"The programme made me think about my leadership style, strengths and what I bring to the room."

Zeynep Yalim Uzun

Non-Executive Director & Board Advisor 

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There isn’t much in the marketing world Zeynep hasn’t seen and done. After spending most of her career in the corporate world, in 2021 she decided to set out on her own, beginning that journey by securing a scholarship on our Senior Executive Programme. Here, Zeynep shares how she made that decision and how the programme has influenced this exciting new step in her career as a Marketing and Strategy Advisor.
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When I started in the corporate world, it was normal to stay in the same company for a number of years. That’s exactly what I did for the first 25 years of my career. I grew up in Istanbul in Turkey, studying at Robert College before moving to America to complete a double major in Economics and Psychology with a full scholarship at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Georgia. After college, I went back home to Istanbul and had a very short stint in HR and insurance at Koc Holding before making the transfer to Unilever, where I progressed to become Global Vice President for Persil. I then joined Arçelik as the Chief Marketing Officer – running their marketing operations across around 150 countries and 14 brands, including Beko and Grundig.  

Early on in my career, I was always looking for female mentors, but at the time, there were so few around. There were even a couple of occasions where I was rebuffed by women. This became an important factor as to why I’ve spent so much of my career mentoring, particularly women. I’ve also been an angel investor since I began volunteering for the Unilever Foundry while working for Unilever in London in 2014. The Foundry is an organisation that forms a bridge between the corporate Unilever world and start-ups. I lent my experience, and it eventually led to me advising and investing in start-up companies.  

After 32 years of working in the corporate world, I decided to leave and pivot to a portfolio career. It was an idea I’d been sitting on for many years. I wanted to start my own business and do my own thing. In the aftermath of the pandemic, I realised that if I was going to do it, it had to be now. I set up my own business as a Brand and Strategy Advisor and I began mentoring start-ups in a more official capacity. Shortly, I was invited to become a Non-Executive Director for two public companies; Mavi, an international fashion brand and Dogtas, a furniture business. In my NED roles, I am also responsible for chairing the Corporate Governance, Risk and Audit Committees. I find that in these settings, I have a unique voice as a global female leader, which helps the team to think out of the box and make better decisions. In order to increase my social impact, I also set out to devote my time and energy to achieving gender diversity in the business world. Therefore, I’ve become an Executive Committee Member for the Brussels-based NGO, European Women on Boards.

European Women on Boards was set up by the EU Commission a decade ago to even the scales with regard to gender diversity in C-level and Board positions in the EU. My role in this organization is Chair of Individual Memberships and Events; with my team, we are working hard to get together a community and talent pool of 1000 board-ready women before the recently approved EU directive goes into effect and it becomes mandatory for public companies across EU to have gender-balanced boards.I’m a firm believer that we need to even out the gender divide in the boardroom and the C-suite, and that can begin in the journey that leads to these positions. The variety and diversity of thought and perspectives enrich these experiences for everyone involved, no matter their gender. Yet despite the advantages that diversity brings, opportunities in senior levels like boards and C-suite still usually end up with men rather than women. There are unconscious biases we have to overcome, with others making assumptions about our willingness or ability to commit to a job or our capability to perform well in a role. It's so important that scholarships exist to empower women to be able to take advantage of programmes like SEP. I thank the 30 Percent Club and LBS for the scholarship which made this experience possible for me.

“It's so important that scholarships exist to empower women to be able to take advantage of programmes like Senior Executive Programme.”

My learning journey

“I believe that learning never ends in this day and age. The programme is great for those leaders who want to sharpen skills or pick up new ones that they might have missed in their careers.”

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The Senior Executive Programme embedded several concepts into my life, ideas that I continue to share in my webinars and whilst mentoring. The 100-Year Life sessions not only helped me understand how to make big pivots (at a time in my life when I was making a big pivot myself), but they also gave me the tools to properly prepare and make successful changes. By the time I began the programme, I had left Arçelik to start my own business. Learning the importance of always planning the next step has been incredibly helpful as I set out on my new venture. The Best-Self exercise and the coaching that accompanied it were also incredibly enlightening. Working in cohorts to examine testimonials about myself from family, friends and colleagues allowed me to identify blind spots that have helped me construct this next step in my working life. In a career like mine, you must make decisions every day about which projects to accept, which board roles to say yes to, and whom to work with. Knowing myself better has helped me identify my strengths and make better decisions.

When I went on the Senior Executive Programme, I had a burning desire to do something that would add to the conversation on gender diversity. There are a lot of statistics about gender equality, but I’ve always found that when you get to a more granular level, the individual stories hold a different kind of power. The programme ignited my ambition to make this project happen. I wanted to build the stories of senior women and the challenges they faced in their careers, yet I had no idea how to go about bringing them together. When my colleagues on the programme realised how passionate I was about this, they pushed me to meet with Kathleen O’Connor who agreed to mentor me. The entire ecosystem at the School helped me put this project into action. I’m so thankful to Kathleen for the help she has given me in formalising the idea and making the interviews happen. I have now completed the initial pilot interviews with senior women from different industries and geographies and am in the process of consolidating the stories and identifying patterns. Going forward, I am planning to share these via a webinar or podcast.

The programme delivered what I anticipated and, in many ways, also far exceeded my expectations. Going in, I knew the programme would be of high quality and have strong academic material. Every faculty member that entered the room opened up our minds. I loved the sessions on leadership from Randall Peterson and Herminia Ibarra, and the finance sessions of Henri Servaes and strategy sessions of Costas Markides have been instrumental in my work as a non-executive director as I help set out the strategy for the businesses. But there were also several aspects I found more surprising that ended up being highlights of the course. Most of all, the people in my cohort were amazing. Each Executive had a different angle on the business world, and I learned a lot from them about leadership and different industries I’d not yet had exposure to in my career.

I just loved how much effort the Executive Education team put into making this a complete experience that I’ll remember fondly forever. There was a good amount of time set aside for immersing ourselves in the London experience. Of course, the campus setting is beautiful, but more than that, being surrounded by so many people with the same goal – furthering their business careers – is truly inspiring. I have built genuine relationships. Now, whenever I go to a country where a SEP colleague lives, we meet up, and it’s almost like having family all around the world.

The programme is a great opportunity for senior leaders who want to sharpen their skill-sets. The time you spend with other leaders, watching their different styles, helps hone your leadership. But it’s also great for aspiring leaders who want to make that jump into the C-suite – the experience you get from others is like nothing you’ll be able to gain from anywhere else. For people looking to build a portfolio career or those looking to set up their own company, it’s a great environment to learn how to make that change. The coaching was structured in such a way that we left with a complete plan of action and with the programme operating in two modules itself accessible to senior leaders to digest and then return with a renewed perspective. The programme took me out of my comfort zone both in and out of the classroom – and I cherish the relationships I found and the skills that have already shaped the next step of my career.

“The individual sessions were enlightening, they provoked thinking and helped me focus on my strengths and needs, which was invaluable during my career transition”

The impact of the Senior Executive Programme

“The programme helped me understand the Board governance model and improved my understanding of strategy.”

Senior Executive Programme

Challenge your thinking and reignite your ambition with our flagship executive development programme, designed for senior leaders with a minimum of 12 years' management experience.