'Maternity leave shouldn't hamper your career' - Claire Davenport

The managing director of VoucherCodes.co.uk on career breaks, 'date days' with her children and why computer science needs to get cooler.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 05 Jul 2016

You've taken VoucherCodes.co.uk from a founder-led startup to a mid-sized company. What advice would you give to other business leaders going through that process?

VoucherCodes.co.uk is the third startup I’ve joined soon after the founders have exited the company. There’s no magic formula for making the next stage of growth work - every market situation and team dynamic is different - but, based on my experiences (good and bad!), here are my tips:

* Listen to the team you've inherited and make sure you understand what's important about the company they’ve helped to build. You can decide whether or not to try to preserve these or change them, but at least understand the context.

* Delegate day-to-day decision making to the existing operating team and build their confidence in their ability to put their knowledge to use and make good decisions.

* Make sure you develop and communicate a clear strategy for the company's next phase of growth. It’s important for the team to have a direction to get behind. Bring in outside expertise – a high growth company will definitely have learnt a lot through trial and error coupled with the founders' talents, areas of expertise and good instinct. However, bringing in new ideas and best practices from elsewhere can add new insight and new avenues of growth.

* Start to act quickly. Founders often sell as their initial business model is maturing and you need decide what direction you are going to travel in, invest in key bets and get on with it from the get go to establish momentum

As a mother of two, how do you juggle your family and your career? 

It's no more difficult than for a working father of two! I’m lucky to have a great family set up, where my husband plays the role of primary carer, but I try to balance this by making sure I get home in time to put the kids to bed. I also like to book my kids in for 'date days' where we’ll do something fun, like go for dinner or go to the theatre, one-on-one. And, of course, we all spend quality time together at weekends, doing sport, relaxing together or visiting friends. 

What can be done to encourage more women into the tech sector?

To bring women into tech in the future, I think science and computer science subjects need to be made cooler in the eyes of school girls and there needs to be much greater visibility of female role models in the sector. Schools, parents, newspapers, magazines and social media influencers all need to be giving exposure to women in tech that girls can aspire to. Let's not underestimate how inspiring someone who can code their own website or app can be, for example. My daughters are nine and 11 and (this week) want to be engineers – I work hard to make sure that they hear a lot about female astronauts, engineers and business leaders.

For adults wanting to enter the tech sector as software or web developers, there's a huge number of coding courses available which can lead directly to careers. Many of these are free or low-cost and can be completed around work and family commitments. However, to encourage more women and men to retrain, companies need to make more entry roles available.

There are, of course, also many jobs in tech companies which don't require a specialist computer science, engineering or coding background. The tech industry needs to talk about the wide range of opportunities that exist in our sector to normalise the idea of working in tech and internet companies.

What's the biggest challenge facing women in business today?

Speaking to women in business over the past 20 years, my belief is that the biggest challenge today comes when children start to become part of the mix. At this point, women's career trajectories can really start to suffer – research from Women at Work shows that, on average, a woman's relative earning power declines from about 30 and then never catches up again! A significant contributing factor here is that, often, at least one parent will try to take a more flexible job to care for children or at least be able to pick them up from school. More often than not, it's the woman who takes on this commitment. As flexible jobs are more difficult to find, that main carer might find themselves taking a less challenging and less well remunerated role or stepping off the career ladder completely. The challenge we face as a society is to increase the availability of great flexible roles for those with childcare responsibilities.

As a general rule, businesses need to do a better job of providing a more flexible working situation for parents. Too much talent is going to waste. Although I've been quite lucky on this front myself, it's an issue I feel strongly about. Businesses can really benefit. Parents returning to work after a career break or reducing their hours to accommodate other responsibilities will often have many years of great experience under their belts. Many parents in this situation would actually be able to work a full time number of hours if they could have flexibility about exactly when and where. Technology, such as super-fast broadband, instant messengers and Skype, can facilitate this. We have had a great experience at VoucherCodes.co.uk, bringing in people after a multi-year career break and making the job suit the times they have available. It seems to have worked well for both sides. Businesses just need to think a bit more creatively about this. Until they do, this will remain a serious challenge for women in business careers.

What's the biggest challenge you've had to overcome personally, and how did you do it?

My biggest personal challenge was deciding to move into operating roles after 15 years in investment banking and strategy. I knew that one day I wanted to run a company, but I could see that the leaders I really admired had years of great operating experience behind them while I had none at that point.

It is quite hard to move into an operational role from a strategy background – it’s a different way of thinking, and it's tougher still at a senior level. There are so many challenges every day which I had not experienced at a more junior level and people were looking to me immediately to manage through. I had to be prepared to take some chances to get the experience I needed. I did lots of networking and was fortunate to find opportunities and people willing to take chances on me. But it did mean working extremely hard to prove myself, taking a job abroad twice, including a weekly commute to Germany for 18 months, as well as being prepared to take a salary hit for the right experience. 


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