Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

How to lead authentically as a woman

Julia Marsh, Senior Associate Dean of Innovation and Transformation at LBS, reflects on her own leadership journey

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Women in business

Growing up, Julia Marsh says she didn’t think much about her gender. “My parents never gave my sister and me the idea that our opportunities would be limited because we were women. They were always telling us to go for it, to go out into the world, push ourselves and do our best.” She says this mindset helped her to avoid second guessing her own ambitions, especially as she became more senior. That said, over her years in industry, Julia began noticing not everyone shared her view. “As time went by, I did become more conscious of the issues women face in the workplace. That said, I also found these wonderful networks of supportive women – I think women are very comradely in that way.”

Many of these women are still in Julia’s life today. “Many women I’ve worked with have become my friends. We’re able to offer intellectual support, exchange ideas, challenge each other – and yes, there’s an emotional aspect too.” These close friendships have supported Julia throughout her career. “With other women, there’s more of an acceptance that you have vulnerable days. Everyone has days where they are not their best self – but it seems like women are more able to share that with each other.”

Today, Julia Marsh holds the impressive title of London Business School’s David and Molly Pyott Senior Associate Dean of Innovation and Transformation. But it wasn’t a job interview that first brought her to the School. She actually arrived in 1995, as a prospective MBA student, excited by the School’s unique global outlook. “Even then, the student body was very international”, she explains. “That combined with the location in London made me feel as if we were at the very centre of things. Business, technology, finance, culture - everything.”

Does she think the School has changed much since she first visited campus? “It’s interesting being on the other side now, as an employee, because I’m aware of how we frame our key selling points. We do market ourselves on diversity, our location in London and the School’s atmosphere of innovation and learning. But those truly are the things that brought me here as a student, and the reasons I’m still here today.”

“Working in business is more than numbers, it is about managing people and getting their buy-in in order to deliver on strategic objectives”

Before applying for an MBA, Julia had been working in the consulting arm of an accountancy firm and doing work that had a strong finance focus. It was only after a series of conversations as a student with Professor Lynda Gratton and Professor Nigel Nicholson, that she began to consider the bigger, more complex picture. “They both tapped into something I’d found challenging and forced me to broaden my thinking. Numbers are critical, sure. But working in business is more than numbers, it is about managing people and getting their buy-in in order to deliver on strategic objectives. You can get the numbers right, but if you don’t have the people supporting the objectives, you’ll never be able to deliver change.”

From consultancy back to business school

After her MBA, Julia put her new mindset to the test in various consulting roles. In fact, she now credits the interpersonal aspect of consulting as one of her favourite parts of the job. “I got to work with so many different clients, and really smart people. The consulting lifestyle is tough, but for a long time the people and exciting projects made it worth it.”

However, after her daughter was born, Julia knew she needed to have more flexibility if she was to enjoy both work and her growing family. “When I was on client sites, I wouldn’t see her Monday to Friday”, she says. Just as she was starting to explore options outside of consulting, LBS reached out to the alumni population and asked if anyone would be interested in working with the School’s Careers Centre. Julia says that she jumped at the chance to return. “I couldn’t think of a better place to begin figuring out my next move. It was a win-win for me – an organisation whose purpose I shared and supported, with extremely curious and bright people, and where I felt I could make a difference.”

“When you’re thrown into a situation like the pandemic, the option to continue on as normal simply isn’t there”

The opportunity in the Careers Centre was the first time Julia returned to LBS. She returned again in 2008 and 2016, firstly as Executive Director of both the Early Career Programmes and the Masters in Management and then later as Associate Dean for the Degree Education and Career Centre, before taking on the innovation and transformation role that she holds today. In between these positions, Julia held roles at other schools, including Head of Career Centre at Chicago Booth and Executive Director of the TRIUM EMBA at LSE.

What has it been like to work in the School she once studied at? “It’s so interesting”, she says. “I already understood certain things from the student perspective, but now I’m getting to look under the bonnet and see how everything works. From the outside, everything looks all shiny, but then you take a look behind the curtain and see how hard the machine is really working.”

Innovation in times of crisis

Julia’s latest role has, of course, covered an extremely difficult period for the School, and the wider business world. “None of us were prepared for the pandemic”, she tells me. “Was anyone? That said, I think we prioritised the right things with our response. Our key priority was to ensure that we continued to deliver learning and make sure that student education was not jeopardised.”

Under challenging circumstances, not only was the School’s move to hybrid learning a success, Julia also feels that the pandemic spurred innovation. “When we suddenly found ourselves operating from home, we were forced to do things differently. In March 2020, hybrid meetings of any kind weren’t such an obvious thing. So many things that seem second nature today were brand new ideas, even just two years ago.”

“With other women, there’s more of an acceptance that you have vulnerable days. Everyone has days where they are not their best self”

For Julia, fostering a culture of innovation means making space for failures, as well as triumphs. “When you’re thrown into a situation like the pandemic, the option to continue on as normal simply isn’t there. In many ways, that removes the fear of failure. It becomes a process of constantly reviewing and tweaking.” As we move towards a ‘new normal’, with the pandemic hopefully behind us, Julia believes the challenge facing businesses is to ensure they are able to keep momentum and continue to rapidly embrace new ideas.

A modern approach to leadership

Julia’s belief in being authentic and open with others is reflective of her leadership style, too. “Just look at the pandemic”, she says. “It’s a perfect example of a time when leaders needed to be genuine and transparent. We did not know everything, did not have answers to all the questions, and it’s okay to say, ‘we will figure this out, we will find the way’ –” For Julia, leading is less about commanding and more about forming connections. “Leaders need to keep an open dialogue with their teams – the opinions, frustrations our staff, faculty and students are experiencing really matter to me.”

“My experiences here are different every time I’ve been back, so it’s never felt predicable or stale. I suppose the school is like a red thread, running through my life”

That said, every leader will have difficult moments. When hard decisions are on the horizon, Julia says that after thinking through the details and coming to a decision, she then returns to a series of simple questions. “Is this the right thing to do? How does this sit with my values, with what the School stands for? Is this fair?”

It’s grappling with these questions that has kept Julia engaged throughout her long career. “From my MBA, to consulting, to now being back at LBS, I’ve been constantly looking at puzzles and refusing to take no for answer. If one approach doesn’t work, we’ll just try something else.” Reflecting on her relationship with the School she says, “My experiences here are different every time I’ve been back, so it’s never felt predicable or stale. I suppose the school is like a red thread, running through my life.”

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