Don’t listen. If there’s one piece of advice that Silvana Oliva (SLN2017) would share with other aspiring female business leaders it would be this. “Don’t listen to other people. Focus on your own goals and aims, and foster an inner stubbornness. If others try to dissuade you from doing what you want, or discourage you from pursuing your dream, don’t listen. Anything is possible, so be ambitious.”
Silvana speaks from the heart. Her own ambition to achieve success in business took her from her native Spain to the UK to pursue a degree at the University of Hull. On graduating she progressed rapidly through a number of senior positions in telecommunications, including commercial and strategy roles with Nokia and BT respectively.
In 2017, Silvana reached an inflection point. Looking to unlock the next level in her career, she identified some critical professional development areas to develop and decided on a business qualification. It was a decision that brought her to the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy
“I’ve always been very ambitious for myself and for my career. I see my own trajectory leading to C-suite and board-level roles and so I wanted to develop greater business acumen and knowledge and the leadership skills to accelerate my progress. The Sloan MBA at LBS was an excellent choice as it’s aimed at senior decision-makers – people who
have already acquired a good deal of experience and who have expertise and insights to share. And being a full-time programme, it meant I could really immerse myself in the learning journey and maximise the experience at the School.”
The programme has had a profound effect on Silvana’s capacity to identify and rationalise the different obstacles that stand between women and the most senior levels of leadership in organisations.
“It’s difficult for women to ascend right to the very top in big companies, particularly in spaces like telecoms that are notoriously male-dominated. There are a lot of unconscious biases at play that put women at a disadvantage. Part of my experience at LBS covered this: the obstacles that stand in the way of women who aspire to reach key positions. The programme made me more aware of the kinds of problems that we face and helped me develop a raft of leadership and negotiating skills that are going to be helpful to me as I advance.”
Networking also has a critical role in overcoming the barriers to leadership, says Silvana. And in choosing LBS she has benefitted from a diverse and expanded network that spans different industries and has the potential to open doors to different opportunities.
“You build connections within the organisations that employ you, but to construct a really dynamic network you need to step out of your job and, ideally, your industry. The odds are more highly stacked against you as a woman, and this is where the power of the network can come in, giving you the role models, the facilitators, the references and the mentors – the people who can give you advice and make introductions when you ask for support.”
Asking for support when it’s needed is something that Silvana passionately believes in. But doesn’t this sit at odds with the notion of “not listening to other people?”
“They are two different things. I am a firm believer in listening to your inner leader and developing your own, intrinsic motivation. But I also believe in looking around you to identify the people that are really willing and able to genuinely support you where they can – in looking in the right places for the right people. And it’s equally important to overcome shyness and to be really proactive about asking for that support. I’ve had support in my life, but I’ve always had to get out there and ask for it.”
She also believes in allowing aspirations to take root and blossom, and in coating them in a protective layer of “stubbornness.” In this regard, she acknowledges that she has been lucky.
“Believing in yourself and aspiring to achieve things is something that starts young. And for that reason it needs to be ingrained in our childhood, and in our education. Unfortunately a lot of women around the world don’t have access to the kind of education that allows them to aspire, let alone to reach their goals. I’ve been very lucky in this regard to have had an education that enabled me to give my intellectual curiosity full rein and that has not penalised me for being stubborn about my goals.”
If she could change one thing in the world that would help level the playing field for women and men, she says, it’s this.
“Equality starts at an early age. Schooling and more importantly, parenting, should be equal for both girls and boys. Girls should be encouraged to believe in themselves just as much as their male counterparts. If there’s one thing I could do to redress the gender balance, it would be to have more women trust in themselves and their ability to figure things out from an early age – small changes that lead inevitably to bigger change. I’d welcome that.”