Tuesday 15 October 2019

Siobhan Talbot: 'I don't believe in gender quotas – people should get jobs on merit alone'

Siobhan Talbot will become the first woman to take over the running of a public company in Ireland, having risen to the top of multi-billion-euro food company Glanbia. Here she writes about what it's like being a woman in the corporate world.

Siobhan Talbot
Siobhan Talbot
Glanbia CEO Siobhan Talbot

I DON'T have too much time for talk of crashing through glass ceilings. But I do recognise that, with my appointment as head of global food group Glanbia, I may be seen as something of a flag-bearer for women in business.

I think the worst thing one could ever be considered is a 'token female'. I am not a supporter of gender quotas and believe that people should get jobs on merit alone.

So, I am uncomfortable with being labelled as one of a rare breed of women in Ireland to have reached this position.

Regardless of gender, all of us have to overcome challenges to progress. Whether male or female, each of us has the opportunity to succeed in Irish society.

I think it is most often a matter of personal choice that women do not pursue the top jobs, board positions or senior political posts and oftentimes those choices are not easy.

The reality is that a woman with a family – and I have two teenagers – faces a massive challenge juggling all the pieces and needs a good infrastructure in order to progress. I have been very fortunate in this regard. It is not easy finding a work-life balance. You are juggling a lot to make sure you don't miss the birthday or to make the final of the hurling match.

It's all about support networks (my husband Billy is a great support, as is my mother), perspective and being organised. It was not always easy, but I have always loved what I do and I never found it a problem to get up and go to work. Also, I have always found Glanbia extremely supportive.

Yes, there have been challenges. As well as being a busy mother of Thomas and Alice, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2010. I got the news on a day when great results had been announced for Glanbia. I was group finance director at the time.

In a bizarre way, I consider myself very lucky as the cancer was found by a diligent doctor as part of a health check. I wouldn't have found it myself – I'm pretty sure of that. I was in chemotherapy until February 2011 and then had radiotherapy.

There were some days I felt drained and completely exhausted. I think if I wasn't busy, I would just have more time to contemplate and worry. It's almost a useful distraction.

Fortunately, I made a full recovery, and while I wouldn't like to go through it again, it has undeniably changed me and made me realise what is ultimately important. In truth, people will always sweat the little stuff but at the end of the day your health is everything and when you have that, combined with family and friends, you really do have everything.

I have always worked extremely hard and I'm highly motivated because I've always felt that none of us are owed our career. My advice is that one must have a goal and show you are capable of taking on that extra bit of responsibility. Plan for the next job all the time, don't sit back and wait for somebody to say, 'Are you ready?'

When it comes to role models, my mother is someone I have looked up to. My father, a dairy and cattle farmer, died when I was just 15, leaving my mother, a school teacher, to rear five children aged between two and 19. She suffered another huge loss when my brother died in an accident aged just 21.

Thankfully the environment has changed hugely for women in recent years and, in my experience, businesses are finally actively seeking to support career advancement regardless of gender.

Yes, more could still be done, but I am optimistic that today's generation of young girls, including my daughter, will wonder what all the fuss was about!

At the end of the day, we need men and women working together to advance society.

After over 20 years with Glanbia, I am still excited by this dynamic organisation. I am very lucky that I love my job. It does involve a lot of travel across Europe, North America and Asia given Glanbia's footprint and investor base, but I've gotten used to that, having previously had responsibility for our global strategy.

Yes, it is going to get even busier with this new appointment, but we have an excellent team and I look forward to leading our 4,900 employees worldwide.

The buck will stop with me when I become group managing director of Glanbia. There will be huge decisions to be made on acquisitions, capital expenditure, investor relations, not to mention strategic development. But I relish the challenge ahead and love the diversity in my work, from meeting farmers at a local area meeting to a huge institutional investor based in New York.

Most of all, it's an honour to have the trust of the board. I look forward to the transition with John, who has been a great mentor to me, and to taking up the role.

Irish Independent

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