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Mary Portas shares her 4 best pieces of career advice for women

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Looking to overhaul your career? Let Mary Portas be your guide…

If there’s anyone we want to give us career advice, it’s Mary Portas. The retail consultant, broadcaster and author is one of the most powerful women in the industry and – even better – she’s about to overhaul the way we work, with the launch of her Work Like A Woman initiative this week.

As the name suggests, the initiative is all about harnessing the power of being female in the workplace, while shifting the traditional alpha-dominated model that companies have adhered to for so long. And Portas is speaking from experience – it’s an approach she took to the running of her own company, a PR agency called Portas, five years ago.

Speaking to Stylist’s editor, Susan Riley, on stage at Stylist Live, Portas said, “I realised that I’d started a whole agency around what I’d been taught since leaving college and I thought, what if I do this differently? What if I use all the values I hold dearly as a woman, a wife, a mother and a human, and shift the way it works? So I did.

“I frightened my business partner by saying, ‘I think we’re doing things wrong’. Both of us had been working in the same way for decades, but the approach just wasn’t true to who I was.”

“What if I do this differently?” Mary Portas is on a mission to overhaul the way we work

To integrate a fresh approach into the running of her company, Portas turned to a classic method – making a list.

“I wrote down a list of what I love doing and what I really don’t like doing, and I asked myself, how can I put that into the way that I work? I knew that if it was true to me, it would be true to my team, too.”

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One of the most important changes Portas made was to employ a female MD – someone internal that she already had in mind for the job.

“This woman had just had a baby so I said to her, do you want another child? And she said yes. So I said, OK, how can we make this work?

“We looked at all the women in their thirties in the office and thought, how can we make a policy that won’t put them in the back of the queue just for going off and having a child? Then we looked at the men and thought, how can we empower them to say, I’m taking today off to look after my child?”

“I wrote down a list of what I love doing and what I really don’t like doing, and I asked myself, how can I put that into the way that I work?”

Now, five years on, Portas feels the joy has been brought back into her agency, and her professional life. She wants to spread a message of empowerment to women in work, and encourage them all to shift their working lives to fit around who they are – rather than a traditional, linear way of working.

And if you can’t wait to get started on overhauling your career, you’re in luck. Read on for some of Portas’ most valuable nuggets of work advice, as shared with the audience at Stylist Live…

Be true to who you are: The most important thing in business is to be true to who you are. You need to connect with your values and how you think when you’re at your best. A system can make you feel less than you are, especially when you can’t quite fit into it. So be really aware of you.

You have to use your voice: If there are things that are bothering you, call them out. We all get goat voice [when you’re nervous and your voice goes funny], but you have to get over it. Write down your notes then go in to your boss and say, ‘I want to talk about something that’s concerning me’. Straight away, you’re putting the issue on the table. Then breathe and let them respond.

Ask for a sunshine community: This is something we have in my agency, where the most junior people are able to put their ideas forward. We call it being MD for the day, and we ask them what they would do differently in the company. Ask your business to put that in.

Always trust your instinct: The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my career are when I haven’t listened to my instinct. You harness a feeling about something and if you ignore that, you do so at your own peril. There’s a great Gloria Steinem quote that I love: “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck, but you think it’s a pig, then it’s a pig”.

Stylist Live, our festival of inspiration, is running from 9-11 November at London Olympia. You can find out more, and buy tickets, here

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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