In this blog, #YesSheCan speak to Rachel Topliss. Rachel has had a varied career but now dedicates herself to supporting students in Sheffield to develop and become part of the business fabric of the City in the future.
Tell us a bit more about you….
My current role is the Head of Employer Academy Partnerships and Work Related Activity at The Sheffield College. I’m really passionate about driving forward partnership working within the Sheffield City Region to bring together the city’s Educational offer in line with Sheffield’s own business need. I’m honoured to have been recognised for the work I carried out developing the employability skills of young people in the Sheffield City Region. I’m an active member of inspirational woman’s groups and I’m passionate about promoting woman within traditionally male dominated employment sectors.
What is a typical day for you?
My roles are always very operational and this is when I’m at my best. My role at The Sheffield College is no exception to this. I am accountable for how students experience their college day. This includes ensuring a meet and greet service is provided every morning at all of our campuses so that our student community receive a warm and friendly welcome, and ensuring that they are safe and have everything they need for a positive and productive college experience. During the day, I will meet with external partners to go through current contracts and explore potential business opportunities to expand these partnerships.
I am currently in the process of teaming up with a host of local businesses to expand the Employer Skills Academies programme that I launched earlier this academic year at the College to help our students go further in their careers. This is an innovative teaching and learning programme that provides technical and professional education for college students.
The academies cover sector specialisms such as catering, engineering, hospitality, and information technology – with more set to open in future – that are backed by employers.
Students are learning about all aspects of the businesses that are backing their academies, alongside completing a vocational qualification. The employers are providing industry talks, masterclasses, workshops, work experience and placements to enhance students’ employability skills.
These academies are enabling students, with a proven aptitude and positive work ethic, to enhance their studies by engaging with professional organisations and projects to gain transferable employability skills, sector knowledge and practical experience.
As Head of the Employer Skills Academies it’s important to me that I make time to chat with students and staff to see how everyone is getting along.
I’m also involved with some regional projects working with the Local Enterprise Partnership, therefore networking events are key to the project success, so several times a week I’ll find myself visiting interesting places around he region and networking with strategic partners.
I have recently been asked to become an ambassador for the Department for Education, which is another great experience for me, opening many doors of opportunity nationally.
No matter what I’m doing during the day though I always make time for a good cup of coffee – that, and seeing the progress our students are making, is what keeps me going!
What made you choose this career/industry?
I think my career chose me. When I first started my career with a corporate travel company, I thought that was going to be my life. Living around the world, jet setting and staying in some of the most fantastic hotels I’ve ever seen was everything I wanted. After 13 years, I was made redundant and I knew that my life would never be the same again.
I applied for a job as an Operations Manager at a local college but didn’t read the job description properly. This resulted in me managing an educational contract in a Category C male prison. After the initial shock of working within a secure environment had worn off, I absolutely loved it. Every day was different
This is how I got into the education sector. Since leaving the prison service, I’ve worked at further education colleges setting up and managing new commercial businesses.
There isn’t any jet setting or business meetings held in bikinis, but it’s just as interesting and rewarding.
I am very grateful for the challenges I have faced during my career
How did you get to where you are now and did you face any challenges along the way?
I am very grateful for the challenges I have faced during my career journey. I worked as a support manager on a plane crash on mainland Spain. I still find it hard to describe this experience as it was the most emotionally and mentally challenging situation I’ve ever had to help deal with.. In the same year, I also worked on another emergency incident in Mallorca, after a hotel collapsed. Those memories and experiences always stay with you, but so do the skills you have develop along the way.
If any, can you tell us more about how you overcame those setbacks?
In my first overseas role as an 18 year old fresh out of sixth form I was surrounded by some really big characters. When you’re working in a fast paced environment, living in a foreign country and working with strangers without home comforts around you, it quickly becomes a situation where your options are limited to only sink or swim.
There was no way I was going to let myself fail, I felt like I was living the dream and going back to work in the UK was something that wasn’t in the plan. I quickly settled in but not only was I juggling daily operations I also had really high sales targets. That’s when it really did become survival of the fittest.
Learn as much as you can from your colleagues – good and bad!
Every day I would watch other staff and see how they managed guest issues and still managed to hit their sales targets. The rewards for exceeding targets were unbelievable so this just made everyone more competitive. To overcome work setbacks you really need to seek out colleagues that seem to have everything under control, and then learn absolutely everything you can from them. Even if your learning how not to do something or learning from their mistakes always take what knowledge you can
Believe it or not I was quiet when I first started out but I’m sure if you ask my colleagues now quiet is not a word used to describe me.
What is an important initiative that you feel passionate about in your role?
My whole reason for doing my job is so they I can ensure that the workforce of tomorrow is fully supported and encouraged to develop their employability skills.
I love acting as a role model for young people and playing a part in their learning and development. Our whole ethos is careers ensuring our students are given an opportunity to go further in their careers and follow their dreams. What happens as a young person at our college really does affect the rest of their life.
When you think about things in that way, it’s a huge responsibility
What do you think gave you the drive and determination to succeed?
Being a woman in business alone gives me the drive to succeed because I think assumptions are still made in industry that the majority of high profile jobs are filled by males.
All of the role models I have had over the last 26 years in work have all been female. I’ve seen firsthand what can be achieved if you focus always on the next strategic task, and never sit back. The key is if you win a great contract on a Monday, not to be content that you have achieved enough. Celebrate your success, and then start working on the next day’s goals.
What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learnt along the way
Don’t always go where the money is and don’t be distracted by the “shiny stuff” as it’s probably too good to be true. Strategic planning within your career, personal growth, being given the opportunity to make visual impact in your role, working towards getting new to doors open and even following lost leaders, far out way any short term earning potential.
When I was offered the role of Overseas Operations Manager I’m ashamed to say I flatly turned it down on the spot. In my mind there was no negotiation, I just didn’t want my career to go in that direction. On the tube on the way home that night I started to think about how this could actually work for me and how this could open doors especially overseas with new connections.
The next day I had to go and admit id changed my mind. That particular role created the opportunity to develop resilience skills that I’ve used and adapted in every single thing I’ve done since. I was lucky enough to work from London directly for the most fantastic business woman. The skills I learnt from my female mentor were priceless and I am eternally grateful to her for this.
Get up, dress up, and show up
Do you have a mantra you live your life by?
Get up, dress up, and show up, no matter what!
My teams have always been encouraged to live and breathe this mantra because no matter what happens, or how you feel, or how much you may have been knocked down, the only way forward it to get back up, dust yourself off and get stuck back in. You are the secret of your own success and no one is ever going to give that to you on a plate You either want it or you don’t it’s a s simple as that, so if you do you need to work for it.
What three tips would you give to young females starting their careers?
Do you think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance?
I don’t think enough is being done but I can see some areas of business taking some really positive big steps towards this.
I was asked to be a guest speaker at The Sheffield Chamber of Commerce last year at their annual gala dinner. In the past, events of this kind tended to be male dominated but this is no longer the case.
The evening was hosted by Claire Frisby from BBC Look North. Myself and the other speaker were both female. It was a black tie dinner and some of the female attendees chose to wear a black suit. On stage when looking around the room I paused for a moment before the speech to recognise and remember that moment of a truly diverse audience.
I’ve since joined a group set up by the Chamber that aims to inspire young women in the workplace. This is an exciting time and I am proud that in Sheffield we are trying to lead by example as a collective business community. As a group our intention is that we work collaboratively using our own personal experiences to inspire young woman in the work place.
What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?
Don’t let someone else tell you that you can’t do something. Work on building resilience this will be a constant through your life and it will take time but this skill is needed if you truly want to succeed in a leadership role.
Be persistent and tenacious because in the early days of your career you will have more failure than success but in order to be successful you need to keep trying. Always take the feedback offered to you, this is never a personal criticism.
When I was 18 I went to London three years in a row for the same job with no success at interview. On my third visit before the interview I did inform the panel that I would keep coming every year until I got it. Funnily enough that’s the year I finally got the offer.
What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?
Never ask staff to do anything you wouldn’t do is something I completely live by in the workplace. I am a very operational hands on manger so it would not be natural for me not to roll up my sleeves.
I think it’s important to install trust and confidence in your team. I always tell the team not to be afraid to make key business decisions but to always think carefully. The question they ask themselves is “can I justify why I made this decision to the most senior person in the organisation”. If the answer is yes then go ahead, be brave and be bold. Having confidence in your decisions will drive forward and develop inner leadership skills.
If you would like to learn more about Rachel, her journey and The Sheffield College please visit www.sheffcol.ac.uk or follow The Sheffield College on LinkedIn or Twitter.