Gillian Shields spoke to the Irish Independent to share some of the achievements of our Inspire Network

In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook

Sheryl Sandberg first wrote those words back in 2013, but they are still just as relevant today. Yes, female leadership is on the rise but often women need support to get to where they want to be.

One company that is championing gender diversity in Ireland is Coca‑Cola HBC, the bottling company responsible for the manufacture, distribution and sale of a wide range of iconic beverages on the island.

We caught up with co-founder of the Inspire Network Gillian Shields to find out how her career and leadership skills have blossomed during her time with the company, and why she saw the need to develop a new platform to support more employees, like her, to succeed

I always wanted to work for Coca‑Cola HBC, I went to the primary school near the Coca‑Cola facility and was always fascinated by what went on inside, a bit like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! Gillian Shields, Inspire Network Co-Founder

Today, she has been with the company for over 16 years.

“I began working for Coca‑Cola HBC in early 2003 as a market developer within the commercial team. I then moved into the public affairs and communications function later that year and was subsequently promoted to the role of community affairs manager in 2014. Then last year I took on a new packaging and sustainability role."

Development opportunities

Her ability to pivot during her career is thanks to Coca‑Cola HBC’s excellent development opportunities.

“We have a strong leadership pipeline," she explains. “We encourage people to embrace opportunities that will support personal and professional development. Coca‑Cola HBC offers a range of training and acceleration programmes across all leadership layers within the organisation, for those who want to develop and progress their career."

The opportunity to grow and develop is part of the reason why Gillian has stayed with the company for such a long time.

I have stayed for 16 years because the company is very focused on talent development. I began my career in business administration but through accessing the right learning and development programmes, at the right time, I have progressed into a senior managerial role.

As a result, Gillian wanted to support more people to achieve their career goals and empower other females within the organisation to take ownership of their career journey. So, she decided to co-found the Inspire Network.

Creating the Inspire Network

“I have always felt supported through my career journey and empowered to embrace new opportunities and I wanted to offer others the same support that I benefited from," she enthuses.  “We also have clear targets from our parent group to achieve gender diversity at management level. So, we developed the Inspire Network for the Irish business back in 2016 to support this agenda."

What exactly is the Inspire Network? In a nutshell, it is a learning and development forum established to encourage and support all employees to excel personally and professionally, whilst striving for gender balance at management level.

 It also aims to create a working environment where females can significantly contribute to and drive profitable growth of the business.

“It’s something I am very passionate about," explains Gillian. “In my own career, I had a bit of a slow start. That was due to a lack of confidence. With some encouragement from my line managers over the years, I began to really evaluate what I wanted out of my career and this inspired me to start setting goals to help me achieve my ambitions."

At the moment, the Inspire Network is led by two co-chairs, with 10 dedicated steering committee members who meet on a monthly basis. The initiative is also sponsored by three senior management team members.

“We reached out to a committee of 10 females who were either just transitioning into management roles or were in senior management already. With that committee we then developed the platforms that we wanted to focus on," she explains. “They include showcasing role models, reframing leadership and communication styles, and building confidence and resilience."

“I wish I had the Inspire Network about 10 years ago," she explains. “I have had many career highs and lows, as have most people, but when I came back to work after having my son, I had a crisis of confidence. It had very much been a conscious choice to go back to work, but my attitude had changed. I realised that if I was going to be spending time away from my son I needed to be sure that I was making a real difference."

 

The importance of female leadership

Why do we need networks like this? Well, Gillian believes that it makes commercial sense.

“We know from external research that companies with females in top-ranking positions tend to be more successful and have greater employee retention, which is a priority for us," she explains. “It also improves staff morale across the board."

 “Having a better gender balance at boardroom level also helps to redefine the culture of an organisation. It inspires a more collaborative, open-minded workplace where men and women can all excel to move the business toward greater profitability."

Since 2016, the percentage of women in ‘manager of others’ roles at Coca‑Cola HBC increased from 35 to 45pc and women in ‘manager of mangers’ positions increased from 24 to 32pc.

  • 45% women in 'manager of other' roles
  • 32% women in 'manager of manager' roles

The Inspire Network hopes to continue to shift the dial on gender diversity with an ambition that 50pc of managerial roles will be held by women by 2025.

In 2019, Coca‑Cola HBC also became proud members of the ‘30pc Club Ireland’, a business network with a goal to achieve better gender balance at all levels in leading Irish businesses.

The 30pc Club believes that gender balance on boards and executive leadership not only encourages better leadership and governance, but further contributes to better all-round board performance, and ultimately increased corporate performance for both companies and their shareholders.

Read more about Gillian's story on Independant.ie