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Profile - Olivia Garfield: A winning strategy pays off for a woman on her way to the top

At 35, Olivia Garfield is a group director at BT, the mother of two young children and wife to the owner of a small business.

So, is it possible to have it all? “I don’t love the phrase,” she said. “It implies you are opting for second best if you are not a happily married career woman with children, and I don’t think that’s true.

“Having said that, I think with the right support network you can have a happy family and a rewarding career but it is a constant juggling act.”

Ms Garfield has certainly tasted success in her career to date. After six years with management consultancy Accenture, the Cambridge graduate was headhunted to join BT and now occupies an influential position in the £20bn turnover business.

Although not on the main board, it is probably just a matter of time before she crosses that particular threshold. The issue of women in boardrooms is a hot topic at the moment, with a Government-commissioned review recommending that FTSE companies should aim to have a minimum of 25 per cent of women on their boards by 2015.

Would she support the move? “I think it’s great that the Government is actively encouraging more board diversity in UK businesses and the stats seem to imply that more energy is needed.

“Although personally I have to say that I have enjoyed fantastic support in my career and certainly never bumped into a glass ceiling at either BT or Accenture.”

You can see why. Ms Garfield comes over as a supremely confident and assured operator, strong on communication skills and commanding in her brief. And all delivered in double-quick time.

Describing her large role, she said: “I sit as a member of BT’s executive board. I look after strategy. I lead on setting the direction of the firm, globally. I look after our regulatory practice. I liaise with the regulator and industry and manage all things in that sense. I also look after policy. I run superfast broadband for the firm as well.”

Certainly a lot of things to juggle in the job alone, especially when you consider the size and scale of BT’s global operations. The company has 158,000 employees across the world and getting the best out of each and every one of those will be key to its success.

We talk in general terms about people management. What, I ask, is the best way to manage people successfully?

“Know the person,” she said. “The chance of motivating somebody to really work for you and to really give their best is negligible if you have never bothered to find out if they have got two kids, called Luke and Charlie, and they are aged four and six.

“You don’t have to know loads about them. You don’t have to become their friend. But you do have to have a sense of what’s going on in their lives.”

She added: “Once you understand the human side of people who work for you, you then get a sense of what motivates them. Just because cash motivates one, it does not motivate the next. Sublimally, you need to make sure you are adapting your communication style and your management style towards what that individual needs.”

Ok, but what is the best way to find out what motivates someone? By asking them? “They never tell you the truth!” she said.

“We all think we know ourselves, but we are not as self aware as we ever think so you have to build up a type. That’s why you have to watch.

“The more senior we get, there is a risk we speak too much and don’t listen enough. On management, just watch how the dynamics work and, typically, it comes out when you watch them with their peers.”

So what does Ian Livingstone, the chief executive of BT and her boss, believe motivates her?

She paused for thought and then said: “I’m quite competitive. He would definitely know that telling me somebody else had done a really good something would make me compete. I want to be the best of his team. If I have set a goal or target, I would not miss it.

“What he normally does is he pushes me to sign up to big ambitious goals knowing that I will become obsessed behind it. That motivates me.”

And what would her husband say? “He would definitely say ‘you are far too competitive’. Then ‘you have got to know one to recognise one’ is probably my reply. He would say I’m motivated by the fact someone would say ‘well done’ to me. That’s what my mum would say as well.

“I’m one of those people who need a ‘well done, Liv, that was a really good piece of work’, every so often.”

Ms Garfield is regularly mentioned as a name to watch in corporate Britain. Type her name into Google for some examples.

I ask if she would like Mr Livingstone’s job. “You can’t throw out your boss,” she laughed, before adding that her job is to make him successful. I follow this up with a question about her future ambitions.

“I don’t have a defined career plan as such. I just want to do a fantastic job, make change happen and am confident that will be accompanied by exciting opportunities.”

She recalled some advice given to her by a former boss: “Be careful what you wish for in your career. Don’t focus on the destination as being the prize. Instead, make sure you enjoy every second of the journey.”

Born and bred in Yorkshire, Ms Garfield was raised in Harrogate. Her parents run a project management and engineering business, Brentwood Design Partnership, where she helped out during school holidays.

She read German and French at Cambridge University, where she met her future husband. They were at neighbouring colleges, she at New Hall and he at Fitzwilliam. He went into investment banking, working at Rothschild and Deutsche Bank, and two years ago set up a property consultancy in London and is now experiencing the life of a small business owner.

She did the milk rounds at Cambridge and ended up with six offers. She chose Accenture, then Andersen Consulting, because it was full of people who looked like her. You can picture an army of fresh-faced, ambitious graduates with first-class degrees from elite universities, sent around the world to come up with solutions to problems at top companies.

BT was one of her client companies. The group invited her repeatedly to join. She initially said no, but spent some time mulling it over, before finally deciding to jump, motivated by a desire to both move away from working every weekend and wanting to “not just advise, but own the delivery”.

She explained: “Consultants don’t moan about the hours normally, they moan about the fact that they had the best idea ever but they gave it to their client and were told it wouldn’t work.”

She said: “BT gave me an amazing opportunity to become somebody I had not become before.”

 

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