Sarah Walker-Smith – Be brave, be honest, be kind

credit: Ursula Kelly 2019

credit: Ursula Kelly 2019

#YesSheCan is extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to interview Sarah Walker-Smith – CEO of legal services firm, Shakespeare Martineau. Sarah has an extremely interesting story which has led her to become the first female CEO of a Legal firm who hasn’t actually qualified as a Lawyer!! #YesSheCan!



Did you always want to work in the Legal industry?

In all honestly I didn’t choose it! From the age of two, I wanted to be an actress. School tried to talk me out of it because I was academic and they thought I was better off focusing on getting good grades, my family were telling me that it was a very volatile career, but in my mind, there was no other option for me.


Im from what I sometimes hear described as a social mobility background. I would have been the first person in my family to go to university, had I gone. Because I was academically bright, my family were keen for me to take that route but I was determined that I wanted to be an actress. When I got to 16, I refined the dream slightly and decided I wanted to be an actress, then a theatre director and then a writer!


At the age of 18, my mum got into a difficult place and asked me to leave home. Not because of anything Id done, more that she had issues of her own to focus on. I had won a hard-fought place at a drama school, but was then living in a bedsit and needed an income. I went and visited a careers office who sent me for a trainee accountant role – possibly because it was the first letter they got to! I decided to do it just for a year and defer my place at drama school … the rest is history!


I ended up qualifying as a chartered accountant, having moved after the first year to a national top accountancy firm, allowing me to complete the course through the faster route, without going to university. This meant I ended up becoming one of the youngest audit managers at Coopers and Lybrand (now PwC). I got weary of doing what I felt like was superficial audit work, so applied for a job at Boots, working in the operational risk part of finance. They encouraged me to do an MBA, focusing on strategic and change management and I then moved into the marketing department.


In my early 30s I went on maternity leave and Boots made me redundant within a few months. A friend told me about a particular Marketing Director vacancy which just happened to be for a Law firm, and that’s how I ended up in the sector!


In a nutshell, my early career was one long happy accident after another. I just followed things which interested me and have been drawn to areas where I can learn and add value!


My early career was one long happy accident after another


Most people face various challenges on the route to success, did you?

When people ask me about challenges, I find it quite tricky to answer as I dont really see a lot of things which have happened to me as challenges. I see opportunities, things which I can learn from. I completely appreciate that this is a mindset perspective, and there have been things which have challenged me.


Maternity leave is a time where you do question your own confidence


One of the main ones was being made redundant whilst on maternity leave. I was on the senior management high flyer programme at the time and I didnt see it coming at all – it was very unexpected. It was the first time that I thought maybe, just maybe, women were at a disadvantage. Until then Id never wanted to believe that was the case. Maternity leave is a time where you do question your own confidence, so to get made redundant at the same time was a double blow. That was one of the most difficult times where I had to dig myself out of it but ultimately it led me to my job at a law firm. 


Whatever life throws at you, you have to take control and try not to see things as challenges. Find the silver lining.


Whatever life throws at you, you have to take control


What do you think gave you the drive and determination to succeed?

Its just in-built. I genuinely feel that Im wired to want to try and do my bit for other people, given that I find myself now in an extremely privileged position. It is not something I even have to think about. 


I did some work on my own personal purpose a few years ago, which I realised was bravely lighting the path for others to shine. Im driven by hoping I can make things better for other people.


We should not fall into believing that women lead one way and men anothe


What is great about being a female in your role?

Id rather not have to talk about a female in my role, but I do acknowledge that whilst there are so few of us, I do need to talk about it.


I hate these stereotypes generally, but I do think that I can show an authentic style of leadership and maybe it is somehow easier or more acceptable for a woman to do that. Guys should be doing this as well though, I dont think this is the domain of women exclusively. We should not fall into believing that women lead one way and men another.


Also, there is a certain amount of attention I get as a result of my role. This means that can I use that platform to speak out and try and improve the world of business.


What is the biggest lesson that youve learnt along the way?

To be true to yourself. Trust that being yourself will give you a better outcome, than trying not to be.


Applying for this job, Id been through a five to six-month process and got down to the final three. It was only that point where I thought I had a shot at getting the role. All the way through, Id been doing what a lot of women do and thinking Im not qualified to do this, I wont get this job”. Even though I absolutely was qualified to do it. 


In the final three, the last stage was to present a 40-minute presentation about the challenges a CEO would face. I had prepared a very CEO-style slide deck, including, figures, strategy, plans. The night before I was due to present, I realised that I was projecting what I thought a CEO should talk about and I wasnt being true to myself. So, I deleted the presentation and did something totally different. I went in and just presented photographs and used them to talk about my vision and how I wanted to treat people. Looking back, that was an incredibly brave thing to do and I told myself that it was either going to be the most spectacular thing Id done, or the most stupid. I realised afterwards that actually it was neither. If I hadnt been true to myself and I had got the job, then it probably wouldnt have been the job for me. The best thing I could have done was to go in and be my true self, even if that might not be the traditional CEO style.”


We have to call it out when people face inequality


Have you ever felt that your gender has brought unnecessary challenges to your career?

Yes, it definitely has, although I refused to believe it for a long time because I dont like to accept that gender (or other) inequality exists. Sadly, it does though and Ive experienced it first hand and seen others experience it too. We have to call it out. 


I am genuinely grateful for some of the inequality and bias Ive faced. Its given me the opportunity to learn, made me stronger and driven me to make sure it doesnt happen to other people. I am also very grateful to the people I work with now. Its a wonderful feeling to feel unreservedly accepted and I want to help make sure others get to feel that way too.



What is your biggest achievement in life?

This is a really hard one to answer because I havent finished yet and most things are a work in progress, so its hard to say Ive achieved them.


There are two big things, however. In one respect, getting the job of CEO at Shakespeare Martineau was a huge achievement. Getting through the first year and feeling like were really making progress is really important. Its still a work in progress of course, but hopefully, this will be one of my biggest achievements alongside the team.


The second is not traditionally work-related. Three years ago I wrote, directed, designed and produced my own musical – The Legend of Lady Rock – whilst having a full-time job and a family. I couldnt read or write music and I had to teach myself, in order to do it. So for me, the achievement there was having the tenacity to overcome the barriers and challenges to be able to do that. 


When I first finished the musical, I didnt feel like it was an achievement. I felt like I was a failure, which is very typical of how many people – and a lot of women – tend to think. Its taken me some time to come to grips with that and not feel like a failure and to see it as an achievement.


Outside your work, what are your favourite hobbies and pastimes?

Musical theatre is my love – Ive recently been on stage playing Barbara Castle in Made in Dagenham. I aim to do around one show a year as a maximum these days either on stage or directing as theyre so time-consuming and Ive got a lot on with work and family.


Im also writing a book at the moment. Its a semi-fictitious novel about suffragettes in my home town of Nottingham. Im chipping away at it and I will finish it, but its taking quite a long time!


Be brave, be honest, be kind.


Do you have a mantra you live your life by?

Be brave, be honest, be kind.”


Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Dr Sam Collins, she runs an organisation called Aspire, which she set up after she had some extremely difficult things happen in her life. Shes helped thousands of women to find their confidence and find their purpose. I went to one of her conferences and did some training with her and she really helped me. What shes doing to help other women is truly inspirational.


What are your key motivators? 

To be the best I can be and to leave the world a better place in some small way


What have I got to lose by putting myself forward, all that will happen is that I might learn something


What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organisations?

We know statistically that women are only likely to go for a job if they hit about 90 -100% of the things that the job requires. Theyre also more likely to wait until someone tells them to go for it. Men, or people with more masculine tendencies, are more likely to go for a job if they reach 60% of the criteria, and theyre more likely to put themselves forward, without that tap on the shoulder. 


Clearly, women need to ask themselves, do I meet about 60% of the criteria? If yes, what have I got to lose by putting myself forward, all that will happen is that I might learn something.


What three tips would you give to young females starting their careers?

I’ve been asked this many times and I’ve actually got four! Firstly, be yourself. Secondly, be connected. Its really important to build up networks and connections, and not be afraid of asking for help and advice. Third is be purposeful – know what it is you what to achieve and your values – this will guide you and help make the toughest of decisions. The final one is believe. Believe. You really have to dig in and believe in yourself and what it is you are here for. Itll help enormously with issues of self-doubt and self-confidence. 


If you are truly leading, you will be like Marmite


What is the best bit of advice that you have ever been given?  

Courtesy of Dr Sam Collins….. Accept that if you are truly leading, you will be like Marmite. Accept and embrace the Marmite. Not everyone is going to like you and the decisions you make but you have to be comfortable with that. If you let it get to you, youre going to stop leading and it might stop you from doing the brave and the right thing.


What would you say to your 16-year-old self?

Ever so simple, dont be afraid. Im not interested in regrets, I think theyre unhelpful. But looking back, I definitely held myself back in my life and career because I was worried about what other people felt and what other people thought of me.



Thank you Sarah! Shakespeare Martineau believes that legal counsel is only one piece of the jigsaw and bespoke business solutions are designed firmly around clientsneeds. With over 800 people, Shakespeare Martineau has offices in Birmingham, London, Leicester, Nottingham, Milton Keynes, Solihull, Sheffield and Stratford-upon-Avon. 



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