“Make whatever you do sustainable”: interview with Sharon Blackman OBE

Sharon Blackman OBE, managing director and general counsel at Citi and In-house Conference speaker, discusses managing a team during lockdown, the legal sector’s response to diversity and inclusion, and her recent OBE.
Sharon has short black hair, and is wearing a blue top.

How do you think the last 18 months have shaped you as a professional, and as a person?

I think I have a great a deal more empathy. I’m pretty empathetic anyway, but in the work environment you can be so drawn in by the day-to-day demands of the job that you do, it’s not unusual to overlook how a colleague is doing in that moment. I think there were less opportunities to overlook how people were doing and people were so much more aware of the struggles that everyone was going through.

How did you manage your team during lockdown and while working from home? Did you have to change your expectations of your team?

No, my team hit it out the ballpark, they were phenomenal, every single one.

One thing that I did change were the contact points. I was much more deliberate about those. We always have a weekly meeting, but I did add two 15-minute coffee catch ups, where we could talk about anything. If there was something pressing for business, we'd talk about that. If there wasn’t and people wanted to talk about their weekends or whatever it was then that’s what we spoke about.

I think we did a few more social events online during last year too. Perhaps replacing a few that we would have done in-person, but a couple more than we would have normally had, I suspect.

As a leader, do you have any practical tips on how to delegate? Is it something that comes naturally to you?

I think it’s taken a little bit of work. In the lead-up to taking a leadership position at Citi, I had really good mentors. I had a lot of conversations around what it meant to become a managing director.

One of my mentors was saying to me, it's the move from what I can do, to what I can facilitate to get done through a group of people. It's about allowing someone else the space to become a subject matter expert in areas where maybe I was the expert before, but that’s OK because I am doing a different role now.

I observed with other people in leadership roles that it's harder initially because they’re letting go of some of the technical work they really love, which is not to say that you can’t be a leader and be technical, but there is a greater need for you to facilitate somebody’s learning.

Outside of your role as general counsel and managing director, you have a lot of other commitments as a mentor and board member. How have you managed this over the last 18 months? Did you have to say no to some opportunities to manage your workload?

I've had to say no to some opportunities on the mentee front. I’m very clear about what they can expect, because I just don’t have the bandwidth to do everything. I've had a lot of conversations on this topic in recent weeks and I think the best advice I got was that given that none of us are here forever, make whatever you do sustainable.

That means it’s OK to say, “I can’t mentor you, but this is what I can do”. Or, when I cannot mentor somebody, what I will commit to is having a number of conversations with them instead. So, you're able to contact me, but you're subject to my diary and other commitments, and all my mentees are really good about that.

I’m also more deliberate about things. So, if there’s something that I want to do, then I consider what I can give. I could give six months of focused attention where I’m going to be working on something quite actively, or I can do one project and just see where it goes after, while recognising that my commitment can’t be sustained over a three-year period, for example.

How did it feel to receive an OBE earlier this year?

Shocking! Really shocking. I was delighted to receive that, and I have a real sense of pride. I don’t know who put me forward and I'm blown away that somebody threw my name in the ring, and put the time and effort in to putting me forward.

But I have a sense of obligation as well. Which is daunting, because whilst an OBE is given for what you've already done, it’s often given too in anticipation of what you might be able to do.

I think I’m the kind of person that when something big happens – like a promotion – I really mull it over and ask myself, “is this a good thing or not?”. I do feel the weight of responsibility that I ought to do something positive.

What do you make of the legal sector’s recent response to D&I?

I think that it's been good to see that conversations around diversity have become more frequent, because I don’t think it’s something that you just ‘solve’.

It’s a cultural change across the board. You don’t embed cultural change by just giving somebody a little bit of training to tick a box. It's continuous, because it's those things you do almost without thinking that need to change and that’s for everybody across the board.

So, I've been pleased with how most of the law firms that I’ve been in touch with have responded and how they’ve continued the conversation. That’s been really positive. But we need to see the results, don’t we? I look forward to seeing real genuine changes.

What do you think are the most urgent D&I topics that firms and companies need to address?

I do think quite strongly that there’s no need to prioritise between them. It's wrong to focus on one to the exclusion of other things. We've been there already: we did that with gender. Whilst that supported an advancement in terms of gender parity, society is more complex than that, and we can handle complexity. So, you need to look at it on all fronts.

I also think that some things will resonate more with people than others. So, I think that if you get them on one side, then there’s a bigger chance that they will recognise the similarities on another aspect of diversity and will be more open to it.

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