Leadership coach, Neela Bettridge, helps women leaders move up to – and then beyond – board level. It’s not a simple journey, but Bettridge travels with her clients every step of the way. Liz Hall reports


Let’s face it, sometimes it’s women themselves who fail to support other women in achieving their aspirations, or who actively block them. However, board adviser, leadership coach and executive mentor Neela Bettridge is no such woman.

Alongside sustainability, ethnic diversity and working with millennials, gender equality is an issue that motivates Bettridge deeply. And Bettridge, a former lawyer, former charity CEO and the co-founder of sustainable development consultancy, Article 13, really walks her talk, supporting women in many ways.

In addition to launching a successful Women in Leadership breakfast series, which began in May 2013, she delivers Women in Leadership programmes, coaching individuals and teams, consulting and mentoring, and she writes prolifically, including a blog on women in leadership for The Huffington Post.

In the past nine years of her coaching career, she says, “I kept coming across women who were being blocked just below board level and I thought, isn’t this interesting. I kept hearing the same themes and topic areas: women navigating an organisation, differentials in pay, working practices, having an unclear understanding of what they stood for, how they were going to marry work and family, and actually how they wanted to do their careers, not how someone else wanted to do their careers.

“And I thought, do you know what, I have been in this position myself. I have three children and I know what it feels like to juggle careers and family and want to do really well. I thought, why don’t I bring my experience and professional expertise in that area to look at this seriously? So I developed the Women in Leadership breakfast series.”


Be who you are

The series has seen a string of successful, inspiring women leaders share their stories and perspectives. These have included SCM Private’s Gina Miller, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, who highlighted how women can lead without trying to emulate men, and Sharon Sasson, chief treasurer of Barclays, who highlighted the importance of having a mentor, and how attitude determines altitude – and how it was even more important than aptitude.

When I ask Bettridge what she sees as the main obstacles to women becoming successful leaders, she agrees with Miller that women should not be afraid to be who they are and to bring more of themselves to their roles.

She also says, “Being able to have difficult, courageous conversations is really important”, offering an example of one female bond trader’s introduction to her new job:

“On the trader’s first day at work, as part of an initiation ceremony she was taken to a strip club. No other woman this had happened to had said anything – they’d just sat there and gritted their teeth. But she said, ‘I’m prepared to work really hard, but I’m not prepared to sit here and watch naked women, because it’s not my thing and I don’t think that is what we should be doing’.

“Now that took a lot of courage in someone who was a youngster. I think woman need to do a lot more of that. Now, nobody in that group, and she said it herself, was horrible, vicious or purposely trying to make her feel bad – they just didn’t think.”


Courageous conversations

Of course, it’s important that Bettridge practise what she preaches – with courageous conversations of her own. Increasingly, for example, she refuses to work with people she doesn’t think are taking the coaching seriously.

“It can’t be just the coach’s job, nor should it be, to make the coaching a success – it’s a two-way street based on mutual respect.

“I haven’t been brave in the past, but in the last two years, I’ve become brave. I’d say about 10 per cent of clients I work with in a year, I’ll have a direct conversation with them about their commitment to coaching, and I will turn away some of them. Just this week I turned away a client who I didn’t think was serious.

“I’ve learnt the very hard way. If you accept people for the money, it just won’t work and it’ll come back on you in a bad way. On that issue of bravery and courageous conversations, I also now do it with clients I’m doing big team interventions with.

“I just had a client ask for a very big team intervention. I’ve worked with them before and I know their culture doesn’t lend itself to this. Yet they are pushing for it because of their budget. I’ve said, look, if you want to do this, I’m not your girl because I know it’s not money well-spent. And they’ve gone off to think about it. I feel terribly worried about doing this beforehand, but I just find it really comes back on me if I don’t have [the conversation].

“Lots of people talk about authenticity and, God knows, I’m on a long journey, but I think this is all playing to it. We ask our clients to be authentic, not in a woolly way, but in a real way. But it’s really tough and it’s good to know how tough it is.”

There are many other issues and obstacles, too, for women:

“There’s a piece around asking for what you want and not being concerned about doing it. Lots of women fall down on that. Another is being clear on their professional offer and who they are in the world and what they want to have happen, eg, the vision for themselves and for their role; how they want to show up.

“I also find with some women that deep self-confidence can be an issue. When they have to go after that really stonking role and they’re up against a man, a woman is very likely to feel she needs 150 per cent of all the qualifications, be better than any human can be before she can step into that role.

“One thing I do now know is that it isn’t a simple journey. It’s not a case of: change the workplace and women will get to the top; it’s much more complex than that.”


Good to great

For the past four years, Bettridge has been working with UniCredit to help pilot, design and roll out an annual Women in Leadership programme, which includes coaching, action learning sets, and networking lunches.

At least 100 go through the programme each year, and it is proving to be highly successful. The programme started as a pilot and is now rolling out across Europe.

In addition to Women in Leadership programmes, Bettridge is developing a programme for millennials and is running more and more diversity and inclusion programmes.

“I was with a legal firm last week who were saying they were appalled because they are recruiting from the Russell Group [of universities] all the same people they always have done, mainly white males, increasingly female, and yet not going down the road to Aston University, which has perfectly good graduates and represents society. If you look at the boards of our country, a very small percentage have ethnic people on them. Now, nobody wants people to be promoted as a tick-box – we want people recruited on merit – but you have to actually recruit them in the talent pool first of all and enable them to get through. These things are very dear to my heart.”

Bettridge also works with lots of teams, helping to take them from good to great, particularly around the development of vision and how that gets implemented.

For example, she is in the third year of working with the claims director of a large old-style patriarchal male-dominated re-insurance company, who shared, in one-to-one coaching, her struggles in developing a vision and strategy to change the organisation.

“So we worked it up and it was quite ground breaking because they’re against severe competition. I’ve been working with the top team to help them take [coaching] on and implement it and keep them on the money, and now we’re going out to a wider team of some 500 people.

“It’s been very interesting to do that, and for it to be OK to say you’ve never learnt to develop a vision and strategy. It’s amazing how many senior people have said it to me – it becomes a subject they can’t tell anyone.”

As a consequence of this work, other heads of department in the organisation have asked her to help them develop their vision.

Bettridge is supporting the client, too, with her aspiration to get on to the board. “She wants to make a name for herself, but in a way that sits with her desire to be a mother and a high-functioning executive and develop a team working well. I expect she will become a board member very soon.”


Arriving at coaching

“I have a rather odd profile, like many of us,” says Bettridge. She started out in the communications industry, including a stint at Saatchi. “I then switched into the charitable world through ActionAid, then into the environmental world, running my own charity. Then I re-qualified as a lawyer because I got very involved in policy things. This led me on to co-found Article 13.”

Also, while working in Article 13, she became aware of a lack of leadership breadth in some clients. This motivated her to seek other ways to support them, leading her to train as a coach:

“I kept coming across situations where we were advising on big risks in social, ethical and environmental arenas. I just thought, the people in front of me are wonderful, but they don’t have the leadership breadth to innovate and actually do something with this. They all used to sit there like scared rabbits or ignore it and in some cases ignore it and carry on anyway and have some terrible scandal
come up.

“So that’s been my journey. And I went off and I’ve done a huge gamut of training, from ontological to Strozzi somatics, through mindfulness – a very large breadth of training, and accredited by ICF and AC.”


In progress

How does Bettridge work?

“This has been an evolving exercise. When you do an advanced executive coaching programme and they say it’s work in progress, you don’t really understand what that means until you’re really in it. You keep progressing.

“What was very clear to me was everything I didn’t know. It was just mind boggling and I thought, oh boy, how am I going to deal with this? So I made it my business to get trained in many different forms and models of coaching. That’s my approach.

“When I get a brief, I am fortunate that I can call on a number of different disciplines. And if you like, I do approach it like a lawyer. I am very clear about what the objectives are, the measures of success and how this is going to be a value-add. I then decide on and bring together a programme, particularly if I am doing one-to-one, that absolutely fits that individual.

“I’ve learnt over the course of my coaching career that you can have many tools and techniques, but actually the critical piece for coaches, which I believe I am developing deeply now, is intuition, courageous conversations, providing structure where there is none and being very clear with the client when we are going off-piste.

“So I use all the somatic work, leadership presence, my work around resilience and what it’s made up of, my ontological work looking at the leader from body, language internal and external, emotion and mood.

“But actually those are just hangers for doing the work. One of my supervisors said, ‘It’s the intuitive piece and you can’t learn it from a book, it’s something you have to develop.’ And she’s so right. Often our greatest conversations are when our intuition kicks in. And one of the reasons I got into mindfulness and meditation was because it’s really developed that side and adds a lot
of value.


Light, yet serious

“When I work with clients I do a number of different things. I’ll do what some might call the ‘woo-woo’ stuff like mindfulness and ontology, but I’ll also do practical stuff as many of the people who work with me don’t know how to do vision and strategy – they’re dreadful on time management, and need process.

“I’m big on the practical side. There’s no point coming to coaching unless you’re going to try something different. So whether with a team or an individual, we’ll develop some practical exercises in between sessions to try out, do differently and stay curious about and reflect on.

“The other area is the intellectual piece. I always provide best-in-class reading as I think that can add another dimension to client learning.

“And I keep it light, even though it’s serious work. When you’re dealing with difficult things, having a sense of humour and having fun respectfully is very important. Lots of clients describe me as someone they’ll spend half their time crying with and the other half laughing with. We do deep work, but we’re light about it.

“I really care about taking the people I work with on a journey, that they overcome fear, which is what a lot of this is based on, that they step into who they can be, that they see possibility to influence the journey they’re on. I really care also that I leave them with a sense that they can be pragmatic about what they can’t change. It’s not a fairy tale, it’s real life. Coaching isn’t a panacea, but a grounding.”


Personal journey

Her journey involves trying to get as much of a balance in her life as possible. Relationships are important to Bettridge: “I’m very committed to family life, and I have a great group of girlfriends. I try hard and prioritise my friendships and family.”

She loves challenging herself. She’s learning Spanish and loves exercise – she sails, skis and does Spartans, too.

“I really believe life is about balance and friendship and joy and fun as well as hard work. I don’t always get the balance right – I’m constantly on the journey myself.”

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