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Empowering women at GoCardless: 3 lessons from Ursula Dolton, CTO, British Heart Foundation

Kate Phelan

By Kate PhelanOct 20212 min read

A year ago – on a mission to achieve gender diversity at GoCardless – our employee resource group, Inspiring, launched its very first Lean In circle. Originating from a term coined by Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean-In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, a Lean In circle is a small group of peers who regularly get together to help each other pursue their ambitions and stop holding themselves back.

And so, one year ago, a group of 10 women at GoCardless got together and created a safe space to lean in together. Topics discussed ranged from imposter syndrome and confidence, to work-life balance, negotiating salary increases, preparing for promotions, having difficult conversations with managers, how to network effectively, and more.

Quickly afterwards, following the success and enthusiasm around the first circle, we launched a second. Soon after that, a third. And now one year after launching our first, we are thrilled to launch our sixth Lean In circle at GoCardless.

We recently gathered these 60+ women together in the same (virtual) room for the first time, and were joined by a special guest, Ursula Dolton, CTO at the British Heart Foundation. Ursula shared her personal and professional journey with the group, with honesty and candor that left us inspired and challenged to think about our own personal journeys.

Three key themes resonated with the group. So much so that we wanted to share them here.

1. Breaking down self-imposed barriers

Ursula talked about how important it is to break down self-imposed barriers. We discovered that the group had a shared experience of feeling like they’d held themselves back from opportunities due to doubt in ability, or general lack of confidence. Ursula urged us to break down those self-imposed barriers and challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone and demand a seat at the table.

2. Building a network of internal and external sponsors

Ursula shared with us how building a network of sponsors, both internally and externally, has helped her to progress. A sponsor or champion is someone who can advocate on your behalf, offer honest advice and guidance, and support your ambitions. To establish this network, she suggested formal routes like mentorship programs, raising this with management, and informal routes like reaching out to senior stakeholders for feedback and making sure to keep in touch with ex-colleagues and those within your extended network.

3. Embracing and establishing your personal brand

Ursula also implored us to celebrate our differences and spend time thinking about who we are and how we want to represent ourselves. It turned out most in the group hadn’t thought about their personal brand, and oftentimes had felt the need to conform rather than being proud of their differences. The real lightbulb moment was Ursula asking us “What do you want to be known for?” which seemed to give a simple ask to the ‘personal brand’ statement, something we’d often heard, but never quite understood.

Ursula's final words of wisdom were to set ambitious, aspirational goals that will become the driving force underlying those ‘lean in’ moments. She left us feeling inspired and committed to internalising these three themes, and reporting back on our experiences in our future Lean In circles. We can’t thank Ursula enough for spending the time with us, and sharing insights from her own journey.

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