18 Dec Claire Spedding, National Grid ESO
What job do you do and what do you love about it?
As Balancing Programme Director for the GB electricity system operator I look at how the system and market will evolve in the future. I consider what this means for the controllability of the system and obeying the laws of physics, and what changes we might need to make to embrace and facilitate the transformation. I love National Grid. Every day as I walk into the control room I get a little buzz! I get so much satisfaction from knowing that what I am doing contributes to an essential service that impacts the lives of everyone in this country and that I’m working in an organisation full of people that feel the same way.
My typical day starts at 5.45 with a mad dash to get myself and my daughter ready, drop her to the child-minder and then jump on a train or into the car to Wokingham, London or Warwick. The first thing I do is check my emails for anything urgent that has come in overnight. After that, my days normally consist of a lot of meetings, although if I’ve been organised I will also have blocked out sessions in my diary just to chat to people in the office. If I have to pick my daughter up I leave in time to grab her at 4.30 and my day ends with organising my emails for tackling tomorrow.
“I feel it is my duty to repay some of that fortune, and fight for equality for young women early on in their career.”
Tell us a bit about your background and your career path.
I’m from a working class background; I really wanted to be a lawyer but was unsure about the financial commitment associated with a law degree so I studied Business and Law at university, working part time to fund it. I did a year’s work experience at Transco (which became National Grid) as part of my degree and worked on the regulatory disposal of their LNG assets. That got me completely hooked on National Grid; I got to employ the legal training I had but in a business context. So I stayed there whilst I finished my degree and then joined the Graduate Training Scheme. Sixteen and a half years later I’m still here and love it just as much as the day I started!
In the early years of my career I established myself as a regulatory and commercial expert in the Gas Transmission side of the business and then spent a few years working on the RIIO-T1 price control, which spanned the entire business and gave me an overview of all aspects of running a FTSE 250 company. When I returned from having a baby I was really keen to challenge myself and do something different so I transferred to the Electricity Transmission System and into large team management and operational roles. It’s where I discovered my passion.
“I love National Grid. Every day as I walk into the control room I get a little buzz!”
What has been your personal experience of climbing the career ladder?
I have to admit I never actively planned my career – and haven’t consciously been aware of any bias. I have kept my head down and worked hard, built a large network of contacts and always spoken up for what I think is right. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that I have always pushed myself, seeking out challenges to keep expanding my mind. Also, unfortunately, I can also now see that there is unconscious bias – and even sometimes overt sexism – in our industry and that this holds women back. From being wolf-whistled walking out onto a panel discussion (yes that has happened) to being expected to ‘take a step back’ once I’d had a child, expectations, assumptions and general ignorance are everywhere.
Early in my career I didn’t acknowledge this; I largely sneered at female action groups as playing the victim. One day I went to hear an extremely well-known and successful female business leader in the City that changed my perception immediately. She too had thought stories about bias were over the top. Then she looked at some data – and realised “those stats don’t lie”. I did the same and since then I’ve been vocal on gender equality.
I have been lucky and risen to a senior position. Career highlights include representing National Grid in the London 2012 Olympics control room, leading a high-performing deal team and delivering multi-million pound revenue opportunities. I feel it is my duty to repay some of that fortune, and fight for equality for young women early on in their career. So I’m delighted to work at National Grid, which has strong links with POWERful Women and takes issues of diversity and equality seriously, and I take a specific interest in talking to women returning from maternity leave.
“As an industry, however, there is still a disappointing lack of progression of women to senior roles and this needs to be acknowledged – and then tackled head on.”
What kind of support have you found helpful in advancing your career?
I have always had a wide network of internal and external mentors but formal relationships with set agendas and regular meetings just don’t work for me. I find it much more useful to seek out someone I think can support me in a particular situation. That said, I have had some amazing managers who I can look at and say … you taught me this; from how to be more patient with others to how to engage a room of 700 people. I’ve also worked for some less effective managers, but I have still taken away an awful lot from each relationship.
The single most significant up-skilling that has made me who I am is learning how to coach properly. I really believe this turned me from a good manager to a great leader. It taught me how to give boundaries and space to my teams, to let them learn to find ways through things themselves knowing I was there as a safety net to catch them if required.
“Learn who you are yourself – what your strengths and character traits are – and be comfortable with those.”
What advice would you give to aspiring women in the energy sector?
My top 3 tips would be:
- Don’t compare yourselves to others! Everyone has different motivations and boundaries. Yes, sure, look around and find aspects in people that inspire you, but learn who you are yourself – what your strengths and character traits are – and be comfortable with those. Then decide your own priorities and define a set of rules to achieve them.
- Do not feel like you have to behave like one of the boys – diversity in decision-making leads to better business results. You can capitalise on this by bringing a different perspective to the business so embrace it!
- Support other women in their career journey. Not only is this immensely satisfying but you can develop your own style by forming close relationships that are two-way, where you receive valuable mentoring and coaching too.
“The single most significant up-skilling that has made me who I am is learning how to coach properly.”
What do you think about the current state of play on gender diversity in UK energy?
Gender diversity has very rightly been identified as an issue. POWERful Women, RenewableUK and EnergyUK are all very vocal proponents of increasing diversity and have huge successes behind them. Organisations like National Grid also recognise the need to improve and it’s great to see strong and public commitments being made. As an industry, however, there is still a disappointing lack of progression of women to senior roles and this needs to be acknowledged – and then tackled head on.
If Claire’s story resonates with you and you would like to enquire about being mentored by her, complete the application form here mentioning your interest in Claire Spedding as a potential mentor.