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Women Of The C-Suite: Claire Shepherd Of Unispace On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive

An Interview With Sara Connell

Learn to set boundaries. When I was younger, I was really bad at setting boundaries between work and life, both socially and hours worked. I often put work ahead of friendships and health. When I started to get more senior the pressure led to me almost burning out and I realised that boundaries were really important for mental health.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Claire Shepherd, COO of Unispace.

Claire Shepherd has more than twenty years of experience in corporate operations and is currently the COO of Unispace, a global strategy, design and construction firm. Previously Claire was the COO for FCDO Services, a trading fund of the U.K. government, and she held senior positions at Cushman & Wakefield and CBRE. In addition to her experience in the real estate industry, she worked in director roles at Credit Suisse and Deloitte.

She has a passion for making organisations work more effectively, with people at the heart of how she thinks. Having started in the facilities management field she believes the foundations she gained in that discipline prepared her for the wide-ranging activities required of a COO.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

As a teenager, I gravitated to maths and chemistry in school and I was set on a career as a research scientist. However, part way through my chemistry degree, I realised that it was most definitely not what I wanted to do. Feeling a little lost, I went in an entirely new direction and ended up working for a wine merchant as part of a graduate training scheme. The organisational and communication skills I learned on the job there prepared me for my next role — in facilities management, which was the first of many roles I had in the real estate industry. As a member of a client-facing team, I was oftentimes thrown in the deep end — solving problems outside of my core role. This meant that very early on I was exposed to the elements of a typical COO role — including risk and stakeholder management. I really enjoyed this work and became passionate about organisational transformation. This led me to much larger organisations, and I began to build competency in new areas such as target operating models, change management and strategy. Looking back, I realise now that these were the building blocks for a COO role. My exposure to industries outside core real estate companies also helped me develop in this role as each organisation had a different way of operating. In my first board COO role, I was responsible for the end-to-end management of the business from sales right through to delivery. Working in the government also improved my ability to adapt my communication style to stakeholders who had different priorities than for-profit organisations.

Working in diverse settings in the early stages of my career and keeping an open mind about new opportunities — both in work scope and industry type — led me to find a career I’m passionate about and enabled me to grow and develop across the many areas a COO can be involved in within an organisation.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

At Unispace, there is a palpable passion for what we’re trying to build as a company. The team’s commitment comes through in every country we operate and in every function. They inherently understand that the physical workspace they’re creating for clients is critical to creating an environment for collaboration, socialization and connection that keeps employees and customers connected to the purpose of the organisation — and that gives us purpose at Unispace, too.

While Unispace is in the business of helping clients create a sense of belonging and inclusion for their employees, it’s clear they walk the talk in their own organisation. I experienced it first-hand just a short time into my tenure. Unispace’s inclusive “One Team” culture shines through in the commitment of the people but also on a personal level in the way I have been embraced by the company. Through the Unispace Women’s Employee Resource Group, the company is actively looking to attract, develop, retain and empower professional women and champion women leaders. Women now hold more than 40% of senior leadership positions at the firm, a number that far surpasses commercial real estate industry averages.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When sending out RFPs, controlling the flow of information is critical. Eighteen years ago, I sent an email to potential project bidders in one sweep — and everybody knew who they were competing against. It was a hard fought lesson but one I practice every day: Don’t add contacts to the “TO” and “CC” lines in an email until after you’ve written the text in the body email! More broadly, attention to detail is a critical skill no matter what your job title. Taking time upfront to think through possible scenarios and plan accordingly can save a lot of headaches down the line.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been lucky enough to have a number of influences in my career — both people that were in it for a short time but also those that influenced me for a longer period. One person that always stands out in my memory is career coach, Liz Kentish. She worked with me a point in time where I was trying to work out which career path I wanted to take. She helped me distill all the things I enjoyed, enabling me to focus my career on becoming a COO. I highly recommend engaging a career coach to help you get to the next level, but also look for a revolving group of mentors within your organisation and industry; you will need people with different skill sets during your career.

As you know, the United States is facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

In my experience, having genuine diversity across our executive teams has been a major driver in the company’s success; there is more rigor to strategy discussions and problem solving when people with different experiences and viewpoints come together. Neurodiversity is an area Unispace is exploring as part of its “Belonging” initiative (details below) and I have first-hand knowledge about why this is important. I’m dyslexic, which means that I approach problem solving in a different way. I really believe this has empowered me as a COO — I identify risks and opportunities by connecting disparate dots across functions and regions, which can bring a different perspective to the table. I encourage leaders to read the book, “Dyslexia is my Superpower” for a nuanced understanding of how to attract neurodiverse employees and to learn more about the value they can bring to teams. For example, neurodiverse people often stumble when they go through the traditional hiring process of completing forms and checking boxes, even though their experience and skills could be an excellent match for the organisation. Rethinking all aspects of your business to make it more equitable — starting with the hiring process — will have long-term benefits for the organisation. When it comes to having a diverse executive team, it’s important to remember that inclusion isn’t just about everyone getting a seat at the table — it’s about making sure everyone gets the mic. The organisations that address representation, equity, inclusion, and belonging in their workforce and workplaces will be the ones that will succeed: Multiple studies show that feelings of belonging and inclusion are linked to substantial increases in job performance and decrease turnover risk.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

We recently added “Belonging” to our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion journey to underscore that Unispace is committed to providing a place where everyone feels safe to be their authentic selves, everyday. We amplify this DEIB company value in external and internal communications but we know it requires more than just talking about it and setting targets. Each organisation needs to consider how its entire framework — from policies through to the training programs — creates a culture of belonging. Leaders need to be prepared to answer the tough questions — and truly reckon with whether they disproportionally benefit or harm one group over another. This can help build the right actions and behaviours. People need to feel comfortable constructively challenging a company’s actions, no matter how well-intentioned, and leaders need to act to resolve injustices.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

While a COO’s responsibilities differ by firm, the one trait that all leaders in this role must have is to act as a counter-balance — coaching their peers in the C-Suite on the risks associated with proposed strategic initiatives and how it’s likely to impact the organisation over the long-term. In addition to being adept at “crystal-balling,” the COO’s other main focus is to drive excellence in execution and enable the organisation to deliver its current core services in the best way possible. For example, in the M&A process, the COO is responsible for integrating the acquiree into the organisation’s corporate structure. Along with other C-suite executives, the COO is there to deliver on the CEO’s vision. The COO helps the CEO to define strategy and provide counsel on how it aligns with current operating models.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

The first myth is that there is a standard job for a COO! My own two COO jobs varied widely so I am able to bust this myth easily! The other myth is that being an executive is just a more senior version of a job. This thinking inadequately prepares people for the additional responsibilities that an executive has, particularly around considerations of the company over department.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I think the biggest challenge in this area is summed up an Atlantic article from 2012, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. The premise of the article is that women executives face different challenges than their male counterparts due to society’s expectations that they continue to fulfil traditional wife and child-rearing responsibilities. Maintaining these stereotypical gender roles — that both society and we ourselves construct around us — means that we constantly feel guilty that we are letting somebody down — whether it’s our family or our co-workers. Instead we need to give ourselves a collective break; challenge the status quo and understand that this social contract is outdated.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

My career path has been defined by ‘expecting the unexpected’– no two COO roles have been alike. As Unispace is an incredibly innovative company, the leadership team gave me autonomy to define my role; they trusted that I had the experience to come into the role and understand where I would need to focus by identifying the strengths and weaknesses across the organisation. Having worked in more hierarchical organisations in the past, it was refreshing to be part of a company with this more entrepreneurial approach.

Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

A specific trait that successful executives have in common is that they understand that the further you rise up the ranks, the more high-pressured the job. As a leader you have to develop ways to manage the pressure or you will quite simply, burn out. Furthermore, successful executives are the ones that are able to act decisively; they understand that they are the stewards of the whole organisation, not just a siloed department, and that will mean having to make difficult decisions and sacrifices for the benefit of the entire company.

There are other specific traits that I think are important: leadership, communication (and the ability to adapt your style depending on the audience), and a strong ability to understand data and information to make sound business decisions. When it comes to leadership, it’s not a “one-size-fits–all” approach to managing people — the most successful executives are ones that can empathize and tailor their coaching style based on direct reports’ personalities and motivations.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Communicate Communicate Communicate, build trust and take the time to understand how your team works to get the best out of them, engage their ideas, be transparent and have clear vision and goals for them to work towards.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. You don’t need to have the answer to everything straight away.

In my very early days whenever I was asked a question I always wanted to have an answer for my boss and not ever have to say, “leave that with me and I’ll get back to you.” I think I was applying my approach at university to always wanting to have answers for tutors in the office. I was lucky to have a boss that gave me constructive feedback, which helped me self-reflect on the trait. I keep to this principle today, where I’m much more comfortable seeking out others’ counsel when I don’t know the answer.

2. Take the time to understand the culture of the company you are joining.

There was one job offer I turned down in my career because I was unsure if I suited the company’s culture. I was then persuaded to join. However, I realised very quickly that I had been right, and it wasn’t the place for me. I strongly believe that the interview process is a two-way street no matter what stage you are at in your career; vetting the company for cultural fit is critical.

3. Careers aren’t always in a straight line.

The first part of my career I thought I had it all mapped out — I had thought through all the steps I wanted to take based on where I wanted to get to. Looking back now, this over-planning caused me to narrow my career focus. I was very fortunate at this time to have my first career coach who challenged my thinking and helped me think both bigger and not set limits to my ambitions.

4. Learn to set boundaries.

When I was younger, I was really bad at setting boundaries between work and life, both socially and hours worked. I often put work ahead of friendships and health. When I started to get more senior the pressure led to me almost burning out and I realised that boundaries were really important for mental health.

5. Find something you enjoy outside of work.

Having a hobby (which for me combines with exercise nowadays) is a really good way to have something to focus on other than work; it helps you make friends and supports your wellbeing. This is especially important in your younger years when you are building your social network outside of work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I could inspire one movement, it would be awareness and acceptance of the strengths of neurodiverse people rather than focusing on their weaknesses. I believe embracing these differences would make us stronger as a society and companies would benefit by engaging people who can approach problems and opportunities by applying a different way of thinking. We don’t celebrate it enough. Specifically and personal to me, I want to make it okay for people to say, “I am Dyslexic,” no matter who you are or what you do.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I would love to meet Rosalind Brewer, the current CEO of the Walgreens Boots Alliance. At a young age, she had a proclivity for maths and science and earned a Chemistry degree. I was on the same path when I was young, and I would love to talk to her about how she used that knowledge to get into business and become a CEO.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Sara Connell

Sara Connell

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