image of statue of tightrope walker, illustrating Walking the Tightrope: building relationships & getting results

 On Wednesday 17th May Westminster Business School and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office co-presented a panel discussion: Walking the Tightrope: building relationships & getting results. Chaired by Corin Robertson, panellists Anna Clunes, Dr Katalin Illes, Sue Liburd and Emma Pegler discussed their experiences of, and recommendations for developing strong and effective work relationships and dealing with gender discrimination.

Walking the Tightrope: building relationships & getting results
The event ran in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Locarno Room

The conversation was lively as expected: as the event ran under Chatham House Rules, none of the following contributions are attributed.

Seniority, politics & pay

The more senior your position, the more important it becomes to understand the political dynamics of an organisation. At the same time, relationships and networks assume greater significance. Also, the more senior you are in most organisations, the less likely you are to be female. One speaker pointed out that, at present, women hold fewer than 15% of senior executive positions. Another described how there is gender parity at junior levels in her organisation, while – in common with most large corporates – the percentage of women decreases the higher you go.

According to the World Economic Forum it will take 170 years to achieve gender pay parity globally – and the gap is growing rather than shrinking.

Most appointments at c-suite level go to people who already hold – or who have previously held a c-suite position.

Walking the Tightrope: building relationships & getting results
l-r – Emma Pegler, Dr Katalin Illes, Corin Robertson (chair), Anna Clunes and Sue Liburd.

Networking & building relationships

Can networking make a difference?

How far is it true that women like to get on with things while men like to brownnose?

In the past, was networking a man’s game involving golf trips and gentlemen’s clubs?

Now it’s as important for women as for men. But do woman feel as comfortable engaging upwards as we do sideways or down?

Another panellist described how each of us has a wonderful opportunity to influence how other people perceive us: being memorable and creating our brand is important. However, to ensure we do that authentically requires us to devote time and attention to building a strong relationship with ourselves and building character. One contributor recommended taking personal development courses, reading books, and seeking the companionship of people who act the way we want to act. She quoted author and consultant Fred Kiel, whose work involves using his “energy, talents, and skills to help leaders of large business organizations ‘connect their heads to their hearts’” and who defines four dimensions of character thus:


Walking the Tightrope: building relationships & getting results
Emma Pegler

Improving our relationship with ourselves leads to better relationships with others. She also cited Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, whose approach dialogue differentiated between “I and Thou” and “I and It” relationships. The latter, Buber theorised, is the mode in which most people interact with the world, where we treat the other as an object to be used. Conversely, the I and Thou approach allows for the building of meaningful, respectful and equal relationships.

Use the language of business

One speaker described how the Davies Report made a huge difference, partly because it was written in the language of business, not the language of diversity and inclusion. This meant gender parity was no longer about diversity, but about business outcomes, as a result of which business men paid it far more attention. As another pointed out, there is lots of evidence showing that more diverse and inclusive businesses, where different types of people are involved in decision-making make more money and are more sustainable. She paraphrased Christine Lagarde’s comment: “if Lehman Brothers had been ‘Lehman Sisters,’ today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different”.

Walking the Tightrope: building relationships & getting results
Dr Katalin Illes

Mentoring and career decisions

Mentors are key. One panellist described how they can help you identify the route to your next role and described how successful people plan ahead. They are strategic both about the roles they choose to move to and how they approach getting there. She recommended thinking carefully about how you are going to beat the competition to your next job.

She also described working in an organisation with a particularly vindictive queen bee (queen bee syndrome is when a woman in a senior position treats female subordinates less favourably than male subordinates). When she was offered the opportunity of having a mentor, she chose this woman. Everyone thought she was mad, but she made the choice strategically, aiming to neutralise the senior woman’s destructiveness. She reckoned that badmouthing a mentee would reflect so badly on the queen bee that she wouldn’t do it. She was proved right.

Walking the Tightrope: building relationships & getting results
Corin Robertson and Anna Clunes

Those skills you use outside the organisation? They work inside, too

Another described how the skills she’d learned for navigating external situations could also be applied internally. However, the difference with internal networking, relationship development and organisational politics is that you already know people, and they know you and your brand. This means it’s important to understand how other people perceive you and the value you bring. When you do that, you can have more impact within your organisation.

Speakers returned to this point several times, stressing that to develop your career strategically you need to really know how you come across to others. However, there’s a balance to be struck here. As one panellist pointed out, women can be too self-conscious about how they come across.

Privilege is invisible when you have it

One panellist described how male colleagues challenged on gender parity issues say “I have daughters. I get it.” She’s unconvinced, pointing out that lots of nasty men throughout history have had daughters. She described how voice recognition software has worked better for male than female voices probably because it was programmed by men (a lesser problem than the crash test dummy one, which, because they were all engineered by men and based on male bodies, meant that cars were given inaccurate safety ratings for decades, and led to multiple fatalities).

Tightrope bias also warranted a mention: this is Joan Williams’s point that women must choose between being perceived as feminine – in which case they are not seen as competent – or competent, in which case they are not perceived as feminine. As did the tendency for bold and assertive women to be labelled aggressive in a way that men never are.

Walking the Tightrope: building relationships & getting results
Sue Liburd MBE


Be bold, ensure your values are integrated in what you do and navigate that thin line between being strategic and manipulative.

Learn to take the sticks and stones and not to care: authenticity requires a thick skin.

Don’t play the tightrope game. Stop it. Decide how you want to be, create the space where you want people to meet you.

Discover – or create – a safe space in your organisation where you can test your ideas, and find out how others feel about issues.

Remember that unconscious bias and prejudice are in your own head as well as others. Ignore the little voice that tells you you’re not good enough. If something is important to you, don’t give up, find alternative ways.

Map your values against those of your organisation. How does the organisation meet your value needs? If they don’t and that won’t change in your lifetime, find somewhere else where you can make a difference.

Organisational systems are man-made. They can be changed. If they don’t serve the purpose they were set up for, network, find strength in numbers and mount a challenge.

Pick a battle, start to talk to contacts. It starts with just you, then there two or three people, then a few more, then 10 or 15 and then we have momentum. Have the belief, the courage.

Stop waiting for permission – do it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

University of Westminster
309 Regent Street, London W1B 2UW
General enquiries: +44 (0)20 7911 5000
Course enquiries: +44 (0)20 7915 5511

The University of Westminster is a charity and a company limited by guarantee.
Registration number: 977818 England