Brigadier Nicky Moffat CBE, formerly the highest-ranking woman in the British army, is a top International Women’s Day speaker and leadership consultant. With decades of military experience, Nicky developed a keen understanding of inclusive leadership and high-performance teamwork, skills she continues to develop as the founder of What Good Leadership Looks Like. In this exclusive interview, Nicky reflects on the importance of belonging in a male-dominated environment and reveals what a good leader looks like.
The military appears incredibly masculine, did you feel a pressure to fit in and conform to that environment?
“Back in 1985, it was very much a case of wanting to fit in, wanting to prove yourself. You wanted to prove your credibility and you don't want to let your colleagues down.
“I certainly found having done that and then having proven myself and grown in confidence and knowledge and credibility and so on, I was able to be more myself.
“I mean, what the military does in training is it sort of breaks you down - I don't mean that in a really negative way, it breaks you down so you can contribute as part of an effective team.
“Once you've done that and you've proved yourself, then the military encourages people to bring their personalities to the fore.”
What message do you have for women wanting to break into male dominated environments?
“I think the first thing I would say is, it's really important to fit in - I would say that to a man too. When you're starting out in your first job or seeking to join another company or industry, fitting in is really important.
“The second thing - I would again say this to a man too - you've got to master your brief. I know that's masculine language, but the bottom line is you've got to know your stuff.
“So, that leads me to ‘contribution’, it's really important to make an impact, make your mark. A lot of that comes from contributing to the debate, asking questions, and being visible. I don't mean that in a pointy-elbowed type of way, it's just really important to engage and add value.
“The next thing I would say is seek out opportunities. You might find yourself in a world where the opportunities aren't coming in your direction, so find ways to show your capability to people in positions of responsibility or power. That might mean seeking out a mentor or someone who's going to sponsor you or support you, who will speak up for you behind closed doors.
“In my experience, and certainly in the military, I think women are less pushy than men. When I was working in the Army's personnel centre, there was one guy in particular who I recall was always putting himself forward and saying, ‘I'd like that job’, or ‘I should be promoted’.
“The conversation when he started doing that was, ‘so and so is pushing for another promotion again’, but there wasn't a sense that he was necessarily the person who should be promoted. And then, after a few months, the conversation changed to, ‘we must get this chap a job at the next rank!’
“I think it's just useful to know that if you're idling along and somebody else has got their foot on the gas alongside you, in terms of trying to own and promote their own career, then they'll fly past you and you'll be held back.”
What does a good leader look like to you?
“That's a really interesting question!
“I think for me, leadership isn't about rank, status or position, or being the director of this or the head of that, it's about your ability to take other people with you on a journey.
“That means you must have a clear vision, a strategy, and resourced plans. The absolutely critical thing in a leader is the ability to ensure that you communicate really effectively to the individuals who are going to implement the plans, and importantly, to empower the individuals who are, frankly, in the engine room of the organisation.”
What is the most important quality of a leader?
“One of the most important qualities of a leader is emotional intelligence, the ability to recognise that people process things in different ways and therefore, find ways to bring those people on board.
“There's always going to be some people who have the same thinking and motivations as me as a leader, but just because the others don't it doesn't mean they're not great employees!
“It just means that I've got to find another way to reach them, to give them time to process the change and then to encourage them to come on board with the journey. When we talk about diversity, it's not just about Black, White, gay, straight, male, female and so on. It's about people who lead differently, react differently and think differently.”