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Feb 2011

Case study: Emma Warren: Portfolio Directors

Emma Warren FCMA, CGMA began her career as an assistant accountant for a food processing firm.

Emma Warren, managing directorShe then spent 15 years in the manufacturing industry, reaching senior management level by the time she was 26 and becoming a finance director by the age of 28. She subsequently worked as strategy adviser for, and eventually owner of, a precision engineering business.

In 2007, she set up her own company, Portfolio Directors, to provide support to ambitious entrepreneurial businesses, which she serves as managing director. As an employer, she aims to support working mothers, allowing them to work flexibly so they can juggle family commitments without guilt.

She speaks below about how she has overcome challenges to achieve her success.


Juggling work and studies

Working hard at the same time as studying has been one of my biggest challenges. When I studied for my CIMA qualifications I was working long days during the week then travelling from Cambridgeshire to London at the weekend for lectures, plus sitting exams every six months. Since then I’ve completed an MBA with the Open University and become a chartered director, all while holding down director level roles. 

The trick is to study for qualifications that and develop your role. For my MBA, for example, I chose to study modules in international enterprise (our company was being sold to an American corporation), operations management (I wanted to move over to run the factory), and creative management (I was project managing a companywide system implementation and wanted to know how to get the best out of people).

Working in a male dominated industry

I’ve always worked in a fairly male dominated environment and I have been subject to discrimination at times. However, the most bigoted people usually had issues with lots of elements of society and I feel these types of people have become more and more isolated as the years have gone on. 

I can categorically state that if I had made a big fuss over some of the issues that came up, I wouldn’t be in the role that I hold today. My view was that I could either become consumed by what someone was trying to prevent me doing or work on it in a positive way so that their irrational positioning was exposed.  

'I have been subject to discrimination but
bigoted people have become more isolated'

There have been times when I was potentially a better candidate for a role, but wasn’t offered it because of my age. I was in my early 30s and had just got married and there was a concern that I might leave work to have children. I was always very open and honest about my intentions and often answered the unasked question by saying, ‘I do want a family, but my career is also very important to me, so I will give as much notice and be as flexible as I can to ensure that it is a good experience for me and the company’. 

Getting on the board

At the age of 24, I was working as part of the senior management team in a small division of a big manufacturing organisation. I was already presenting budgets and strategic plans to the main board (in a boardroom that only had a gents’ toilet!) I was headhunted for my next role by my previous boss and when she left the American parent company appointed me as finance director.

To gain a real understanding of how the business worked, I took secondments in other departments and disciplines, and I project managed the implementation of companywide manufacturing and accounting systems. The insight I gained meant I became a sounding board for my board colleagues, helping them to develop their ideas and plans. 

Learning from others

I worked for a couple of extremely good leaders early in my career and they taught me the importance of setting your standards high and, more importantly, about the self control you need as a leader as you can unwittingly have a negative effect on the people around you.   

We have some great female business role models, and they’re very inspiring, but I think the important thing is to be open to learning from all sorts of people. Sometimes the best lessons are from the people who are most unlike you. 

'I’m a great believer in
maintaining a learning culture'

I’m a great believer in the importance of maintaining a learning culture. I think you develop as a leader in stages, and each change point is usually heralded by a catalytic moment. If you’re up for learning, you can move forward through each of these stages and become an inspirational leader yourself. 

Focusing on solutions

Women often think they’re not good enough or not ready for the move to senior management. A great quote I heard early on in my career was, ‘Why would you give anyone a position of responsibility when they’re not even taking responsibility for themselves?’

From that moment on, I realised that I was the one who had the ability to make things happen and to do that I had to take responsibility for my career. Therefore, I always encourage people to set goals, believe they can do it and – when faced with challenges – focus on the solution, not the problem. 

The importance of empathy

I always try not to forget what it was like on the other side of the door, when I wasn’t involved in the meetings that decide what goes on where. I believe that maintaining that empathy is what creates ‘followership’ among your team, and when your team is happy and motivated you will be more able to progress. 

The strengths of women leaders

I think that female managers tend to have a bit more emotional intelligence. Since I realised (during my creative management course) that this was a strength, I’ve used it many times to sense and guide a situation. I like to call it intuitive leadership – knowing the right way to be to get the best results out of a particular situation.