The biggest lesson you’ll ever have really slaps you in the face
Sheila Flavell, together with her husband Rod, are on a mission to address gender equality and the skills shortage in the technology sector. Sheila talks to Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame about practicing what they preach.
Technology has trailed other industries in building gender balance. 75% of IT jobs are held by men and there is room for improvement in the industry’s gender pay gap.
Sheila and Rod Flavell have experienced this first hand and set about solving the problem. They started close to home. Sheila joined Rod as FDM’s first female employee 27 years ago.
“Fifty per cent of our senior management team is female,” says Sheila, now FDM’s Chief Operating Officer. “It’s had a huge impact. We have a 0% median gender pay gap and have had sustained this for two years running. It’s important to us: our staff want to work for an organisation that shares their values. We really embrace diversity. We have a returners programme and, even though it is open to everyone, the majority are women.”
Encouraging women to join or remain within the technology industry is just one way the company has sought to address a widespread shortage of skilled staff. Sheila says: “We need women in tech: we want to help to close that gap.” The group also recruits, trains and deploys graduates, ex-forces personnel and those looking to return to work after a career break. The team is now 4000-strong, with individuals from all walks of life joining the firm every week.
“We don't care where you’ve come from, we’re only interested in your potential and what you can achieve. We’ve lived by that mantra and it’s worked for us,” explains Sheila.
An important part of its work is with the military: “Ex-forces personnel have many transferable skills, especially in leadership and working under pressure,” says Rod. “The military now is a very digital environment, so there’s a lot of technology transferability there also. We believe that they add value to the market. Diversity of skills is strength.”
Building a global firm wasn’t Rod and Sheila’s initial aim for FDM – they simply wanted to pay the mortgage and provide for their five children. FDM’s growth, says Sheila, was the result of building a strong team and working with great partners: “We’ve made good decisions and been fortunate to be in the right economic climate. We have very loyal and focused management around us. We’ve always believed that businesses are better served by owners than managers, so we’ve always invited staff to take equity in the business. We’ve built a family, a caring culture, and it has resulted in a lot of hard work and focus from everyone who works for us.”
Working in the professional services marketplace, with a focus on IT, means that FDM faces tough competition. Their survival, Rod explains, relies on innovation and a strong set of values: “Every three or four years we’ve tried to reset our goals and to achieve something different and more challenging. The market is innovating all the time around us, so it really is innovate or die… We’re very focused on corporate social responsibility, strong in our gender equality, and committed to bringing different people into all sorts of entry positions in high cost locations. It’s been our ability to do this consistently, and stay true to our values, that has enabled us to build an enviable client roster.”
They have learned some lessons the hard way en route. An incident right at the start of their journey gave them a life-changing wake-up call. The business was growing well, and employees had been brought in to help facilitate this expansion, but – as Rod explains – “we’d been quite lackadaisical in collecting the cash”. With a client payment outstanding for three months, and salaries to pay, it was make or break for the business. Rod drove from London to Birmingham to collect the overdue payment that kept the company in operation – and vowed never to neglect accounts again. “The biggest lesson you’ll ever have,” says Rod, “really slaps you in the face. It was a wake-up call.”
Leading a values-led organisation has helped keep staff turnover down too. Rod says. “The values of the company, the interesting tech we work with, the wonderful locations we now operate out of, and our share options – this business has grown into a place where people want to work.”
“When the share options vested, there were 250 people celebrating,” concludes Sheila. “It’s much better celebrating with a group of people than having a party for one.”
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