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Female leaders need to help set the benchmarks, support other females, be honest about their struggles and help drive more flexibility, especially for working parents.


For this month's interview, we're delighted to have Michelle Stevens, Commercial Director, Powster UK, Vista Group. Michelle was a mentee in the sixth edition and is a future mentor of the UNIC Women's Cinema Leadership Programme.

Here she shares her insights and experience as a female leader in the cinema industry.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR DAILY HABITS THAT KEEP YOU INSPIRED AND MOTIVATED.

Human contact, exercise and fresh air. I need all three of these to function daily. A working from home day has to start with my “coffee commute”, a 2-mile round trip walk after dropping one of my daughters to school to get a coffee before I sit down for the day, be it walking with a friend or podcast for company. 

Exercise with loud music is my escapism and reset and does my mental health wonders. 

Trying to keep in mind that no matter how the day goes, there will be something positive achieved in amongst it all, and try to focus on that not the negative. It may not always be a client win and it is rarely getting through my to do list but even knowing you have helped out a colleague can be motivating. 

LOOKING BACK AT YOUR CAREER JOURNEY, WHAT ARE YOU THE PROUDEST OF?

Still being here. Be it motherhood, redundancy, the collapse of a role during Covid to just the international time zone juggle that this industry is. I’m still here and still progressing. Also nothing more rewarding than someone telling you that something you have said or done has helped them. 

WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU ENCOUNTERED THROUGHOUT YOUR LEADERSHIP JOURNEY?

Broadly I have been really lucky across my career, and been surrounded by a lot of very supportive bosses and colleagues. Having come through a sales background I've also been fortunate enough to have benefitted from a lot of training opportunities along the way. Bouncing back after redundancy was hard, especially so soon after returning from one of my maternity leaves, but it’s so common these days you just need to try not to take it personally. 

HAVING A DEMANDING ROLE, HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR WORK AND PERSONAL LIFE?

To be honest I’m not sure I always do this very well and remote working and calls across time zones means work life bleeds into home life more and more. 

Weekends are sacred and I focus on spending as much time as I can with my kids to make up for not being as present during the week.

I have also got better more recently at carving out and diarising some time late afternoon on a working-from-home day if I know that I have calls that will go into the evening, to spend a bit of time with my daughters. It means I can designate time to chat to them about their day, listen properly, hang with them while they have a snack or dinner rather than throwing food in front of them and dashing back out the room for a call. The Mum guilt of course never goes away but my kids do appreciate that during the week is a juggle. Plus, let’s face it if they get an extra 30 mins of screen time before bed they are delighted, it’s just me that feels bad. As for me time, exercise is non negotiable even if that means getting up earlier, and time with friends to keep me sane is vital be it meeting for a quick coffee or sandwich on a WFH day or at the weekends. 

FROM YOUR CAREER OF OVER 20 YEARS IN THE ENTERTAINMENT AND CINEMA INDUSTRIES, WHAT DO YOU THINK IS HOLDING WOMEN BACK? WHY SO THEY STILL REMAIN UNDERREPRESENTED IN SENIOR POSITIONS IN THE CINEMA INDUSTRY?

In terms of holding us back, sometimes it is our own preconceptions, imposter syndrome and / or self doubt, all of these can be so damaging.  That may be when it comes to going for a role or promotion, taking on a responsibility, or opportunity offered.  Be confident in your own abilities. If an opportunity arises, say "Yes". Don't diminish or question why that has arisen. You may need to wing it in the first instance but let’s face it we are female, we will prep, be organised and nail it even if we don’t think we can initially. 

Female leaders need to also help set the benchmarks, support other females, be human, be honest about their struggles to their businesses and help drive more flexibility, especially for working parents. Educate their male colleagues if needs be. Fighting to have more representation is only half the battle, we need to facilitate making it achievable to thrive in those positions too. Pave the way to put your family responsibilities first if needs be by saying no to the work trip in school holidays, and delegating to a colleague, or pushing back on the school run meeting clash so that others feel confident to be able to do this too when work encroaches on personal life. Being human and having a life outside of work can't limit career progression. The reality is the more we hide or accept the situation at a senior level, the more people will also feel they can’t be real, and we won't be driving change. 

WHAT ARE THE CURRENT CHALLENGES FOR COMPANIES WHEN IT COMES TO ENSURING AN INCLUSIVE CULTURE AND INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP?

Predominantly representation. Everyone needs to look around in the business they are in and believe that more is possible for them and that the internal culture or work ethic, or working practices are not prohibitive to their success. 

Senior leadership also needs to be very careful how opportunities are communicated. People need to know they are promoted, supported or given opportunities for genuine reasons because of their expertise, experience and skill set not because a box needs to be ticked to see a certain type of representation around a table. 

AS A FORMER MENTEE, WHY DO YOU THINK MENTORING IS IMPORTANT?

We learn so much from people sharing real life experiences, appreciating that people have navigated the same problems we may be facing and being able to share the successes, the pitfalls and the general learnings. Mentoring opportunities are always valuable but guidance from people in our own industry who have a greater day-to-day shared understanding is even stronger. 

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO CURRENT MENTORS AND MENTEES?

Ask loads of questions, make the most of it. Leave any anxieties out of the conversation and try and bring your authentic self to the meetings, not the person you think you should be.  We all prioritise our work, our internal and external meetings. Make sure you give yourself and your own development that same respect. Prioritise your sessions, don’t let “too busy” get in the way. 


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