also given more prominence on gender-diverse boards.

8. What is your favourite business book?

I read business books for a living — so let me be different — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey — with the key quote “there is one person in every situation that you should never underestimate the power of”. [In the book] it was the nurse, but it always reminds me that it is often the support staff that make organisations work, or not. I had a new-starter and in showing her around I made it clear there are some people who you should never upset as they will be critical to putting in a grant. They are the cogs that you must keep happy to ensure an organisation runs smoothly.

9. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

Seize more opportunities earlier on in my career. The HR director at General Motors wanted me to continue doing the same thing but if I had pushed back and negotiated for a different position, I would have stayed. I would have really liked to have worked on the Saturn Plant in the West Coast of America. My PhD looked at innovation in the motor industry, comparing North American and Japanese automotive plants.

10. What is your plan B?

I actually started working in my alternative career during maternity leave. I did further training as a psychological counsellor and worked in a women’s refuge. It was some of the most challenging work I have ever done. Through that I realised that regardless of your wealth or class, domestic violence knows no boundaries. The impact on women but also children is visceral and takes lifetimes to heal.

This article has been amended since original publication to clarify the biography details

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