By Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog
For London based Kelly Widelska, an Associate Director at Ernst & Young, knowledge really is power and has led to global opportunities. Following her Masters in Information Management from the University of Sheffield, Widelska joined the accounting giant’s EMEIA management consulting division for two years, prior to moving to Cap Gemini following the sell-off of E&Y’s consulting practice. A year later, she returned to the Ernst & Young fold and headed to China and Hong Kong, where she helped to set up and develop the Centre for Business Knowledge, an internal function for knowledge management, providing programmes, techniques and technologies to help E&Y staff share what they know.
After three years in China, her role expanded into the Far East, after which she returned to the UK in 2005 to a transaction advisory role in a country knowledge management capacity. Her next move saw a shift to a broader cross-firm position, supporting Global functional teams in areas such as Tax, Climate Change and Sustainability and People teams with their knowledge sharing needs. Widelska has been in her current role as Global TAS Knowledge Leader since 2009 and now leads a team of ten as part of a highly matrixed knowledge organisation.
When asked about her career and professional achievements, Widelska commented that she is: “Proud of my knowledge of and my understanding of the [Ernst and Young] global network and my ability to make it easier for people to navigate the firm and its resources.”
Ernst & Young was ranked in third place in 2011’s Stonewall Workplace Equality Index and Widelski, a current co-chair of her firm’s LGBT network, EYGLES, was a key contributor to the metrics and application process which led to this accolade. She also authored a piece of thought leadership on the power of an LGBT network, as a way of providing the firm’s partners with: “ Something tangible that they could read, take out and share with clients.”
Additionally, Widelska is part of Ernst & Young’s role model programme, “21 Women of the 21st Century” – an annual showcase of 21 women at all levels who serve as role models to others. As one of the Class of 2011, she was selected through a stringent peer and leadership process and is proud to act as a visible role model.
“I wish I’d understood the power of internal and external networks earlier in my career”, she continued.
“I only worked this out five years in and it would have been invaluable to have known a bit earlier. I also recommend developing sponsoring relationships in every role that you do and having the confidence to do so. It’s given me insightful feedback and a different view as to my performance and how I’m valued by the business – over and above a more formal framework. I now have access to senior leadership; I meet my sponsor on a weekly basis, a very senior man who’s generous with his time.”
Barriers, challenges and advice
Widelska paused to consider a question on challenges faced within her industry and suggested that “barriers often seem to be self belief and self confidence, especially if you’re operating in an environment which is very male normed. But, now that we’re inter-generational, we’re benefiting from the workplace pioneers and also seeing the Gen Y expectations of change, so that norms are being kicked away on a daily basis. I think progression in the future will be more rapid and these barriers will fall.”
Emphasising the career benefits from her own overseas experiences, Widelska urged younger women to “Take travel opportunities and learn about different cultures in an increasingly global world. See your career as a series of many different careers from which you will learn. Again, seek out sponsorship. Have male and female mentors who model the behaviours that you admire. Seek them out. Find balance in your life – it’s key. Take roles which excite you – you spend so long at work, you have to love what you do.”
Returning to the reference to workplace pioneers of an earlier generation, Widelska suggested that senior women in business should not shy away from being role models “Be fair and equal – challenge assumptions and accept that they may be different for younger women; be true to yourself but accept that you’re a role model and that you can have an impact. Younger women may not want to be you, but the fact that you’re there means a lot and is empowering to others.”
In addition to her role as a co-chair of the Ernst & Young LGBT network, Widelska is also on the committee of London based, pan-business group the Gay Women’s Network.
“I’ve always been out at work, including when I lived abroad. I’ve never hidden my life outside of work – it brings confidence and for me it’s crucial to bring your whole self to the office. Being out is a very personal decision and very confidence driven; I’ve seen many improvements in my eleven years in the professional services environment. Senior sponsorship and understanding has improved; for the employee networks, it’s no longer just about a group of people who get together just because they’re gay but is now about, liaising with clients, sharing our experiences, having a dialogue, and showcasing our cultural values and norms with the clients.
“In the future, I’m looking forward to engaging with our organisation around our focus on “inclusive leadership” and how the LGBT community specifically can support and drive the change necessary to be a part of an increasingly truly global business community.”