While it’s fair to say that society has made great strides in the area of gender equality, recent high profile stories in the media have highlighted the fact that there is still much work to be done. It’s also fair to say that some industries have more ground to make up than others, with the motor sector in particular having to work harder to turn around its reputation as an industry that is male dominated.

One person that certainly bucks this prevailing trend is Heike O’Leary, Marketing Director for national motor retailer Lookers, whose opinion of the average Lookers customer is that there isn’t one.

Heike’s work in turning around these presumed misconceptions has being recognised by business support network Forward Ladies, with a number of Lookers’ business partners and suppliers nominating her for the Yorkshire, North East and Scotland round of the organisation’s annual awards.

The awards, which are sponsored by HSBC, itself a strong advocate of diversity in the workplace, represent the biggest search for successful women across the UK, with all of the regional finals to be held later this month before the grand final on 1st December at New Dock Hall, Leeds.

We caught up with Heike during a busy period for Lookers, one that currently includes a number of high profile national campaigns, as well as an all-important registration change. Still, these are the kind of challenges that get Heike up in the morning.

We certainly found her on good form and ready to share her trade secrets, what drives her, what drives her mad, and what challenges she has faced as a motivated and forward thinking business woman.

Hi Heike. Congratulations on your Forward Ladies awards nomination. What does the nomination mean to you after all the hard work you’ve put in since joining Benfield and then becoming Marketing Director at Lookers?

To be shortlisted for this award means a lot because I received several nominations for it from various business partners and suppliers. This demonstrates that success is based on team efforts within the wider business networks and it also reflects my preferred leadership style, which is based on collaboration. I have always favoured flat team structures with fully integrated business partners (agencies, printers, creatives etc.) where everyone can contribute. That way it’s not the most senior person but the best idea that prevails.

Can you name three of your biggest achievements as Lookers Marketing Director?

Building a compelling brand proposition for a successful £4bn turnover business from scratch was both a massive challenge and an incredible privilege. There are not many precedents in brand marketing history and I was immensely relieved and delighted when the universal feedback from colleagues was a sense of pride to work for Lookers, particularly when they saw our very first TV advert.

Other ongoing achievements include proving that a compelling brand is adding real value to the bottom line as well as being a strategic differentiator in a crowded market space, and that a creative marketing function is an asset and not a cost.

What have been the biggest challenges of your career so far?

I thrive on challenges and enjoy finding creative solutions to them. Some people think of creativity merely as a form of art or expression but creativity can be applied to everything: processes, numbers, structures, budgets etc. Creativity is seeing the same as everyone else but connecting the dots differently. Challenges force us to think about things differently and to break with convention.

The only things at work that I find truly challenging are the uncontrollable curve-balls around my teams and their families’ well-being. There usually is a solution for everything else. ​

Do you feel that some of these challenges have been influenced by the fact that you’re a woman?

While challenges are the same for men and for women, solutions often differ. The key as a woman is to get a voice, especially in a male dominated environment, because diverse teams create better results. As far as I can see there are three key obstacles for women in today’s business environments:

Culture: Without generalising, women often have a more co-operative, participatory style of leading, while men often prefer a more directive, task-oriented approach. The collaborative style is sometimes regarded as a weakness as it takes longer to encourage people to find their own answers than to simply instruct a solution. However, both leadership styles work well in tandem, which is why placing more women into leadership positions needs to be a priority. ​

Self-Branding: Men tend to be very good at branding themselves, naturally letting others know about their successes, opinions and strengths while women are likely to be more modest and often stay silent about their own accomplishments.  As a result, achievements of men are often rewarded and contributions from women are sometimes overlooked or taken for granted. Women need to learn to better support each other and to build a personal brand, if not for themselves, then for their teams.

Socialising: I have often witnessed that women are, often inadvertently, excluded from getting to know their peers better because men tend to socialise among themselves, whether it’s a pint after work, watching football, cricket or rugby together or playing golf in an all-male golf society. It’s a hard nut for women to crack and robs women of the chance to get to know their peers outside of the office and meeting room environment in business cultures that are often all too reliant on email. A lot of misunderstandings could be avoided if colleagues just socialised more and got to know each other better. 

How far do you think society and more specifically the motor trade has come over recent years when it comes to gender equality?

One issue with the current gender pay gap debate is that we are often not comparing like for like. In motor retail and many other sales focussed sectors, skills in traditional female functions such as Customer Service, HR and Marketing are often not as highly valued as roles in Sales, Finance and Operations. The solution lies neither in draconian pay cuts nor in catapulting females above their abilities. Instead, we need to re-evaluate how all of the business functions create value and to actively recruit mixed gender teams in all of our functions. This needs to start with the apprenticeship schemes and move right up to the boardroom.

Women want to be chosen, promoted and nurtured based on merit and merit doesn’t mean that women simply become men.  I think that we need to redefine merit and acknowledge that skills like empathy, collaboration and creativity are additional assets in a diverse business centre. However, the rise of women doesn’t mean the fall of man!

What changes have you made or are currently making within Lookers to help change these perceptions?

We can all make a difference in our own families and jobs. On a personal level, I do not try to raise my daughters like sons! They are both amazing little ladies and have picked their sports and hobbies based on interests rather than gender. One is a single figure handicap golfer and the other loves netball and horses.

At work, Lookers actively fosters a diverse team culture with a focus on work/life balance: we have an apprenticeship scheme aimed at girls, offer above industry-standard holidays and a full year of maternity pay. Ernst & Young have recently worked out that it would take 170 years to reach gender parity organically. At Lookers we are committed to accelerate this process considerably and have pledged to fill 30% of managerial roles with women by 2030.   

What unique perspectives do you feel being a woman at the head of such a key department gives you, at Lookers or anywhere else?

I am not the woman Marketing Director at Lookers. I am the Marketing Director.

Can you give us a brief insight into how you were drawn to marketing, your previous roles, and is it an area that naturally suits your personality?

It took me some time to understand that marketing caters for all my interests and I collected three university degrees on that journey: Economics, Marketing & Design and Strategy. I started my career in sales and then gradually moved into marketing. Previous roles have been with Callaway Golf when it became the number one golf brand under Ely Callaway’s entrepreneurial leadership; consulting roles at various marketing and brand agencies and a long stint as brand director with adidas.

I love how marketing combines the rational with the emotional, offers continuous challenges and integrates creativity with technology.  The only way to keep up with the constantly changing marketing landscape is through knowledge-sharing and continuous learning.

If you didn’t work in marketing, what other areas would you like to work in if you could choose anything?

I am a fully committed marketing professional, but if I could try something else for a short while …  water-slide tester, fortune cookie writer and Wimbledon umpire would be on my list.​

What is your definition of pure relaxation and do you get to do much of this outside of work?

I am not one for relaxing, I always figured I’d have time for that later. Occasionally, I might visit a Spa while on holiday and fall asleep during the treatment. Otherwise I am just happy if I have time to finish a good book, play golf with my girls or travel somewhere I have not yet been to.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

I have a few. My excuse it that studying design has given me a taste and an appreciation for beautiful things!

What is your favourite movie?

That’s an impossible question to answer. There are so many I would gladly watch again and again. As a family we watch Evelyn every Christmas. It should have won an Oscar!

What would your final meal be?

Champagne, s’il vous plaît!

What’s your dream car?

In my role as mother, chauffeur, dog-walker and family shopper I’d love a Range Rover Autobiography to mix functionality with style and safety. If it was just for me, I would love to borrow a Maserati GranCabrio MC to drive aimlessly around Lago di Garda for a week.

What gets you annoyed the most when out driving?

I have a 76 -mile cross-country commute, so where do I start: campervans, bikes, drivers without purpose … I combat those mood hoovers by listening to new Spotify lists, language lesson CDs and Audiobooks.

If you could invite four people, dead or alive, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?

My favourite actor, Denzel Washington, my favourite actress, Romy Schneider, Donna Leon because I love her Commissario Brunetti novels and Stefano Sassi, CEO of Valentino for some fashion advice and a staff discount!