Theresa Farrenson, Aon

Theresa Farrenson.jpg

What is your role?
Technology Business Partner

Theresa's Story
I have the honour of being Co-Chair for Link as well as being a Technology Business Partner at Aon.

As to how I track how I got here … It all started when I badly failed my A-levels, it made me realise that the job I was focussed on, an avionics officer in the RAF, really didn’t match what I was good at.   It forced me to find a different degree course: a combination of business studies and IT.  I had never really had to handle failure before and it knocked my confidence.  I had been struggling with my A level courses, so the results weren’t really a surprise… I just couldn’t allow myself to admit it.  The degree course I found was interesting and I took to it like a duck to water, determined to turn my education around I worked hard and flourished.  From there I ended up at a software house, Sherwood, providing IT systems to insurers and brokers.  After a while I switched into working inside an internal IT department in a brokerage.  I worked my way up through the IT structured and ended up as a business relationship manager for Aon Affinity, National and Global & Specialty business units.

Somewhere in the middle of this journey, Aon started on its own diversity and inclusion journey, starting business resource groups.  I volunteered to be a founder member of Aon Pride Alliance and after a few years became co-chair and chair.  One of my largest frustrations was that I could not see a way to generate a sense of community for the 2 people in Leeds, the 1 person in Manchester and the one person in Bristol.  The only answer I could see was to join up with other firms in the area.  When Norton Rose got in contact and asked if I was interested in joining a group to discussing whether the time was right to start a cross-industry LGBT network, I leapt at the chance.

I met a wonderful group of people who were all determined to change an industry: to challenge it to be more inclusive and take the conversation inside their organisations and wider.  Four years ago, I had the great honour to step up into a leadership role.  One of my proudest moments remains the launch of Link Up North, not that I can lay claim to any of its successes, that lies at the feet of it’s fabulous leaders, but it is the first step of achieving one of my original goals:  To provide a professional networking opportunity and community for those not working in London.  Thanks Team!

In London we have attended 5 x Pride in London, 2 x Student Pride, have launched an Allies Guide, a Role Model’s Booklet and a brochure and supported 3 years of Dive In Festival.  I am super-proud to be one of the leaders of this fresh and dynamic team.

What factors allow you to bring your full self to work? 
a. How does your environment make you feel involved and included?

A key factor is that Aon provides a positive culture.  There are frequently stories that celebrate the events and successes of Aon Pride Alliance on the company intranet as well as a several groups on the enterprise chat, Yammer.  When you hear the letters “LGBT” or the words “Lesbian”, “Gay” etc spoken confidently by a leader it is very affirming.  It sets the tone for the organisational culture.  Additionally, with initiatives such as Dive In, you hear the conversation across the insurance sector and know that it’s not just your own firm that is striving to be more inclusive.

b. Do you think there is improvement needed?  What are your ideas?
There is still work to be done around trans inclusion and the provision of inclusive healthcare.  Additionally, we are only just starting the conversation about gender identity and expression.  I think the more we can do to understand and accept the nuances in all of us, the more open minded we become.  I wonder whether the understanding gender identity and unpack gender roles will finally enable us to make strides in the age-old gender equality issue.

What was your first motivation to be out at work and how has being out most positively influenced your experience?
I came out pretty early in my first job: I was part of a graduate scheme and amongst peers so it was relatively easy. I was in the middle of my first break-up and the group noticed I was not myself and I just told them what was going on.  They were fab and supported me and it just grew from there.  As soon as I knew I was accepted as myself there was no reason to move to a job where that might be threatened, so I just asked at subsequent interviews.  I won’t lie, it was scary and 20 years ago was not a particularly usual question for a candidate to ask in an interview … but it did mean I went confidently into further roles.

The latest thing I’m grappling with is that of my gender identity. Through finding out more of the various identities and have recently come to recognise myself as gender non-binary.  It is weird to find myself coming out all over again.

So, I my first motivation was failing to handle my first break up but the positive influence is that I’ve been out ever since and this has meant I’ve never had to hide myself since that point.  Additionally, by getting involved in business network groups I’ve had great opportunities to meet leaders, develop new skills and do my best to help change a sector.

Can you tell us how the business has been improved by LGBT+ people bringing the best of themselves to work?
Passion!  People who can be themselves bring their unfettered passion to what they do.  There is no reason for them to hold back.  An ex colleague of mind frequently said “People only bring 80% of themselves to the workplace.  The last 20% is discretionary.”  Feeling included is one of the keys to unlocking the 20% - you bring passion and loyalty.

Do you have any advice for someone who isn't out at work yet?
Be brave but don’t be reckless.  If you don’t think you can be out in your workplace, ask yourself why not.  Then ask how much of yourself you are holding back, and the energy and ideas you could be bringing.  Either your workplace is a safe place supports all of you or it isn’t.  Where will you flourish?  Bottom line: you will never regret coming out.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Trust yourself more. Fear less. Be more demanding. Do not settle. Keep learning. Laugh lots.

Can you describe the moment you realised you were a role model?
I think it was when I decided to put my hand up to volunteer to create UK Aon Pride Alliance.  The choice was simple: Keep just being me and being out in my team or play a part in a larger goal and join Aon’s diversity initiative and help make it an employer of choice for top talent.  At that point I realised I was a role model: My choice was whether I was a positive role model or not.

What do you do on a day to day basis to be a positive role model?
I have always tried to lead by example: To own things and ensure they are delivered. I also take care to give credit.  By being open and honest and visible I try and be a positive role model to everyone.  By seeking opportunities to improve the reputation of the insurance industry I hope to be a good role model for new entrants.

What advice would you give to someone who wishes to be a good role model?
I have never believed that leaders just happen. They are encouraged and given opportunity. So, as well as bringing your best self, also look out for talent in new places. Learn about being a mentor and a sponsor, be both. Be generous with your time and look for opportunities to put yourself in situations that challenge you to walk in others’ shoes and get a different perspective.

What are you doing outside of your organisation to be a good role model?
Co-chairing Link is a great place to start! I also try to attend many different events outside of work, especially those that make me move beyond the traditional topics.  I represent Aon and frequently the insurance industry and try to bring knowledge and connections back with me.  I also champion all diversity and am always looking for opportunities to collaborate and identify common experience and perspectives.

Who is your most memorable role model and why?
A tough one as I have so many, each for different reasons.  For this interview I’ll name Ellen Degeneres, in 1997 she put everything on the line when she used her comedy show as a vehicle for coming out.  She encountered a backlash and struggled to find work and only started to bounce back around 2003.  Her self-titled show has made epic strides in normalising the LGBT+ community in USA.  When others were too afraid, she took a stand and was determined to be her authentic self and would not back down. Faced with a backlash she kept fighting and now she is a beacon.

How did you feel coming to your first Link event?
Nervous… I wanted it to be a success.

How has the Link network helped you?
Though Link I have attended events, organised and delivered events and had access to senior leaders across the industry.  People recognise when others are motivated to do more and go further.  Link provides this opportunity.

What do you think Link can do in the future to best serve the new generations?
Keep fresh and keep listening.  Keep giving opportunities to anyone who wants to give their energy and ideas.