With over 18 years’ experience in finance and operations, Emma Charsley, Chief Operating Officer of management consultancy, Vendigital, has gained a wealth of expertise whilst supporting growing businesses in a variety of sectors. It is no secret, however, that being female in a male-dominated profession brings its challenges, so how has she navigated her way to the top and what has she learned along the way? CEO Monthly spoke with Emma to find out more about how she is helping to promote diversity and inclusion in the professional services sector.
I was fortunate to be the financial director of a Young Enterprise Company whilst doing my A-levels. I loved it and decided this was the career for me. After my degree, I gained an ACMA qualification and worked with several food businesses during the early part of my career, always with an emphasis on performance accounting. After working for a range of successful, fast-growth companies, it became clear that I thrived on introducing the right level of processes to drive effective business management and helping to solve challenges on a daily basis.
From the start, my role has spanned both finance and operations, very much focusing on driving business performance and increasing enterprise value. It is clear that the role of data has become increasingly critical to business performance – helping to set clear KPIs and report against them. As my career has evolved, fact-based decision making has changed the way Boards operate in a positive way. The breadth of management information that senior executives now have access to allows businesses to be more adaptable, as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic. At Vendigital, our adaptability allowed us to lead the business in a different way and adapt our practices when required.
While my career has involved working for businesses in many different sectors of industry, it is remarkable how many similarities there have been in terms of the challenges and opportunities they faced. It is interesting to see how transferable the skills are between professional services and consumer operations.
Promoting diversity and inclusion is important for every business, including professional services firms. As management consultants, the workforce at Vendigital is in a unique and privileged position; driving change and influencing the direction of businesses across multiple industry sectors. A diverse workforce makes room for more critical and creative thinking, leading to the better outcomes for clients. Project or business teams can get caught up in group thinking, missing a more holistic approach to problem solving. This is where a diverse workforce can help – different minds will pick up different details. Demonstrating leadership and taking on strategic roles are realistic goals for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity or socio-economic background. It has been great to see businesses start to realise the commercial value that comes from diverse teams.
I have never considered gender an important factor in influencing the trajectory of my career. That said, it is hard not to notice if you are the only female in the room. Being the only woman can sometimes be intimidating, and with that comes an added pressure to continually prove yourself. Despite this, being different can be a positive – like having a superpower. I believe this has helped me to find innovative solutions to business problems and to challenge the binary thinking that comes from teams that lack diversity.
There are various avenues to explore and lots of opportunities available. Managing a company’s finance and operations is an exciting career path, which will suit people who have a natural curiosity and an in-built interest in capturing business data and using it to problem solve and create opportunities for growth. It is important to approach your career in the right way – I have found that having a structure is most valuable and helps provide a sense of progression. Qualifications provide the perfect building block for your career, and then, for business and finance roles, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) offers qualifications that provide a good grounding in finance and business management.
The old adage ‘if you can see it, you can be it’ definitely rings true. Mentors can help inspire and show the next generation of business leaders what is possible. It is important that when you are starting out, you can see somebody you admire – male or female – someone who is encouraging and recognises your potential. I enjoy and have found it rewarding to share my own experience with talented young people and support them on their career journey.
There are two pieces of advice that I have carried with me throughout my career. Firstly, someone always has to go first, if you cannot find a role model, be the trailblazer for other women in your position. Secondly, there is a big difference between taking a break and giving up, and don’t feel that you have do everything in a linear fashion. Young people should treat their career as a marathon, not a sprint – promoting wellbeing is an important part of succeeding at life and sometimes there is merit in taking a break to come back rejuvenated. Everybody’s journey should be unique and suit their individual circumstances, that way you will be successful both professionally and personally.