Women Leaders: An Interview with Julia Corkey

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Just over two months ago we celebrated International Women’s Day. The day has come and gone, but now what? At Westco we champion women every day. That’s why we’ve brought together four of our incredible interns to interview Westco and Westminster City Council's (WCC) Director of Policy, Performance and Communications, Julia Corkey. To answer all their questions about what it really takes to be a great career woman, female leader and an all-round go-getter.

Soumaya, Which woman inspires you most and why?

My grandmother, because she was a wonderful woman, born in 1906 she was part of a generation where it was rare to get a chance to go to university. She was one of the lucky ones that did go. But then she got married in the 1920s and that was the end of her academic career. She was incredibly inspirational, and she taught me everything I know about literature, the Bible and all sorts of other things which had a huge impact on my life. If I was to choose a woman or women outside of my personal life, I’d choose the women Paralympians - the commitment and passion they put in to overcome their disability to succeed is so inspiring.


Sofia, How has failure made a positive difference in your life?

That’s a great question! Because it’s failure that has made me really learn things, by getting up and trying again. It’s very easy when things go wrong to sit back and feel very annoyed about it or you can say “I can learn from this and move on.”

I made some mistakes very early on in my career. I made the mistake of sending a document to print with the wrong number on it for a restaurant...but I’ll never do it again. I remember ringing up my mum and being distraught that I’d made this big mistake so early on in my career. She helped me put it into perspective and think about the impact that mistake really had. It made me learn the importance of attention to detail, which I’m always banging on to people about here.


Alessia, Has Westminster City Council changed for women in the last 10 years?

Yes, massively! When I started fresh out of university I was often the only woman amongst all these grey-haired, suited men. I remember thinking “where are the other people like me?” And, over time, there’ve been some really fantastic people, but actually, some of the people who have had a major influence have been men. For example, the current chief exec.

My previous boss here really pushed for women and particularly younger women from all backgrounds and abilities to come and work here. Factually, on the Westminster Executive board, there are more women than men. But it’s got to be about ability, and I’m just excited that there are all these fantastic, talented women at the top. We need to get more coming up the ladder because you are the future.


Hafsah, Is there anything you do to ensure your growth and development as a leader?

I read lots, talk to people I find interesting and ask them how did they get there? Or what did they do? Have they read any interesting books themselves? I love this app called Blinkist; it summarises books for you. In terms of growth and development, you have to work at it every day and surround yourself with people you can learn from. I’ve always surrounded myself with people I thought are really great and watched what they did and learnt from them, because that’s how you really learn. The books and reading add to the picture, but having people that can mentor you is very helpful.


Sofia, Do you think women have to act more masculine to get ahead in the workplace?

I don’t think so at all! I would hate for us to feel we have to. I don’t think we have to. People talk about “that’s very macho” about the way someone has dealt with something, but do we really have to be like that? I was part of a charity called ‘Women Caring Trust’ in Northern Ireland. The reason it was called Women Caring Trust was that often, in times of conflict, women come together to try and resolve issues. In Northern Ireland, where I’m from this charity empowered those women to unite communities together. So, let’s celebrate our differences and put them to powerful use.


Hafsah, How do you motivate yourself?

Sometimes I’m really self-motivated and I really feel like I can rule the world and do lots of things, and other times I struggle with my confidence and I think “I’m not sure about that.” But I think to motivate yourself, you’ve got to be passionate about what you do and want to do it really well. Because then when you do a great job and you can see the difference it makes, that’s what motivates me. I don’t wake up every morning bouncing out of bed, you have to self-motivate. We all have to do work that we don’t want to do. You’re not going to love every task you have, but as long as you’ve got a good mixture of things you find really interesting it helps. So always talk to your managers about what interests you or volunteer to work on a particular project.


Alessia - What factors do you think cause stress for a working woman and how can you overcome them?

I think it depends on what stage you’re at. When I first started work, I remember getting very stressed about what people thought of me and if I was doing the right thing. You want to have that balance between your career and home life and you need an organisation that supports that. I also feel a lot of us women want to be Wonder Woman. Don’t beat yourself up if everything’s not perfect - but I totally accept that it’s easier said than done. I always used to think “have I done enough”, but, in hindsight, I should have thought, “At my age and stage that’s actually pretty good.” Also, take on board feedback. Ninety percent positive and ten percent negative - what do you focus on? The negative! It’s the biggest thing you need to overcome.


Soumaya - How do you keep your work life separate from your personal life?

I’m very lucky. I have quite a good ‘delete’ switch in my brain. I can normally switch off very well. I remember times in my career when I would just go home and dwell over something that had happened at work. I think it’s really important to learn to switch off. I’d encourage you to do that earlier, as it will help you fly through your career. It’s really important to be happy, productive and positive in your personal life, as that helps you in your work life.


Soumaya, After the success you’ve achieved, what do you struggle with now?

I’ve never been driven by “I have to be this person” or I’m going to measure my success in this way.” I think to myself, the measure of success is that I love my job. I want to enjoy it and feel like I’m doing something positive. I struggle being a perfectionist. I get quite over-excited about details. Sometimes you just have to give it your best and some days that may not be 150 percent, it may only be 80 percent, but you need to go with it.


Hafsah, What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

You’re already the next generation of leaders because you’re being proactive, you’re looking for opportunities, you’re learning from other people, you’re asking questions, you’re not sitting back and waiting to be told what to do. You are owning your own success. I want you to be wanting to be successful and then my job and everyone else’s job is to create an environment that helps you succeed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy - if you’ve done a project well you’ll go on and do the next one even better.


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