Kathryn Bishop

Kathryn Bishop combines being a consultant and a Civil Service commissioner with her role as associate fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, where she designs and teaches women’s leadership development programmes.

After majoring in English and American literature at Wellesley College in the US, Ms Bishop gained an M. Phil in English Studies at Oxford. She then worked for Accenture for almost 10 years and subsequently for the financial services companies before taking on a variety of roles in universities and government.

Looking back over the progress of women in the workplace over the last 50 years, Ms Bishop believes there is much greater cause for optimism than the current statistics about women leaders would suggest; and that the way ahead is not through quotas or massive structural change in organisations, but through education and a quiet revolution from the bottom and middle of organisations.

1. What is an average day at work like?

When teaching at Saïd, I am on the go from breakfast until after dinner each night: listening, presenting, facilitating conversations and syndicate groups, learning from participants, as well as checking in with the administrative staff to respond to any practical problems that emerge.

On non-teaching days I might be meeting with academic colleagues to discuss new directions or ingredients in the programme, or talking to people in other departments, such as marketing and business development, who between them make the programme happen. Many alumni keep in touch, and are interested in how our thinking and teaching are evolving — in fact, 12 alumni from the first two years of the Women Transforming Leadership programme have just come back to join the most recent cohort over dinner.

2. Why did you choose to work at Saïd Business School?

Oxford Saïd is one of the few business schools that is deeply rooted in its parent university. The collegiate structure of Oxford university encourages interdisciplinary communication and thinking, and it is also at the core of everything we do at the business school. In all our development programmes for leaders we are able to draw on a wide range of subjects from across the University — from music and drama to anthropology and neuroscience. This is endlessly stimulating, and practical for leaders who are hungry for new and better ideas about how to get things done.

3. What do you enjoy most?

I have three remunerated jobs and two voluntary roles and I enjoy the variety. I have to switch gear when I move from teaching to the role of a regulator, for example, but I regularly learn something in one job that can be useful in the other — entirely within the bounds of propriety of course!

4. What are you finding the most difficult?

I know I will want to work well beyond what used to be thought of as “retirement age”. But the question I am struggling to answer is how will I find stimulating, sustainable work into my seventies — and I think this will be different for a woman than for a man. I turned to research for ideas, but I couldn’t find a book to help me, so I am writing one.

I am 30,000 words into it, using the lessons and models from corporate strategy. I teach this material on Women Transforming Leadership, helping participants build individual strategies or personal blueprints throughout the week, and it is one of the most powerful parts of the programme. Writing the book is proving equally powerful for me. I have been inspired and encouraged by the examples of women I have interviewed in developing case studies — including my mother, who worked into her early eighties.

5. What is your favourite business book?

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin, which is not a history of wars and laws, but of freedom, mother-love, fear and ambition, among other subjects. It has taught me to look at a problem from a variety of angles.

I also recommend You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation by Deborah Tannen, an American professor of linguistics — a book that has helped me work in boardrooms and also helped my marriage.

6. What are your top tips for networking?

Women’s networks are often smaller than men’s and formed of fewer, stronger connections which can be a source of useful advice. Male networks tend to be larger with more and shallower connections, and these are good for gathering information about what is happening in a sector or industry. Neither approach is wrong or right, but ask yourself: is your network set up for you to gain — and to give — what you and your contacts need right now? Are you using your network for both advice and access and offering that too?

7. What is the best piece of advice given to you?

There is only so much time in a day and there is always more to do than can ever be done. The advice I have found most useful in addressing this problem is, “Only do what only you can do.”

8. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

I used to manage my time carefully, but now I manage my energy. One of my colleagues says: “You are your diary” and I manage mine very attentively.

9. What is your best business decision?

Choosing to attend a liberal arts college in the US wasn’t precisely a business decision, but it made all my later business decisions more effective. After dropping all science at 15, I found at Wellesley that I had to take some at degree level. I had to take some social science too — and at 18 I didn’t even know what that was. That broad liberal arts education taught me that I can learn whatever I need to. I may not be brilliant at something, but I can do it. This has helped me in a working life, which has changed direction, role and sector over the last 30 years.

10. What would you do if you were dean of a business school for the day?

Turn off all the email and set up a series of conversations over coffee between academics and researchers, alumni and students, specialists from the business school and from other faculties. It is sometimes said that the most interesting academic work is being done at the intersection of traditional subjects and I am interested in the connection between different ideas and the generative energy that such conversations create.

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