Lucy Stapleton is deals leader and a member of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers’ UK management board.
Stapleton, 51, now oversees 2,500 people in the UK. One of the first deals partners to become a mother at PwC, she has been a UK partner since 2006 and has helped enforce change through programmes to keep skilled workers in careers after motherhood.
Working my first summer job straight out of school, I soon realised the huge energy, warmth and personality of Charlotte Good, who had set up two children’s party shops in London, Frog Hollow and Frog Frolics. My role was managing one of the shops but also creating balloon decorations for parties.
Charlotte was very organised, structured and empathetic in dealing with hyper-energetic people trying to run a party. She had an attitude that the customer came first and never questioned whether they were telling the truth or not if there was a problem. I learnt that having compassion and kindness, as well as a clear sense of direction, was equally important. Being late would simply damage your brand.
I personally placed high value on the experience of what I got out of my days. But the other thing I learnt early on was that I had a very low attention threshold and was easily bored with repetitive tasks. Mail order was new and she was always trying to push the boundaries of the business and extend the brand, but working in a shop was not something I wanted to do.
I guess it was a big leap going from balloon animals into accountancy.
I didn't do brilliantly academically and I knew that I wanted a professional qualification, but also to make up for the rebellious, fun years at school. I loved the idea of accountancy and wanted to join a big international business. What attracted me was that it’s a jobbing business. No one job is the same and you are constantly learning and developing at PwC. Not having one boss also means that you take the best bits of everybody.
I was conscious of a more inclusive workplace as I had always been in the minority, particularly in deals which has traditionally been a male environment. Sometimes it can work to your advantage as people remember you, but equally it can give you self-doubt or make you feel excluded socially.
It really struck me after I had my fourth child when I was building out a new healthcare team and had the opportunity to shape the team I wanted. I’m not a scientist and I needed people who knew what they were talking about as well as different skills and perspectives. It is now around 60 staff and I saw the impact and success the team was having.
I became a people partner for our transaction services in 2015 and each time it has given me a broader platform. I feel fortunate now that I can be myself and people want that authenticity.
When I first started out in the workforce, people who were considered stronger leaders were much more authoritarian and direct in the way they work. In today’s market environment, which is more complex and fast-changing, you still need someone who will steer the ship, but you need teamwork and collaboration, being able to take the best from everyone and create a course of action.
Our current leader of the firm, chairman Kevin Ellis, recently said it’s okay not to be the smartest person in the room. If you feel like you want to be the smartest, the chances are you will have a fixed mindset and that won’t stand you in good stead.
From a strong leader perspective, I remember around three years in questioning if this is the place I wanted to stay. One partner said, ‘Take the path less travelled, do the thing you want to do. If you're passionate and believe in yourself, you will be successful.’
I’ve always had a slight imposter syndrome. When I took on my current role, a colleague told me that it was actually a strength and what was driving me on every day. Every time I speak to other women now it puts a much more positive spin on something I feel is a negative holding me back, that it is actually a strength.
Back in 2004, there was no maternity policy or structure for partners. As an employee you have rights but as a partner the rules are different. What I can now bring to the next generation is the experiences I have had and how to make life a bit easier.
We can see a lot of women coming up to their late twenties and starting to think about a different career. We have brought in the deals advanced programme, understanding the female's needs at that point of time and helping in self development.
Equally, coming back from maternity leave is such a life-changing event, yet the business carries on regardless. Returning mothers must think ‘wow, my life has turned upside down and I have all these responsibilities; will I still be the employee I was before I left?’ Often the answer is no but actually you would be a better employee; there is more balance, different perspectives and you bring something else into the workforce.
We have noticed that people feel isolated so we have created cohorts; we see now in deals that people are staying longer. The number of people who come through to partner in deals who are female was 40% last year — I‘d love to get that to 50-50 but we are heading in the right direction with some of the interventions we are making.
It is fair to say I still enjoy birthdays too — my 50th was last year — while the customer-centric focus has stuck with me over 25 years with PwC, although I am more prepared to challenge my clients around certain assumptions. The empathy aspect in business is important, too. When you turn up at a kids’ party and are faced with a highly-stressed mother, you wonder why you are bearing the brunt of this. The right thing to do is to be empathetic and not to take that burden on yourself, although they have manifested themselves in a different way today.