The Lady with the Pink Jacket

Caroline Flynn-MacLeod

Caroline Flynn-MacLeod

LONDON, United Kingdom — A few weeks ago, I had a truly inspirational afternoon tea with Caroline Flynn-MacLeod at the Corinthian Hotel in London. Caroline is an impressive lady with extensive experience of the defence, security and political sectors at an international level. We have worked together in the past and she has been a role model for my own career in the same sectors.

Between sips, we had the chance to catch up on the latest gossip from the defence industry and the latest addition to her immaculate wardrobe. To close the FG Baby Boomer edition, I could not think of a better person than this stylish and successful female figure in the defence sector. On this occasion, she shares what she has learnt as the keys to success for a career in defence, security or politics from a female perspective.

A life’s work

Caroline’s determination and ambition are what really sets her apart from many people and these qualities set the tone of her career choices from a very young age:

At the age of 15 I told my careers master that I wanted to work at NATO. I wanted to be part of an international environment engaged in politics and international affairs. All he could suggest was perhaps becoming an interpreter or a translator, which was not what I wanted to be. I wanted to be part of international decision making processes.

Caroline went on to read European Studies (French and Politics majors) at the University of Bradford and won a post-graduate scholarship at the College of Europe Bruges. Starting out working for an NGO, Caroline’s hard work and extensive travel schedule eventually yielded the opportunity of her dreams at NATO Headquarters in Brussels just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It was an extremely exciting and interesting time, meeting people we had never been able to communicate with before and who had never been allowed to travel, as well as working out what our new relationship with these countries would be,” Caroline comments.

After leaving NATO, Caroline became the Director of a regional office for the US Information Agency at the US Embassy in London and two years later was recruited to work in the Central Marketing Team of GEC-Marconi by her now business partner of 15 years. When GEC-Marconi merged with BAE Systems, Caroline and her business Partner The Rt. Hon. Sir Geoffrey Pattie set up Terrington Management LLP, a Westminster based consultancy which helps defence and security companies to develop their marketing strategies and also offers political intelligence.

In a man’s world

The sectors Caroline has worked in are traditionally male-dominated and despite a growing number of female figures over recent years, there are still only a handful of women who have breached the upper levels. These women do not see being female as a disadvantage; instead, they have played by the rules of the game to get where they are based on their skills. Caroline is an example of a woman who has played to her strengths and has come up on top:

“In many ways I have never thought of myself as a woman in a man’s world. My aim has always been to be true to myself, follow a career that promotes the things in which I believe and to which I know I can add value and on which I can speak with some authority. This way one gains respect. People know exactly where they stand with me, and I will give a man as good as I get.”

Stand out rather than blend in

Being a woman in a man’s world one inevitably stands out. Caroline has played that to her advantage not only by building a reputation of asking difficult questions on the defence circuit but also by making bold statements with her fashion choices: “Going to meetings and conferences I tend to always wear a bright suit. This way if one wants to follow things up, it is often easy to email with the reminder that I was the lady in the second row in the pink suit. They remember!”

I also find that people want to come and talk to you if you look cheerful. If I want to grow my business then being noticed in the right way is essential. But looking good has to be backed up by sounding good and knowing what one is talking about.

Adding colour to your business attire can be easier said than done, either because there is a limited choice of colours to choose from for sharp suits or because we simply do not build enough confidence to stand out in bold colours. Caroline adds: “I lament the fact that designers tend to think that to be taken seriously a woman has to look like a man and therefore suits have to be black, brown or grey. I seem to find it very hard to find coloured suits these days!”

Under the microscope

In a business environment, your appearance is under constant scrutiny. Most women will play it safe with a traditional look so as not to provoke reaction or critique from male and female colleagues or clients. This is something Caroline has observed: “I suppose in fact women in business can be more judgemental of another woman and how she dresses, it is a fact of life. I think sometimes other women think that I am a bit mad making every effort to stand out, but women should not be afraid of colour.”

I like to look practical, in control and authoritative, but someone who likes to be very feminine too so that people are not “put-off”. Colour I think enables one to do that.

Is there a recipe to break the glass ceiling?

There is nothing more rewarding and reassuring that having a good mentor who takes you under their wing and shows you the path to success. For Caroline, the support of her male mentors turned out to be crucial in her great interest and enthusiasm for defence and foreign affairs. “Perhaps they thought it was fascinating, at that time in the late 1970s that a woman was interested in such things. They were enlightened people,” Caroline recalls.

“I owe everything to my first boss (who incidentally had two daughters of his own), and he encouraged me to take every opportunity that came my way and to challenge my own abilities. He also taught me the importance of networking, building relationships and trust with people and observing the niceties of writing to say ‘thank you’ and following up on meetings and lunches. I had no female mentors, as there were just no females in my world at that time, except Prime Minister Thatcher!”

If there is something I have learned in recent years, it is how willing people are to help, if only you ask! And Caroline is no exception:

I make a point now of helping and encouraging young women I meet who are interested in the defence world and helping them to understand the direction they wish to follow and offer guidance, support and ideas as to things they need to think about doing. It is wonderful though to see far more women coming through.

While so many people come forward with all sort of recipes and golden rules to be followed to break the glass ceiling, Caroline sticks to a few simple and yet extremely powerful pieces of advice:

“Never be put off; my careers master’s response only made me more determined to find out more about opportunities. Be prepared to stand out. Make sure you know what you are talking about before you launch into something. Always be prepared to ask intelligent questions in public sessions as it gets one noticed. Build networks. Always thank people for their help afterwards. And if I was you – wear bright colours!”

Courtesy of: Caroline Flynn-MacLeod.
Elizabeth Deheza About the author

Hyperactive perfectionist, vintage lover and working mother, coordinates and directs content across The FG Magazine. Comes from everywhere and nowhere; educated in six different countries with a MALD in International Security and a career in management consultancy.