Meet Our Mentors: Anna Fleming

We started our Deltra mentoring programme, where we pair women up with senior advisors, to help become a catalyst for positive change in the business transformation space.

Our mentoring programme has helped a lot of women take charge and increase their confidence, both in their personal and professional lives, and this is all thanks to our mentors.

One of those mentors is Anna Fleming, who is currently the Chief Operating Officer at AXA Retail. Having started her career as a solicitor, she has a history of succeeding in traditionally male-dominated fields. She’s passionate about uplifting women and people from minority backgrounds in the workplace through boosting their self-assurance when it comes to standing up for themselves.

Anna also recently contributed to our summer Women in Transformation event as a panellist, where she discussed how the pandemic forced many women to move back into gender roles.

We caught up with Anna to talk about her work as a mentor and had a fantastic conversation about the advantages of being different, the hyper-competency of women and the significance of mentors being open about their own mistakes.

Why did you choose to speak at the Women in Transformation event?

I think diversity and inclusion runs the risk of being a buzzword, but what it means to me is visibility. The insurance industry at the senior levels is still very white and male, and while we’re making some good inroads into that, it’s not fast enough.

Transformation programmes, historically, - have been male dominated, particularly at the Programme Director level and that's also been changing quite a lot. This is why there’s value in being vocal and visible about the fantastic women who are leading the way in many transformation programmes. For example, at AXA, our Commercial and Claims Transformation Programmes are led by brilliant women

We talk a lot at AXA about sustainability, resilience, and building diverse teams that consider all our customers, no matter what their background is. If you don't have that diversity of thought, then you're missing a trick because you're not reflecting what your customers look, feel, and sound like. And the bottom line is, there’s lots of evidence that diverse organisations actually perform better from a financial perspective.

I also believe that you can have it both ways; the data definitely supports the advantages of diversity from a financial standpoint but there is also significance in working for an organisation that genuinely values diversity, where it's not just a tick in the box exercise. Especially companies that put their money where their mouth is and actually appoint not just women, but people from minority backgrounds.

On top of this, people have diverse socio-economic backgrounds. We've had a significant focus on this at AXA led by Tracy Garrad, who's the CEO of our AXA Health business. She's very vocal about the fact that she's not your typical CEO; she comes from a working-class background, similar to me. Things like this speak to my personal values and resonate deeply with me.

At the event, you talked about how being different from others is a strength. Is that something that you've experienced in your career?

When I first started as a lawyer, 30 years ago, I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, because I didn't come from a middle-class, wealthy background. A lot of the people I was training with had parents who were lawyers or doctors, for example.

I learned quite fast that my thought patterns were a bit different, but this didn’t mean that I was stupid or that I was less qualified to do what I was doing. I just thought about things and engaged with people in a slightly different way. I looked different and didn’t sound like the typical law graduate.

I think the reason that this is a strength is because people like to see themselves reflected in the organisations they work for and do business with. Not everyone will relate to being white or middle-class. If companies are trying to attract more diverse talent, then they need to show how diverse they are at all levels across their business. This is particularly important at senior and board level.

But visible representation of difference has value over and above just the fact that you look a bit different – it’s about having people who actually understand what you’re going through. I've been very fortunate in my career, I've worked hard, but I've also had some brilliant mentors. I'm now in a position where, looking back 30 years, I don't think I would have thought I would be here, but it was having this difference that helped me to get here.

I think back to the things the ‘younger me’ did, like toning down my accent. It’s about finding the visibility of that difference, accepting it, and celebrating it. It's not just about visible difference in terms of skin colour, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality, but it can even be something as basic as how you speak.

Have you noticed similar issues arise with the women that you mentor?

The main thing I find with the women I mentor is that confidence has nothing to do with competence. They're all knocking it out of the park generally, but they don't see it. I learned quite early on, because I did it myself, that women believe that if they do a really terrific job,  your boss will notice. Sometimes people do, but most of the time they don't.

Then being hyper-competent becomes your baseline. I learned very early on that men were generally better at promoting themselves than women were. This is why I spend a lot of time with the women I mentor, asking them to write down all the great things they've done. They hate doing it, but it gets them into a habit at the end of each day to just mark down a few wins. Not only does it help with their end of year appraisal, but it creates this private cheer squad that they can look at when they’re having a bad day.

The women I mentor are often still in situations where they’re the only woman in the room and I am intrigued by the differential use of language used for men and women.  For example, a man is ‘assertive’ whereas a woman acting in the same way is ‘strident’ or ‘stroppy’.

I've had all of these applied to me at one time or another, which means that I must have been getting under somebody's skin! But it’s very interesting to see the dynamics around how some men can talk about women they have grievances with, in comparison to how they talk about other men.

What have you gotten from your experience with mentors and how have they helped?

I've had mostly informal mentors, but I've had coaches as well. They’re slightly different, but from a mentoring perspective, I think the number one thing is that it's a safe space. It gives you the chance to ask difficult questions, especially ones that you can't really ask your boss. You can then work through your own arguments and thought processes; you can do this in your own head, and I have, but it can get a bit crowded in there sometimes.

It's helpful to have someone who you can verbalise things to, and say “This is what I'm thinking, is that crazy?” With people I mentor, I'll share my own mistakes with them and I think sometimes just hearing this will help because there's this fallacy that if you’re a senior leader, then you must have done everything right.

There’s a humanising aspect of this too; the pandemic was generally dreadful, but I think one of the things it has done is blurred lines. It encouraged people to bring their whole selves to work, which has been a bit of a buzzword for a while, but we all did it. From having a cat walking over your head, to a small child coming in during a meeting, home-life and work-life started to blend together.

The best mentors I've worked with did that even before the pandemic, and understood the intersection between work and home. Everyone has times when things can be very difficult and you need somebody to talk to. This is why mentors are really important, whether you're being mentored or doing the mentoring, and it's something I'm really committed to and glad to give the time to.


Do you have any advice for others struggling with being the only woman in the room?

The most important thing is to make sure you speak up and learn to say ‘I said that!’. What I found is that many women are conditioned to be compliant and nice, careful to not make a fuss. We're the ones that are always trying to smooth things over.

I’ve experienced this myself.  I remember my jaw hitting the table when I'd made a suggestion, everyone ignored it and then literally five minutes later, a man made the same point and everyone was like, “that's a really great idea.” I didn’t defend myself because I was relatively new to the team, and I was being too nice.

But I would say something if this happened now; women shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and know their own power. You’re bringing a different aspect to the business, improving the diversity, so you can remind them that it's going to help their bottom line.

The world is a different place now than it was a few years ago, though it hasn't moved as fast as it should. Indeed, sometimes I worry that we're going backwards, for example, the pandemic had a massive deleterious effect on many women because they reverted to stereotypical gender roles. The research has been very clear that it was mainly the women who did the home-schooling and the housework. The mere act of being female at work has become a rebellious act – but that's a good thing.

It was encouraging to hear about how Anna learned to embrace her differences, and how passionate she is about shifting the power in workplace environments. Our conversation really highlighted the role that classism can play in people feeling out of place, and we’re sure Anna will continue to act as a role model for others who feel held back by their differences.

If you would like to follow Anna’s example in taking on a mentee, or if you’re a woman in transformation and change that would like to be paired with a mentor, head over to our Mentoring Programme page, sign up, and we’ll be in touch. 

Mike Weston

4th October

Mentoring Career Advice