International Women’s Day is all about celebrating women’s achievements and highlighting role models for others to aspire to. In that spirit, throughout the month of March, we will be profiling several women in HR and people management.

In this interview, we asked Yetunde Hofmann, Board Member of the CIPD and Champion for the Middle East, to share her career story and reflections on what it takes to get to the top. 

"My role is to set an example and be a role model that other women- and, in my case, other black women- can look at and say, " if she can do it, so can I". This must come through what I say and how I hold myself- the what and how of my behaviour." - Yetunde Hofmann, Board Member, CIPD

What did you want to be growing up? Tell us a bit about your path.

Today, I sit on the global board of the CIPD and I also chair their People, Culture and Remuneration Committee. You could say that I have a “portfolio career” as, in addition to the CIPD, I sit on the board of other organisations spanning a variety of industries. My background is HR of course: I worked in HR leadership roles until I stepped out to go portfolio. Aside from my Board roles, I’m also a speaker at conferences, I’m an author, run my own leadership and change consulting practice and a social enterprise called The Enjoyable Life Series – a Community Interest Company designed to equip people from all backgrounds with the practical skills to live their lives enjoyably and in doing this, we also raise money for charity – two charities that help the homeless and women who are currently disadvantaged.

If you told me years ago that this is what I would be doing, there’s no way I would have believed you! I grew up in Nigeria, West Africa and because I loved the piano, I wanted to be a concert pianist as a kid. I got to a grade 8 and couldn’t pass any exams after that.  I still play the piano and enjoy it tremendously, though any dreams of my performing are now confined to subjecting my friends and family to my amateur performances. 

We hear a lot about the importance of having mentors – especially for female professionals. Who were yours, and how did they influence you?

When I returned to the UK after my national service, I thought I would walk into a job straight away. The reality was different. I ended up going over 100 plus interviews and being rejected. Then one day, a senior manager – a head of talent in a local manufacturing company saw my application and gave me my first ‘break’ – not because of my experience he said, but more because of the potential he saw in me. That got me off to a great start in my career. 

The next significant person that I came across was an elderly recruiter. He acted as a sounding board for me when I was in negotiating my pay for a new job or looking for a pay raise. He was full of wisdom and helped me in avoiding career limiting conversations. 

The most impactful person in my career and I would say sponsor was the CEO who hired me into my last company. He always stood up for me and would nominate me for challenging projects outside of HR which built my credibility and experience. It’s important to have both a mentor and a sponsor, and I wish I had more – especially sponsors because, with them, the hardship and sometimes discrimination based on my gender and race would have been lessened. So I would very much recommend that any one reading this should work on getting both – they are not the same – but should not rely exclusively on them for getting ahead.  You’ve got to believe in yourself too and develop an inner resilience that keeps you going no matter how hard it feels. 

We often hear about the glass ceiling. Have you ever felt “stuck” in your career?

Yes – I have felt “stuck” at different points of my career and when that feeling came and was consistent, I took it as a message to find something else to do; and that’s what I did. In the world today, the journey to equality and the removal of the glass ceiling is still a long one. There is progress but it’s not fast enough. It’s important though to celebrate the progress whilst continuing to press forward. So, what I say to women who feel this way is: if it gets too much in one space, find another space and look for like-minded women and men who can support you. Your biggest sponsor however is you – know your worth and be demanding of what is really important to you. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution – but is there one policy, measure or initiative, approach that you have seen make a real impact on women’s inclusion at work?

There certainly is no one-size-fits-all solution because each individual is that: individual! Given this context, the one thing that I see that has really helped in parts of Europe is the introduction of targets, which has encouraged organisations to have more women in senior positions. We see this in the Scandinavian countries and to some degree also in the UK. These measures alone are not enough and should be combined and so it varies. 

Some organisations have focused on flexible working for both men and women because flexibility is good for people – not only women. Company networks also work because they provide support for women from other women looking to advance their careers. Finally, what I do believe would work when done properly, with genuine intention and as part of a broader strategy is the introduction of unconscious bias training because this raises awareness and once awareness is raised, it makes it easier to introduce a call to action, which of course must then be followed through. 

As a woman in a leadership position, what do you think is your role in enabling more women to go up the ranks? / What do you try to do?

My role is to set an example and be a role model that other women – and, in my case, other black women, can look at and say, “if she can do it, so can I”. This must come through what I say and how I hold myself – the what and how of my behaviour. It also means being available as much as possible. To this end, I take part in women’s events and do mentor women earlier in their career. I think it’s important that women support other women by opening doors, by mentoring and by sponsoring them. This is the power of networks, and networks cannot be powerful if individual women don’t do their part. 

What would be one piece of advice for women who want to ask for that raise, a promotion or more inclusive policies? 

My advice is go for it. Just go for it. Be clear on your why and be able to articulate it. Also, look beyond the immediate next step – what is the step beyond the one you are looking to make? What is the reason why you want your organisation to introduce more inclusive policies? Your argument must be clear and you must also understand your stakeholders and make it relevant to them. And because we are in the real world – consider what may be in it for them? Now this is where mentoring and good networking come in because once you have some sort of an idea of what it is you want to request and why, test it. Test it with someone you trust and who is willing to give you a direct and candid critique so that you are well prepared. 


Yetunde Hofmann is a speaker of the upcoming CIPD Middle East People Conference & Awards, taking place in Dubai on 2 - 3 September 2020. Find out more and buy your tickets here.

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