It was unusual for girls in the 1970s but at 14 I knew I wanted to be in engineering. I went to a comprehensive in Rickmansworth, north London where I loved science and maths. I was a bit of a swot, which set me apart, but I loved school. I did not have huge aspirations, I came from a strong family background so at that stage I thought I might go to university but would probably settle down as a mum. At Imperial College, University of London, I was one of only seven women out of 150 who started the Mechanical Engineering course. I found it quite tough but was very proud of my third-class degree and I managed to get a job with British Aerospace through the Milk Round. I didn't do my best at university - the academic world was not for me. But my third-class degree has never been a problem, people should never give up because they do not get the degree class they wanted. When you get to work you are measured for a lot of other things.
Within a few weeks as a design engineer I realised the job didn't suit me. Real engineering wasn't right because I am just too up-front. I had learned what I didn't want to do, which is actually a good thing. I applied to BT where I got the job as a contract negotiator. I found out later I was the first woman they had appointed to that position. It is quite an onerous burden to carry the flame for women, you feel you have to continually prove that you are better, you don't want to let other women down.
BT offered me the chance to train as an accountant and at about that time I had my first baby so I was working for BT, learning about accountancy and having children - it was a stretch.
I enjoyed the accountancy but got a hankering for engineering so I moved to network development, where I was in charge of 180 cablers. They were very respectful of me because I had an engineering degree but I was respectful of them because they worked down a hole all day. It was about working with them rather than just giving them directions, it is the norm today but at that time it was a modern approach. Within six months their productivity had improved by 50 per cent. I have always worked with the idea that people are well motivated, it is just a matter of harnessing that motivation.
Then I moved into managing the repairs service in the Thames Valley. I had arrived at a time when the region had the worst repair record in the country and to make things worse six weeks after I arrived we were hit by a hurricane - it knocked all our poles over. But within a year we had the best repair record in the country. I am very competitive and I like to be the best.
In 1989 I was selected for the BT corporate high-flyer programme and was sent to Stanford University in California to do a Senior Executive Programme. When I returned I was appointed executive assistant to the chairman, suddenly I was propelled to the top, it was a big opportunity to develop myself and get my head round some serious issues. I moved to a similar role with the group managing director before I was asked to manage marketing campaigns to our residential customers. It was great to be part of, it was new to BT and a real challenge for someone coming from an engineering and accounting background. Equally it was a difficult move for me and there were a few sleepless nights. I knew what I had to achieve but my problem is that I set myself tough targets.
Last April I was appointed chief executive of BT Northern Ireland. It was a big decision for the whole family to go to Belfast. We really try to sit down and explain to the children about my career. If it was going to hurt the family then I would not do it. I do try hard to make sure they get some of my time, and they are very supportive. You have to hang on to that belief in yourself and for me it was important to set myself goals. Don't always analyse things, sometimes you just have to take hold of opportunities.
Interview by Michael GreenwoodReuse content