Here we share with you the mindset, habits, planning methods, office rules and ‘man-management’ techniques that enabled her to get to the top.
Laurie is currently the director of Syndicate Training – a management skills & training company she founded in 1996 that provides corporate training courses at half the cost of conventional training suppliers, with a client list of over 200 names, including heavy weight brands such as Carphone Warehouse and Madame Tussauds.
But this sort of success comes with solid foundations and Bell has that a-plenty. Having studied law and obtained an MBA, she held a role at the London International Futures Exchange as well as founding (and selling) a training company in Australia before Syndicate Training materialised.
Like any other women at the top of her game, Laurie Bell believes in reaping what you sow. Hard work and personal discipline are character traits found among a good portion of the corporate work force, but throw in a successful marriage and the demands of motherhood and the numbers of those who really ‘have it all’ deplete drastically.
Bell is a big believer in the values of self-motivation, cultivating an excellent work ethic and skilful time management, but what really got her to the top was her ability to trust herself and execute on her intuition.
But let’s start at the bottom…
After doing everything I could to make the company I was working for more successful, including radically rethinking their strategy, I was fired. I believe it was down to the fact that the recommendations I made were not welcomed by the boys at the top, who were too deeply etched into their comfortable chairs to be able to change.
"It really goes back to saying ‘I don't care about what other people think’ and instead, acting on your beliefs"
That company made a mistake one day. It was a very boys-orientated day-away and I was sent a postcard with a girl with double-D breasts saying ‘Don’t worry; we think your tits are better than hers”.
Back then, that wasn’t a big deal - now that would have made me a fortune. I can’t believe they were so stupid as to actually send me something like that and then fire me. Either way, I sued and settled for a very decent sum that helped me set up on my own. I decided to do it the way I thought was right; focusing on what our clients spending strategy was and direct it towards saving more, instead of the traditional method of ‘wining and dining’ your clients into spending more.
I have a very strong gut feeling; my competitors were doing things very differently and I ended up overtaking them by miles thanks to my instincts. When there’s a piece of news which I think I can translate into business, I act on my instinct, do a lot of research and consider all possible outcomes when putting my ideas into action. I get a lot of my business ideas from following up on my hunches and thinking for myself; it really goes back to saying ‘I don't care about what other people think’ and instead, acting on your beliefs.
On why there is a shortage of women in top positions
If you have a woman in a competitive profession who’s willing to work like a dog, never see her kids and is probably heading for her second divorce, they promote her. But that’s not sustainable and it’s definitely not what you want when you envision a successful career.
"It’s the sisterhood that’s the problem because they allow these men to work 70 hour weeks without responsibilities for their children or the household so that a 3-day trip to Hong Kong is not a problem. And it makes competing as woman who does have to share these responsibilities that much harder"
Interestingly, there’s an idea in my circle, particularly at the board level, people like to call ‘PC’ - playing career. Someone who pretends to be serious about their career whilst waiting on the guy who makes half a million a year - once they’ve got the guy, they vanish.
Those who work for a while and then marry a banker, those who are now picking up his dry-cleaning, taking care of his kids and making life artificially easy for him. It’s the sisterhood that’s the problem because they allow these men to work 70 hour weeks without responsibilities for their children or the household so that a 3-day trip to Hong Kong is not a problem. And it makes competing as woman who does have to share these responsibilities that much harder.
The women that jump ship not only reduce the female talent pool, they also help the men get an additional advantage due to the scarcity of stay-at-home husbands. It’s this pattern that makes it harder for women to compete; the problem for young girls isn’t ‘The Boss’, it’s the bosses wife.
Consequently, I’m very careful about whom I mentor as I have friends who are thirty or younger and have already said London or New York is ‘too hard’ and who are hoping to marry a guy who will pay the bills.
And this goes back to the dress code because it’s all about perception. People at the top of their organisations know that most women will quit shortly after getting trained, so they need to be able to tell who those women are early on to avoid this. And if you dress provocatively, it sends out a strong message about what your goals are in coming to the office. As someone looking to hire and train the best talent so they stay with us and help us build the business in the long run dressing inappropriately is a clear warning sign about what’s ahead.
On being a working mother
When I was in the city, they used to say that when you have children, you will change. But you never change, if you have the philosophy and you’ve got the internal drive, you can and will do both.
Again, I’d say the main trick is not caring about what people think. A classic example is with playground politics. When my son was little I would be made to feel guilty for not joining every single school committee. They would ask mothers to make a costume for the school play and I would just buy one and get my PA to deliver it to the school as I’ve always thought that sewing for hours at night after work did not necessarily make you a good mother – more so, shame on them for making a working woman feel guilty about not hand-making a child’s costume.
I have now bought my son a flat in Maida Vale, paid in cash no less, so when he graduates, he starts debt free, with no rent to pay– that is what I think makes me a good mother. Naturally, I was able to do it because I had the money and the support network but also because I measured the value of paying a full-time nanny against the value of my potential future income, not necessarily on what made financial sense right that second.
The real problem for the woman who quits her job to live a ‘forever fairytale’ is that often you will see the husband leave her after 10 years because they now have no interests left in common and she is overweight after raising his kids while helping him climb the ladder. For me this wasn’t a problem, and remember I had my kid at 40, because straight away I was able to hire the best trainer to come to my home and I was back in shape in 6 weeks. One of the reasons for this was that my office clothes are very expensive, and I didn’t want to buy an entire new wardrobe before going back to work.
I do have friends whose children have left, and now that they’ve been out of the workforce for twenty years or so, they feel their options are shrinking, particularly as they get older. In turn, the women who are still working are in great shape, they’re active, they’re social and they feel in control of their lives. It’s important to focus on what matters to you, and especially to think about this in the context of long term goals and consequences of the decisions you make today.
I have friends who are in awe of my husband. If I’m cooking, he will start setting the table. In their household, they will do all the housework by themselves while the husband is chatting to a neighbour. My husband will come home from a business trip through the back door so he can empty the suitcase and wash its contents straight away. And it’s because I’ve taught him that way. My friends say it’s ‘amazing’ and tell me how lucky I am – but anyone with two arms and two legs is perfectly capable of handling the daily logistics of their own lives. If you are physically able to fill the washing machine doing so should not be considered ‘amazing’. Both my husband and I are busy and whilst we do have help, both of us do our fair share of the housework.
"Over time you get pigeon holed and suddenly a 20% raise is practically impossible"
On mentoring and the pay gap
I’m a great believer in mentoring, and it’s very important to get the right advice. I had a friend working at this company for years, very good at her job, and I told her, you are underpaid and need to jump ship. Because her employer would have never allowed her to make a salary jump there; over time you get pigeon holed and suddenly a 20% raise is practically impossible. She got a raise much larger than that by going to a different company and there was no politics involved, she just merited the title and the paycheck and received the pay that she deserved.
On what to wear in the workplace
A working dress code definitely affects women more. Depending on what industry you’re in, what is considered to be appropriate varies incredibly. When I started working it was very prescriptive and women were trying to look like men. Ironically, the mistakes made now are that women are looking too provocative in the office; everything is too tight, too low, and too short - there seems to be a real confusion on what works for the office, and what you should only wear in your free time.
I think there is an educational job that needs to be done teaching women what to wear at work. Because it’s not very obvious, and it takes time to learn. The business I’m in, we teach people how to conduct themselves in a business environment. So for example, we just went to see a wealth management company and were teaching 90 bankers how to negotiate. Because people don’t know these things and need to be taught early on in their careers to avoid pitfalls later on.
The classic mantra is ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have’. But people don't really know what that translates to anymore. And for women the issue is we don’t have many role models to learn from when it comes to business and leadership.
For me, I choose what to wear depending on who I'm meeting with that day. It’s very intuitive and you really have to think about what the person you’re meeting with will think. Figure out how you can make them feel you are competent, serious and trustworthy, and on a first impression it is all about what you wear. Once your name is established, the rules become more lenient but on the way up, wardrobe mistakes can be very damaging. Of course you can get away with more casual or clingy dresses but that is not going to cut it if you want the top job. So the goal you should set yourself is, ‘what do I need to do to look like the girl who’s always got it together?’ And then recreate that look.
Laurie’s work-wear rules
Too sexy is the most common issue here, so know the rules and stick to them
You want to look like you’re in touch with modern life, not living in the past century
Your wardrobe should consist mainly of staple pieces. This usually means a lot of neutrals, and a typical outfit should only have one item that is the focus point
Reinforces the impression of high standards and ‘having it together’. Also ensures reliability and durability - you wouldn’t want that button to fall off in the middle of a meeting
This goes as much for clothes as for conversations. The worst thing you can do is bore someone to death. Having a unique style or point of view will allow you to stand out from the crowd
Secrets to success
I’m very driven. I prepare for hours the evening before every event, and then I wake up at six in the morning and plan some more. When people say they are rushed with something I always ask them: ‘So what happened last night?’ There is always time the night before and you just have to be hyper organised about it.
My planning method is as follows:
- You split a piece of paper with headings for the obvious categories: Financial, health, family/social, home/logistics, etc.
- Determine what your key goals and desired outcomes are in each
- Work your way backwards to concrete steps – it’s all about quietly sitting down, figuring out what you really want, the realistic way of getting there and then creating an action plan based on that
Best piece of advice
My father told me never to end up in a place where you cannot get out. And its really the best advice because it teaches you how to survive. If you rely on someone else for your needs, the moment they are no longer there what do you do? And even if the relationship stays, just look around at what a flat costs, and groceries, and dry-cleaning, and restaurants, and holidays, and personal trainers. I was able to leave my children debt free because we had two incomes. I was also able to maintain a great relationship with my husband because we understand each other’s daily struggles as successful business people. We can share and relate to each other, discussing issues from a place of equality and as a team.