International Women’s Day: ‘Barriers only made me more determined to succeed’

Before she worked in housing, Riverside’s Leann Hearne blazed a trail in a man’s world. On International Women’s Day 2017, she offers a personal reflection

‘Be Bold for Change’ is this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, and Leann has certainly managed to be that over the last 30 years.

Throughout her career, she’s overcome obstacles and helped change the perception of women in senior leadership roles. Her accomplishments epitomise the aim of the awareness day: that it’s time to forge a better working world and challenge bias.

Leann, who is Riverside’s Executive Director for Shared Services, started out in the commercial world two decades ago when working life was very different.

If she faced barriers along the way, they only made her more determined to succeed.

It set her on a journey to the top as managing director for the British division of an international manufacturing business, with a turnover of over £500million and 4,000 employees across the world.

“It was a privately-owned business and I reported directly to the owner,” she recalls. “I sat on the main board and was the youngest at 35. I didn’t realise I was doing anything trailblazing until I left the company. In our sector I was one of only three female MDs in Britain. It was very fast-paced and technical.

“I faced a lot of challenges and felt I had to prove myself more than my male colleagues. But I feel lucky to have learned a lot and to have been given great opportunities. Ultimately, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my husband’s support. Being self-employed, he was able to attend parents’ evening and school events. That was one of the hardest challenges for me – where the children would ask dad first.”

Wanting to give something back, Leann did some voluntary work at her local charity shop. From there she secured a non-executive role with a housing association in Derby and her interest in the sector grew.

Then, in 2008, she decided to leave manufacturing to work as operations director for a housing association in the Midlands. She worked there for four years then joined Riverside in her dream job as Executive Director for Care and Support.

“Some changes needed to be made to bring the Care and Support business up-to-date,” she recalls. “I persuaded staff that the only way we could help more homeless people and get them off the streets was to become more commercially viable and win more contracts. This worked and today Riverside Care and Support is one of the top two highest performing organisations of its kind in the country.”

Leann’s current role as Executive Director for Shared Services is equally challenging, as she drives the transformation of Riverside to make the organisation even more efficient.

And her passion for being bold can be traced back to her childhood – her dad was a hugely positive influence who helped her turn her hand to fixing cars, aged just 14.

“My dad believed his daughters should have the best opportunity,” she says. “The best advice he gave me was that if I didn’t understand something then ask – that I have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that order and that I should believe I can. My mum has crammed so much into life, too, so she gave me the ‘will do’ attitude.”

As she reflects on the aims of International Women’s Day, what advice would Leann give to people starting out today?

“Realise your goals and potential,” she says. “It is always about planning, being organised and being responsible for your own self-development. Listen, listen and learn.”