Women in Leadership: Andrea Cartwright, Supergroup - Primeast

As part of Primeast's Women in Leadership series, we interviewed Andrea Cartwright, group HR director for Supergroup. Andrea shared with us her journey, the challenges she's encountered as a female leader, and her tips for those looking to get to the top.

Primeast (P): Explain to us your current role and a bit about your team.

Andrea Cartwright (AC): I'm currently the HR director for Supergroup. We're probably best known for our apparel brand Superdry. I have a team of HR generalists and a number of specialists in the team ranging from business partners, and learning and development, to resourcing and rewards specialists.

P: You come from a finance background, so tell us about your journey and how you got to where you are now?

AC: It's probably worth going right back to the beginning. I chose not to go to university. I'd had enough of education, I wanted to work. Whilst studying I worked on the checkouts in a supermarket and I absolutely loved that environment. On the back of that I was successful securing an A-Level training scheme at Fine Fare, which sadly doesn't exist anymore. So that's where my career started and I learnt from the shop floor up the basics about food retailing, stock, management, cash management, people management and quite early on in my career started running small operational teams in stores.

At the end of the programme I became a store manager and I ran a couple of small stores. I was quite young at this point, 20 or 21. I said at the time I never wanted to go into HR, or personnel as it was then, because there was a dreadful role model in one of the stores that I'd worked in. As luck would have it, I kind of drifted into a HR type role by being invited to become a regional training manager in London. A real challenge for a west country girl, moving to the outskirts of London, visiting lots of stores. I then joined Tesco and I stayed for 13 years. Initially as personnel manager in some of their big stores; I opened a number of stores from scratch. I then went into head office and did more employee relations type roles, I looked after ER for the whole group, which at the time was 160,000 employees from what I remember.

I would have been 28/29 at the time. One of the great things about retailing is it's about doing a great job, proving yourself, and you can come through the ranks very quickly if you are prepared to work hard and be flexible. I moved house four or five times for Tesco over the years so I could take that next job that came up.

During that time I had two kids. I had my daughter quite young when I was 24. Four and a half years later I had my son and actually for most of my career I've been a single parent.

After some time at Tesco I then was approached about a role at Barclays. Having worked in retail for all of my career, the opportunity to do something different was one that couldn't be turned down. I went into Barclays to be head of their employee relations legal function, so the same role as the one I'd done at Tesco, which was a bizarre experience having come from retail. Retail is a lean, mean operating machine and going to a very wealthy bank that had more money than it could possibly spend was a culture shock really. I was based in the City at this time which was an experience in itself.

In the end I only worked for Barclays for about a year because I was approached to go back into a generalist HR role for AXA, the life and pensions business. The role was down in Bristol close to my home town of Trowbridge in Wiltshire. It was a good opportunity to do a more autonomous role and be a little bit closer to my parents so they could give me a bit of help running the family. I relocated back to the south-west and worked for AXA where I was Head of HR.

My daughter was then going to be 13 the following year and I had a bit of a 'oh my god my kids are growing up really fast and I'm never around for them moment'. I left AXA with no job to go to but I had the intention of setting up a consultancy business, which I did. I ran the business for five years while my kids were in their core teens. This was a great experience and gave me the opportunity to work with a really diverse range of business in private, public and the third sector.

I was then approached by Nationwide and it was just an opportunity I couldn't turn down. It was interesting, they'd had a lot of problems with falling employee engagement levels and wanted somebody to go in and run all of their corporate HR functions, so reward and employer relations, but have an overarching brief in terms of how do you raise the bar on engagement throughout the business.

I really really enjoyed my time at Nationwide. I'd been careful about choosing an employer after working for myself for so long. In truth I never thought I'd work for anybody again but their values aligned with mine. I joined them six weeks after Northern Rock collapsed so it was a pretty momentous time to put it mildly but I felt that business had the right level of integrity and trust and that it would see that period through - which it did of course with flying colours. It was a really tough period to be in financial services.

I worked for Nationwide for almost five years before being approached about becoming Supergroup's first ever HR Director. I'd have given my right arm to go back and work for a retailer again and it's a brand that's just so exciting. I absolutely love my job. Over the past two years I have had the opportunity to apply everything I know about Leadership and HR but in a very pragmatic, modern way. In many ways it's been a startup role.

There was nothing to unpick really so I've been able to take everything I've learnt in my HR career and bring it to something new, something fresh and something absolutely right for this business because it's quite an unusual business. What you've got here is a business that's been built out of nothing over a period of ten years, particularly in the last five years, and you've got two founders still very much at the helm of the business. You've got a very entrepreneurial led business that is a PLC and you can imagine the challenges of all those things coming together. When I was offered the job, my kids joked at the time that I became the coolest mother on the planet overnight!

P: What have been the main challenges in your career?

AC: I never had huge career aspirations - I've always had a philosophy that I'm going to really enjoy what I do and you tend to enjoy things that you're good at. I suppose the biggest challenge I've had is just really juggling work and life. A lot of people have said 'how have you done that?', especially being a single parent. Well you just kind of get on with it. You have to be good at planning and organising and I cooked excessively on a Sunday to make sure we had meals for every day of the week because I'm one of these people that would never allow ready meals to cross my threshold at home. I don't think I've ever experienced any challenges specifically because I am a woman; I've never not been offered a job because I was a woman or not offered an opportunity specifically because I was a woman.

I have a theory that one of the reasons we don't have as many women in leadership is because women have more choices than men do. Often we're not the main breadwinner and we've got a partner or a husband who provides the income and we've had the privilege to look over the parapet at these big jobs and go why would I want to do that. There are so many sacrifices that you have to make and it's ok for a woman to make that choice but sadly it's still difficult for a man to make that choice, even if they really wanted to. I know society is changing but I still think there is a stereotypical view that men should progress and they have to keep their careers on the road and that still isn't wholly the case for women and that is a privilege really that we should hold onto.

P: If you could do one thing differently what would it be?

AC: I would have been around a bit more for my kids, definitely. I have people in my team at the moment who are expecting babies and they ask how have you done what you've done and my personal view is that when they're little, childcare is easier - it's expensive - but they need full time care, you know where they are, that's it. The older they get, the less you know where they are, the less they want someone around looking after them and the challenge is 'oh there's a day off school' or the holidays and that sort of stuff just gets harder and harder the older they get. And also the care that they need when they're little, of course it's emotional but it's mainly the physical stuff. As they get older they just want you around a bit more. They don't necessarily want to talk to you but they just want you around. I'm quite looking forward to being a granny one day because I can do it all again in a different way.

P: So how did you manage to balance your life with your career?

AC: You have to be organised and actually in some ways that was almost easier on my own because you weren't relying on anybody else to forget, you had to do it yourself. And I survived because I had a nanny until they went to school and I've had some really fantastic au pairs over the years. Much to my neighbours' amusement they were often lads because lads tended to be able to drive but the girls never could. And it worked really well for me having an au pair because I needed someone who could live in because of the odd night I'd be away.

P: Did you have any flexible working?

AC: No, nothing formal. Clearly I always worked with people that had that sort of give and take so I could go to the odd thing at school. I do remember going to a mothers and daughters pizza evening once and we excused ourselves not very late in the evening as I had to get an early flight the next day and one of the other mothers said "oh, you work!" I thought there's a whole other world out there that I've never had any experience of really.

Early on in my career not long after I'd had my daughter I remember telling my mum I'd got a significant pay rise to which she responded "well you'll never give up work now will you". I had to remind my mum that was never in my head. Funny that she had a perception that I would settle down and stop working. However, now she says she's really envious and proud of what I've achieved.

P: What would be your key tip for women aspiring to be leaders?

AC: That's an easy one and it's the same for men - be yourself. It's that authenticity, don't try to pretend you're a bloke or you're something that you're not. You have to be really credible and really reliable, then everything else sort of falls into place.

P: What are your future aspirations?

AC: I don't have any great career plans really, they just sort of come along at the right moment. I've got a lot of work to do here. We'll double in size over the next five years, which doesn't leave me short of things to do. I have an ambition to sail across the Atlantic with my husband at some point, so I'd quite like to stop working for at least a while - I'm not sure I'll ever stop working but pausing sometime would be nice to do. I kind of take it as it comes. I certainly wouldn't want to be a CEO or anything. I'm passionate about HR, that's my thing.

For more inspiration from women in leadership, see the interviews with "Women in Leadership interview, Nancy Mattenberger, VP global consulting services, Infor" and Pauline Yau, Director of Central Government for Microsoft UK',

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