International Women’s Day: What I’ve learned over the years - By Amanda Hills, President MMGY Hills Balfour
On International Women's Day, three years ago to the day, we announced the integration of Hills Balfour with MMGY Global, the world's leading integrated marketing & communication agency in travel and tourism. It was an extremely proud day for the agency and for me personally.
I have been reflecting a lot recently on my personal career journey and choices, successful leadership and how women can thrive in the professional space.
What started as a fledgling female start-up over 20 years ago in the eaves of our house has flourished and grown into a reputable integrated marketing and communications agency. Its success is down to seriously hard work, luck and the truly exceptional talent which is the fabric of Hills Balfour. Today, we are an important part of such a major growing company - one that shares our core values, respects and recognises the importance of women in business and also has strong inclusivity and diversity credentials.
So how did I get here? My mother has always been a massive inspiration. She is a strong, determined and highly focused individual. She excelled at teaching which she felt was the perfect career that fitted well with bringing up children. She was a tremendous role model, taking both roles in her stride. Also, hats off to my more traditionalist father, who even then, challenged protocol and supported both my mother’s aspirations and encouraged me to pursue my dreams.
I always knew that I wanted a family, but pursuing a career was also important to me, and I knew it was possible to have both as I had watched my mother navigate both worlds so successfully.
I had worked in corporate life for nearly all my career but when I had my children in my early-mid thirties I knew I needed to carefully look at options that would allow me to nurture and grow my career whilst also allowing me to prioritise raising my two beautiful sons, Alex and Harry, fully supported by my truly exceptional husband, Peter.
Peter was also as eager to share the responsibilities as he was to pursue his own career. A truly integrated partnership. So, the reason I set up my own business was self-motivated - it allowed me to have both a career and a family on my own terms.
I am often asked if I believe it is possible to have it all. It is a question I discuss with friends and colleagues (male and female) often. However, I think we need to reframe the debate and determine how we can have both: a positive personal life, which for some will include children and a strong and fulfilling professional life.
Let me start by saying it is tough to get the balance right and there are two key factors to remember. First, it is incumbent on both men and women to normalise to children that women pursuing careers as equal to men is so incredibly important to balance society. Secondly, to help women in their careers, their own leaders, both male and female, play a massively important role in supporting, nurturing and mentoring.
I'd like to feel we are sensitive and understanding of how we can improve the work/life balance at HB. We are constantly checking ourselves and searching for ways to improve, but I do think there are some lessons I have learned over the years which I have put into practice both personally and professionally.
1 - Be firm, super-disciplined and organised and place an equal importance on families and work
It is important to work smart, set boundaries that protect family time but also allow individuals to soar professionally. One has to be ultra-disciplined, manage one's own time and the team's time effectively as well as keeping a sharp eye on the end goal. I know, easy to write and hard to manage but we strive every day to ensure our teams managers and employees are getting the balance right. Over the years, I have observed we are all so much more productive, and fulfilled when we get this balance right.
2 - Move away from traditional stereotyping and into the partnership generation
We need to create a partnership culture that moves away from traditional stereotyping. Men need to feel empowered and engaged with the women's movement and be proud that we can be joint breadwinners and caregivers.
We need to normalise men feeling at ease about spending precious time with their families and women wanting to become leaders in their field.
If we can create a partnership culture which everyone recognises both in the workplace and at home, we will all have a much better balance, with shared responsibilities. My husband, Peter, and I both have successful careers and enjoy a seamless partnership in raising the children.
3 - Create a flexible working culture
One of the good things to come out of the pandemic is the improved agility and flexibility in how we work from home. It took a pandemic to accelerate this revolution and our business has continued to thrive as we work from home.
Although having a physical presence in the office, particularly for a business like ours, will remain incredibly critical for mentoring, engaging and having a voice, the pandemic has shown us we can successfully work from home and shift our hours that better suit family life without compromising professional success.
I truly believe that it has never been easier to have both so let’s support and help each other make this a reality. Here's to the next generation of women and men.
Amanda Hills takes questions from the team:
1 - Which women did you / do you look to for inspiration?
I am inspired by my truly amazing colleagues on a daily basis and never more so than during the pandemic. Their consistent creativity, inspiration and motivation despite many, many challenging personal and professional obstacles.
I have never been more proud to work for such a great company and the team's innate ability to question and challenge, define and reshape what I do and that keeps me inspired every day.
I am also motivated by hearing from inspirational pioneers who change the world, from Mother Teresa one of my all time heroines, to Greta Thurnberg who has made me change my thinking in the environmental space more than any other, to Amanda Gorman whose poem 'The Hill We Climb' inspired and gave hope to not only me, but the world, just when we all needed it the most.
I am inspired every single day by women, by supportive friends, my loving family, and my inspirational nieces and goddaughters and indeed by women the world over, because I think we need to seek out inspiration - it doesn’t just land. And by finding that inspiration we become better versions of ourselves.
2 - What have been some of the most memorable parts of your career to date and what would you still like to achieve?
Well to kick off, it was choosing travel as a career which was so memorable. My inspirational maths teacher who doubled us as a career guidance counsellor, stumbled upon a business studies travel course at university and undertaking that shaped the rest of my career.
I had the privilege of being a major part of the marketing team during the opening phase of the Eurotunnel - I learnt so much from that experience, and met so many who would have a strong influence on my career but essentially it was running a massive start up and being part of a fascinating journey from the beginning. The single moment when Thatcher and the Queen greeted Mitterrand emerging from the tunnel and England and France became one will forever be etched on my memory.
From transport below the sea to above the clouds, I realised the strategic importance of marrying destinations and airlines together was critical for tourism growth.
A great and memorable moment in this space was when I worked closely with the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism to bring Virgin to fly into my beloved Africa, from our initial meetings with Richard Branson to the moment the Kenyan President welcomed our inaugural plane, is an experience I will never forget. That moment not only changed the lives of so many in Kenya, as tourism is such a critical part of the local economy and Kenyan people but also to the unique wildlife which depends on bringing tourists to the destination.
But creating Hills Balfour is my single most memorable career highlight - 23 years of making a difference - building a company, together with so many others, such talented women and men from scratch to a team of over 100. I am proud of our decision to take the company to the next stage and in our integration with MMGY Global to create a new work of opportunity and possibilities for all our teams, and clients too, so they too can reach for the stars.
3 - What do I still want to achieve?
A truly proud moment this year was when we created several social media campaigns for WTTC #togetherintravel and world of difference - reaching audiences of over 55 million worldwide and promoting travel.
Helping our industry build back a better future is my single goal right now. Getting the MMGY businesses and indeed our industry back on its feet, and to full employment is my next career goal.
We have an opportunity now to press reset, to open our arms and help support, mentor and encourage not only the talented women but men too to create a collaborative partnership environment.
If we do that together in travel - we will all succeed and that’s a goal worth aiming high for.