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Nikki King OBE webchat

Nikki King OBEIsuzu boss Nikki King OBE, who featured on Channel 4's 'Undercover Boss', joined us in January 2012 to talk about women and work, combining career with children (and grandchildren) and how it's never too late to follow your dream.

Nikki was, by her own admission, a 'late starter' and her rise to the top of the motoring business has been nothing short of meteoric. "I was a secretary until the age of 40 when an unexpected divorce necessitated that I began a career that earned enough money to support myself and my children." She started work at a Ford dealership, rising to the position of MD and was offered the chance to launch the first UK distributorship for Isuzu Motors in 2004. Trucks and women may not be perceived as a natural combination - but 64 year-old Nikki has constantly confounded the perceived wisdom of "glass ceilings" and the perception of a woman at the very top in a man’s world.

Since taking the motoring industry by storm, Nikki has picked up awards and accolades (including an OBE) and has been pinpointed as an inspirational figure in the industry for both men and women. "Obsessive" about customer care, she is also a business mentor for the Prince's Trust. This is an edited transcript of the original webchat.

Q: One reads much about "having it all" - something that was unheard of in my youth but which (many of) our daughters seem determined to try to attain. Given there are only a finite number of hours in a day do you really think this is possible? rosiemus

A: I actually don't believe you can. I work on the "two out of three ain't bad" principle, which Meatloaf said many years ago. I think to have a successful marriage, a great career, and well-balanced children, is one step too far. The only people who can be successful at this are people with huge disposable income, who can afford to employ nannies, which I didn't have.

Without doubt, my career didn't start until I was 40, when my ex-husband decided to leave me with everything that eats. So, I think if I'd had to have said to someone "Wash your own shirts, dinner's in the oven" my career wouldn't have taken off. However, I do have well-balanced children and a good career, so back to Meatloaf.

Q: My son runs his own small business (three employees) and is very anxious not to discriminate against any potential employees on the basis that they are youngish women who may well want to have children. But nor can he afford to pay maternity leave and employ cover for that period at the same time.What would you say to people running small businesses for whom this could be a catastrophic financial burden? jakesgran

A: This is a really interesting and difficult question. One of the problems with any sort of legislation that is intended to help people is that it has undesired consequences, and the consequence of the maternity legislation is that, in reality, small businesses have to think very carefully before employing women who are likely to stop work to have children.

The only advice I can give to your son is, please don't let this stop you employing gifted women, and give a lot of thought prior to pregnancy to how these women can continue to work, either from home, or by bringing babies to the office, both of which are highly achievable in a small business. A recognition that there could be a problem, and a sensible agreement between employer and employee at an early stage can actually settle a lot of these problems.

In fact in my own company it's not unusual to see small children and babies with their mothers. We've also got a number of women working flexi-hours or working from home. Indeed, we have now declared every strike action day by teachers a bring-your-child-to-work day. Because of this policy, we have a number of teenagers who provide fantastic holiday cover because they know us well and their parents ensure they do a great day's work!

Q: Are you a member of any formal networks? Do you think that networking is important to getting on in business? flippin

A: No, not as such, but networking is probably the most important activity in your working life, and something that men, generally, are much better than women at doing. It's quite difficult networking when you have to go home to help with homework and cook the dinner. I find networking in all sorts of strange places. I really go out of my way to talk to strangers in most situations. I also work quite a lot with charities, and meet many really interesting people along the way. It really is a case of "It's not what you know, it's who you know", so I really recommend networking.

However, there is quite a fashion now for female networking organisations. This is quite credible, but not terribly helpful if you're wanting to get on in your career. My experience is that, if not careful, these develop into bitching sessions, and are rarely helpful. Much better to network with industry-specific organisations that have both male and female members.

Q: I am impressed with your management style but what advice would you have for someone who faces a less flexible and tolerant regime, but who has certain grandparent and caring responsibilities? I work hard, if sometimes out of normal hours, and I don't think anyone could fault my productivity, but I sometimes feel guilty about admitting why I need to take an afternoon off. bigknitter

A: I think the first thing to do is to be totally honest. Bosses are also human beings and also have personal pressures. However, when you talk to your boss about your own situation, please offer a solution, for example, "I'm sorry but I really need to take Tuesday afternoons off to look after my grandson, but will quite happily work late on Monday and Tuesday evening". Most employers will just be relieved you've found your own solution, and quite happily accept this. Much better than to have a number of "sickies" without any explanation.

Also, don't be embarrassed about publicising the fact that you do work out of normal hours. Very often employers won't notice unless you tell them! It tends to be a female trait to be a silent martyr, rather than telling people what great work you're doing. Is it possible that you could work from home? 

Q: I know loads of women who are hardworking, capable, enthusiastic, not fussed about fancy make up or hair-dos - so why is it that they have never had their expertise and talents recognised by either pay increases or promotion? Why have they spent their working lives covering up for and clearing up their bosses' mistakes while the boss is given or takes the credit for anything well done? Granny23

A: Women in general are really bad at self-publicising. I was a secretary until I was 40, and constantly covered up for my boss and did his job for him. Men rarely fall into this trap and loudly proclaim if they get someone else out of trouble or do somebody else's job for them. My advice for these women is to stop being so nice and join the male world! Make sure that any good idea you have is followed up with an email and make sure somebody knows every success you have. You don't have to be overtly ambitious about this, but you have a perfect right to ensure that you get due credit.

Q: What do you think about positive discrimination in things like politics? For example, do you think it's a good thing that eg. women get put forward for Cabinet roles in order to make the Cabinet as a whole more balanced? And do you think you've benefitted from positive discrimination? effblinder

A: Deep down, I think discrimination, positive or otherwise, is still discrimination. I would be devastated if I felt that my success was due to the fact that I was a "quota". I also think it's shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. The big problem for women is that during the time of middle-management, when they should be working for the next career move, they have so many other calls on their time, such as elderly parents, children and husbands.

If we make the workplace more flexible at this stage, we make it much easier for women to hit the boardroom. Have I benefitted from positive discrimination? Yes, I guess I have, but more at this time in my career, when I've made it. That's because I'm in a male-dominated industry, and I'm now at the stage where men congratulate themselves that I've made it, and they're quite proud of me. They weren't half so kind when I was moving up the ladder!

Q: I have taught Business English to Japanese adults and understand the Japanese culture is one of hard work, long hours and very few holidays. Do you think that you are influenced by Isuzu's cultural expectations in this regard? And do you think that you could have achieved as much as you have if you had also had a husband/partner to consider? grannyactivist

A: Let's take the last question first: I think it depends on the husband/partner, but in my case, with my ex-husband, certainly not!

Japanese culture, as I'm sure you know, is very interesting. Where I win out, spookily, is my age (64). It works for me in Japan, not against me, because you cannot be promoted in Japan unless you achieve a certain age. On the question of the hard work and long hours, luckily, the UK is 6,000 miles from Japan, so I don't have a lot of pressure on this score. However, I am noticing in Japan, that the culture is gradually changing, and young Japanese are refusing to play the "work-til-you-drop" game.

When I first went to Japan, I felt so sorry for young executives, forced to go drinking every night after work with their bosses, when they obviously wanted to go and play tennis. This has changed a lot, and Isuzu in Japan, for example, insist that everyone leaves the office on Fridays at 5 o'clock. This is much more healthy. During the worst time of the Japanese recession, a young Japanese colleague of mine was forced to sit in his office all night on his own with nothing to do, just in case the bank telephoned him. This is clearly ludicrous, and I'm so pleased it's ending!

However, the work culture of Japan also has its great side and the way they've recovered post-tsunami is nothing short of mind-blowing. Many of my colleagues in Japan have not taken summer holiday this year and are helping out in the tsunami area.

Q: How has your business changed since appearing on Undercover Boss? What is your advice for anyone facing adversity in the workplace because of their sex/age? cm22v07

A: The business hasn't changed in the way it's run, but it has a really profound effect on our enquiry levels. I think we completely underestimated the power of television, and it really caught us on the hop, when I had over 4,000 emails in the first 24 hours! I genuinely am passionate about customer service and publicising it so graphically on Undercover Boss has produced some challenges where customers have not always received the service I would wish them to receive. However, it has given me the opportunity to make things right.

My advice to anybody facing adversity in the workplace because of sex or age is first: be absolutely sure that is the reason. I say this because when I received my first big promotion, none of my peer group (all male) called me to congratulate me and I moaned to my boss that it was because I was a woman and they resented my promotion. He pointed out to me, and I've never forgotten it, that it wasn't because I was a woman, it was because I'd been promoted, and they would have been exactly the same with a male colleague.

If you are sure that you are facing sexism or ageism, my advice is to hit it hard straight away. If somebody makes a sexist or deprecating comment, hit them straight between the eyes verbally, as publicly as they have made comments to you. For example, say "I can't believe you've said that, have you always been sexist?" or something. The first time you do it, you will be shaking in your shoes, but it gets easier. Don't spend hours mulling it over and getting angry. My experience is that people who make such comments are either bullies or cowards, and once hit publicly, will never do it again.

Q: You've clearly found ways to cope with sexism. But have you encountered ageism, or were you successful enough to avoid this? Either way, have you learnt anything from your career that helps to deal with both of these? sneetch

A: Funnily enough, I think this is one place where women tend to have more of an advantage than men. I think this is because, generally, men are very respectful of their mothers, and therefore rarely want to make ageist comments to women. Also, I think it's much more difficult to tell the age of a woman than a man, because hairdressers and good makeup can hide a multitude of sins. I found that my management style and the way I deal with press etc has changed as I've got older to an acceptance from me that I am old, but am shrugging-off of the adverse characteristics of old age.This was something I handled very badly during my hot flush period, where everybody was aware of my problems!

Q: I wondered what made you go into the car business to start with given it's such a predominantly male environment. And also it has been my experience that many older (ie. experienced) workers are let go because it's cheaper to hire less experienced youngsters. Do you think this is becoming increasingly prevalent in the current recession? And is there anything we can do about it? kittyp

A: I'm really interested in your comments and would love to know what industry you're in. My experience is completely the opposite. The problem we have now is that school leavers generally are totally incapable of working effectively and it takes up to a year to get them into a position where they're useful to an employer. 

Because of this, employers are tending to hire older people at the expense of the young, as employment statistics are graphically showing. It honestly takes a long time to persuade youngsters that they cannot just go to lunch and not come back because they met a friend, to teach them to write a letter and not text speak, to develop interpersonal skills and not lose their tempers etc. I know this is a big generalisation, but it's certainly my experience as an employer. This echoes the opinion Terry Leahy of Tesco who had the same experience. I feel our education system is badly letting down our young people and would love to be in a position to change that!

Q: I would love to know more about your mentoring of young people - so many seem disillusioned these days and worry that even with good exam results and a degree it is impossible to find a decent job. rosiemus

A: I spend quite a lot of time mentoring young people and what I find really disturbing is their lack of appreciation of what is really possible. They have such narrow ambitions, and we really need to change that. A number of young people think that the only way to success is to win a TV talent show, or be on reality TV. Somehow we have to enthuse them with the idea of making a career, working hard and really enjoying the climb to the top.

Everything these days is so short-term and no one thinks long term at all. My job as a mentor with young people is to persuade them what really is possible. It seems that a number of children have left school with few qualifications and are now absolutely convinced that they're on the dungheap. This is clearly ridiculous, as many of today's top entrepreneurs, myself included, have limited qualifications from school. We must give our young people confidence and not categorise them from such an early stage. It always helps when I tell them I was 40 before I discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and how really bad I was at school.

Q: I am about to start getting some mentoring from a very successful businesswoman. Have you got any tips for how to approach it to make sure I get the most out of the relationship and offer her maximum scope to be helpful? granola

A: On the subject of receiving mentoring, the first important thing is you must like each other, and be comfortable in each other's company. Always go to your mentor with an agenda and understand what their strengths are. A good mentor will not tell you what to do or how to do it. By a series of questions, they should be helping you to make your own decisions. I can't stress enough how important mentors have been to me in my career. A good mentor from outside your business can open doors for you and give you fresh thinking. Equally importantly, a more senior mentor in your own company can ensure that you are not overlooked in the promotion race and that senior managers are made aware of your successes - really important, this.

Q: I saw you on television and thought you were fantastic when you were pretending to be Pauline - although it was quite depressing the way people treated you. What advice would you give to a woman in her 50s who wants to go on working but doesn't feel she is taken seriously? I have found it difficult to get jobs at a level that I think is right for me (I have always worked in management) and I am thinking of starting my own business. Do you have any tips? What pitfalls should I avoid? GranIT

A: Yes it was depressing. One of the best moments when filming was something the camera missed. Having a lunch break in a transport cafe in Birmingham, the owner asked what we were filming. I told her the standard story that it was a programme about older people going back to work and the difficulties around that. We chatted for about 10 minutes and as I went, she shouted to me - "You're a lovely old lady and you can come and work for me tomorrow if you want!". I was really touched, and know that there's a job waiting for me frying eggs in Birmingham whenever I want it!

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It is a sad fact of life that older women, in fact probably older people in general, tend to have to start their own businesses to get on. My tip on starting your own business is to overestimate your expenses, allow double the time you first think of for the business to break even and be prepared to work 24 hours a day. This is a great time to start a new business, if you can make a success today, you'll be doubly successful tomorrow, and there are opportunities out there. Get a mentor and a great bank manager - good luck!

Q: Your company's policies to encourage women in the workplace sound brilliant. Having worked full-time all my life and having a daughter and daughter-in-law who both work full-time has made me very concious of companies who are not always so supportive of working mothers. Does it worry you that one of the dangers of a recession is that companies start to try and remove some of the policies that support women at work? What can we do to protect hard-won rights such as maternity leave and flexible working for people with young children? Mamie

A: I don't think we will lose the rights we already have, but sadly I think many companies pay lip service to this issue. Because I was a working mother myself, I was always passionate that if I had my own business I would encourage female-friendly practices. The results of all the things we do in my company - flexible working, children in the office, homeworking and job sharing, have given me the best workforce I've ever worked with and some really talented women in a male-dominated industry. 40% of my management team are female - some work from home, some bring their children to the office, and the world hasn't ended yet.

My staff turnover is under 2% in 16 years, and I'm really proud of that. It makes me feel sick to think of the management talent I would have lost if I was a dinosaur like so many people in big businesses today. So maybe we should be celebrating publicly companies that do think outside the box, and equally publicly pillorying those that do not. Let's name and shame until it becomes unthinkable that businesses do not support women, mothers and grandmothers.