Breaking the mould: in conversation with Ocado’s Mel Smith and Jomas Associates’ Roni Savage

·4-min read
Photo credit: Damien Hockey
Photo credit: Damien Hockey

Asking an audience if they have any questions is always a nerve-racking moment when moderating a panel talk; there’s an ever-present fear of being hit by a wall of silence. But when I opened the discussion to the floor at the end of my conversation with Ocado Retail’s CEO Mel Smith and Jomas’ Associates founder and managing director Roni Savage, almost every hand in the room shot up.

And no wonder: these two extraordinarily successful women, both deserved nominees for the Veuve Clicquot Bold Woman Award 2022, exuded compassion, humour and generosity of spirit at Bazaar’s event, held last week in partnership with Veuve Clicquot in the chic rooftop space at East London’s One Hundred Shoreditch. Guests listened attentively to Smith’s advice on how women can make their voice heard in a male-dominated environment (“Don’t speak too fast – and don’t stop talking when men try to talk over you”) and laughed as Savage shared candid memories of starting out in the construction industry (“I turned up to my first job with high heels and my nails done, and I had to put on steel-toed boots and just get on with it!”).

Photo credit: Damien Hockey
Photo credit: Damien Hockey

Here are some of the most pertinent lessons that emerged from a conversation that covered everything from empathetic leadership to building a purposeful business…

Have confidence in your own strengths

Mel Smith: “I’m Maori – an indigenous New Zealander – so I’ve often felt I didn’t fit in, and for most of my career I thought I’d just got lucky. When the CEO role at Ocado came up, I’d just spent six months negotiating with the brand on behalf of M&S [where Smith was the strategy director] to buy half of the business for £750 million. I’d been the person in the room doing that, and yet I still needed the confidence of a man to tell me to go for the job. That does make me a bit sad!”

Roni Savage: “If you walk into a room, and you don’t have confidence in yourself, nobody else will. When I was the associate director at one of the largest engineering companies in the country, I’d come into a meeting room and find it full of men who looked nothing like me – but over time, because I stood my ground, I built their respect for me.”

Photo credit: Damien Hockey
Photo credit: Damien Hockey

Support your peers

MS: “It’s crazy that industries where women make all the purchasing decisions – from grocery to fashion – are largely run by men. I’m trying to change that: more than half of my top 40 executives are female, because I’ve created an environment where women can both be successful and have a family.”

RS: “Women make up about four per cent of the construction industry; at Jomas Associates, they represent 45 per cent. I’m a mum of three and I do the school runs while managing a seven-figure business – I’m determined to show that’s possible, so I’m very supportive of the women in our company. With every woman that comes to our door, we’re asking ourselves, how can we enable not just equality but equity?”

Be kind, but fair

RS: “As a leader, you have to balance a sense of empathy with knowing what you need to deliver. It means understanding all the issues that may be affecting your employees, including in their personal lives, while being very clear about what your targets are and what you have to deliver. I have an open-door policy in the sense that I’m always willing to talk and to listen, because once you build trust with your people, they give you a lot back.”

MS: “If you create an environment where people can bring their best selves, then they’ll perform well and deliver the numbers for you.”

Values are everything

MS: “I’ve made hiring mistakes where I’ve recruited for experience. Now I tend to hire for more intrinsic qualities like intelligence, drive, work ethic and, most importantly, values. Because if you don’t share my organisation’s values, I’ll have to walk you out of there.”

RS: “If you embark on running a business, make sure you have a purpose. I started my company because I wanted to transform the construction industry, and that has brought me success. My focus wasn’t on making money, but I think that will come automatically if you’re doing a good job that’s built around a purpose.”

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