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Alison Kay, is the global vice-chair of industry at professional services organisation EY, where she produces the annual Women in Power and Utilities Index. The index ranks the top 200 global utilities companies on the number of women they have on their boards. It has also revealed that the lack of diversity appears to be affecting the overall financial position of the companies.
Ms Kay studied for an MBA from Manchester Business School in the UK and worked for United Utilities and Accenture before joining EY. In her spare time, she enjoys sailing and playing music. She became a fellow of the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, as a pianist, and performed with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
1. Why did you choose to work in the power and utilities sector?
Ever since my university days reading geography, I’ve been attracted to asset intensive industries, so when I graduated I had a clear idea of the sort of company I wanted to work for.
My first role was on the United Utilities graduate scheme, which not only gave me a real insight into the world of power and utilities, but a strong foundation in the business skills that have been so important as my career has developed. What struck me most was how close the connection is between industry and society — without water and energy the economy doesn’t work.
As I progressed, I learnt the significance of the political interconnection too. When this relationship begins to break down between customers and suppliers, as we recently saw with the significant price rises in the energy sector, you lose trust, and the actions and responses of those companies becomes an intensely political issue.
2. What do you like most about your role now?
I love being the leader of a company that asks questions and takes nothing for granted. We believe that by asking better questions, we can get better answers and unlock new solutions and opportunities.
I’m [also] very excited about helping businesses restore the balance between growth, profit and purpose, which I believe goes to the heart of their ability to build long-term value for their stakeholders. In a world where profit and growth are no longer enough, stakeholders want to see business get the balance back. They want to be able to trust in its purpose to act fairly, ethically and responsibly and would not hesitate to use the court of public opinion to destroy any brands they believe are coming up short.
3. Who are your business influences?
Nicola Horlick and Sheryl Sandberg. I’ve never met either of them, but reading their books, Can You Have it All? and Lean In, and understanding their journey, inspired me to be the best I can possibly be. Here were two women who were flourishing in their careers and yet still finding time to balance a family alongside their work commitments.
At key times in my own career, I’ve wondered whether I can manage more, and at times I’ve questioned whether or not I should take the next step. It’s at these times that I think about these women and realise that such moves are worth the risk.
4. What has been your best business decision?
Leaving United Utilities and moving to London to work in consultancy were big decisions that would not only affect my career but change my life. Although I was confident I was making the right decision and I sought a lot of advice, there’s always a fear that things won’t work out.
For all the decisions I make, I have a working assumption that as long as the downsides don’t appear too big, it’s worth taking a risk. Of course at times you look back and think “What have I done?”, but I don’t regret anything. In every significant career step I’ve taken, I’ve learnt something.
5. Why did you choose to study for an MBA?
To broaden my experience. I didn’t want to specialise in a particular part of business, and so more specialist courses didn’t really appeal to me, but I wanted to gain the more financial and strategic orientation that an MBA can give you. I also knew that it would provide me with a respected qualification and opportunities to build my network — both of which I knew would be important to progress my career. Looking back, I don’t think I could have made the move into consultancy without it.
6. What did you find the most difficult?
Completing an MBA while working was a real challenge. It was seriously hard work, and juggling everything was both stressful and at times difficult to manage. In the final year, I completed my MBA, moved job, moved south to London and got married! It’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it, although I’m not sure I’d try all that again at the same time.
7. What is the best piece of advice given to you in your career so far?
At United Utilities, the operations director told me the next job for me was his, but since I was 26 and he wasn’t moving I should go into consulting and get some international experience so I didn’t lose my spark. He encouraged me to take a risk, challenge myself and grab every opportunity. That’s what propelled me into the MBA and Accenture.
8. What advice would you give to women graduating this year from business school?
Be ambitious, take the opportunities that are going to develop your skills and believe in yourself. If you do this there’s no reason why you can’t achieve anything you want. That being said, the path ahead will be difficult, and things won’t be gifted to you — succeeding in the business world is difficult and takes a lot of hard work.
9. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?
Men clearly have a really important role to play in accelerating the pace of change, promoting women in their organisation and ensuring that there are just as many opportunities for women as there are men. This isn’t about conflict, but actually building connections.
I think we still have problems around unconscious bias and more needs to be done to help ensure that female employees can succeed and move into those leadership roles. For me, the real focus should be on mentoring and coaching women in the middle tiers of an organisation.
10. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I’d like to have found a way to go abroad to study, either at university or earlier in my career. Given how our world is becoming ever more interconnected and global, I would like to have experienced a more international perspective earlier. My MBA gave me some vital experiences and skills and without it I wouldn’t be in the role I am today.