Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and currently director of Themba HQ. She delivered a keynote speech at Women in Leadership conference on her path to leadership as a woman, offering practical advice for delegates in promoting their leadership qualities.
Kirsty began by recalling an incident during her time as a councillor, where 13 year old children from a local school were asked to draw and describe their ideal councillor.
“95% said, ‘should be a fella’. 80% said ‘should be married’”, she explained. “These kids hate me!” she remembers thinking. “They don’t think I’m a leader! They don’t think I’m what leadership looks like”
But Kirsty went onto explain an important realisation. “Feedback should always be treated as interesting, but shouldn’t always be treated as important. You should never let people determine how you feel about yourself, and your ability to make a change”
Kirsty went on to give delegates practical advice for navigating patriarchal systems of power, and amplifying their own leadership qualities. This ranged from securing sponsorship from the most powerful figures in your field, to promoting your strongest skills rather than your least valuable.
“You will be less popular and attractive if you go for leadership”, she said. “If you run for election, some blogger is going to write about whether or not you have a good ass. That’s going to happen” But that doesn’t matter. The only approval you need, Kirsty said, is your own.
“If what matters to you is being popular, run to be prom queen. If what matters to you is changing people’s lives, run to be president”