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Lessons from the C-suite: Sheila Flavell, FDM Group



Sheila Flavell, COO of FDM Group talks about her passion for flying, fighting the gender pay gap and inclusion.

I started out…working for the Glasgow Police Force. There weren’t many women in the force in those days and we were not treated the same as our male counterparts. I joined in the early 70s, before equal pay was introduced and was paid less than my fellow male officers.

This all changed in 1975 with the Equal Pay Act. All rates had to be raised to at least the lowest male rate. I then went on to get a job as a flight attendant with Gulf Air.

This was an amazing adventure until the Gulf War kicked off 12 years later and it was time to return to the UK.

It was difficult to get a decent job so I enrolled at university to do a couple of masters degrees and at the same time joined a tech start-up, FDM Group. Over 30 years later the tech start-up is now a FTSE 250 global company.

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I knew this was the right career path for me when… I was FDM’s first employee and as the business grew, I grew with it. I learned along the way and created my own pathway.

I live my life by what I call my ‘Play-Doh Principle’: my life is full of colour and I have reshaped it many times over the 50 years I have been in the workplace.

I realised a long time ago that you can be anything you want to be if you put your mind to it. I gained a love for breaking boundaries, especially in an industry that lacks female representation.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way… Is to believe in yourself and understand self-doubt and imposter syndrome are fairly normal feelings which most women suffer from at times.

My proudest achievement… FDM reporting a zero gender pay gap when mandatory reporting was introduced in 2017. A personal achievement would be when I qualified as a helicopter pilot at the age of 60.

My grandchildren call me Bibi which is a common name for ‘granny’ in the Middle East and Africa. I am now affectionately known as Pilot Bibi. I think this sounds better than ‘The Flying Granny.’

My biggest mistake… I tend to look forwards not backwards. I make my fair share of mistakes, but like to focus on what I’ve learned through the experience.

My biggest inspiration… To create a fair workplace and improve equality, diversity, and inclusion. There are many untapped pools of talent that are simply being neglected.

“I gained a love for breaking boundaries”

Keeping me awake at night right now… The gender pay gap. Women in the workplace all too often earn less than men for doing the exact same job, and this needs to change.

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years will be… Overhauling their approach to recruitment and training. Current practices are not addressing the issue of the global skills gap meaning a new and innovative way forward is needed to open doors to fresh talent who can be trained or re-trained.

I am collaborating with my HR team to…Focus on gender, ethnicity, social mobility, different abilities and neurodiversity, LGBT+ inclusion and parent and caring responsibilities. 

More HR directors would enter the C-suite if... Once organisations realise that it’s the combination of people making their strategies a success, they can recognise how important it is to have someone who oversees that part of the business and is involved with the developments and implementation of strategies.

What I’m reading right now… Fly Girl by Ann Hood. It’s a light-hearted memoir of the experiences of a young flight attendant.

It is noted as a first-class ticket to the sadly bygone days when air travel was stylish, sexy and rarified. It takes me back to that period of innocence and carefree days in my early 20s.


My top leadership tip… Collaborate, communicate, connect and care for your people.

This article was first published in the July/August 2023 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.

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