Breaking the Glass Ceiling – Bold and Controversial Does It

Women in Business

I recently read a very interesting old article on Karen Brady that was published in the Guardian newspaper.  A familiar face on BBC’s The Apprentice, she is widely described by her peers and the press as one of the most successful women in British business. What is even more interesting about her story was her career path and the challenges she overcame to claim a substantial presence in UK Plc.  Not all her choices that led her to her success were straightforward. Indeed, many of the decisions she made were seen as unconventional l, often bordering on controversial. But they were choices that made her who she is, and help her smash her way through the glass ceiling that all too often paralyzes many women’s careers. If all women were like Karen Brady, then there would be no glass ceiling to speak off. Her meteoric rise through British business speaks for itself. She was the first female and youngest (at 23) Managing Director of a British publicly traded company, Birmingham Football Club. Moreover, she is now a Vice Chairman of West Ham United Football Club and holds several positions on various boards, and still only 44 and married with 2 children. Could Karen Brady then be the answer and inspiration for women to penetrate the glass ceilings of the business world?

Bold and Controversial

Karen Brady started her career in advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. But her career really started taking shape after she left Saatchi & Saatchi to join London Broadcasting Corporation (LBC). There she became acquainted with David Sullivan, a client of LBC and sold him advertising space which earned her more commission then the entire sales team put together at LBC. Impressed by her “go getter” attitude, Sullivan offered her a job with his company. Then after a few years, Brady persuaded Sullivan to buy struggling British Football Club, Birmingham City which he did and made her the Managing Director off at the age of 23 that she returned to profitability.

What was a critical factor in her career was her choice of mentor, David Sullivan who was an adult entertainment entrepreneur. What makes Karen standout is that she is totally comfortable in her own skin, and she is not afraid of what somebody else might say. What would have many women running scared actually drew Karen towards Sullivan, and she benefited from that as she progressed throughout her career. Even in the male dominated environment of football, she was totally comfortable. In her first day as Managing Director at Birmingham City Football Club, she turned up to work wearing a fitted powder pink jacket. When one of the players made a sexually suggestive remark, she replied by telling him that he wouldn’t be making remarks like that when she sells him to a rival football club. It was this cool and collected, and mercilessly unflinching manner that propelled her through her career, and made headlines in the male dominated world of football.  Interestingly though, her success has not made her ignorant. She has encouraged and empowered other women like her in business which is a testament to her role at Birmingham Football Club which she left with a senior management team that were 75% women. She sees women as essential in management in companies, and believes that public companies that don’t have women on their boards should have to state the reason why in their annual reports.


Karen Brady is as smart and sensible in her personal as well as professional life. Here is her take on life:

“Life is a series of problems, and how quickly and easily you overcome them generally means how happy you are.” To her, this means not spending life questioning and analyzing because that will end up driving you crazy. To move forward, close the door and don’t look back and move on to the next thing.

What has really allowed Karen to be as successful as she has been is that she has been able to take control of her career at a very early age which is courtesy of her mature thinking when she was made Managing Director of Birmingham City Football Club, and total self belief in her abilities. She has focused on herself and hasn’t allowed the judgment of others to direct her path. Here are the elements that make her tick:

  • A charismatic personality
  • Enthusiasm to operate in a male dominated environment, and totally relish it
  • Raw energy
  • A controversial figure as mentor
  • Not emotional but very rational – doesn’t take things to heart and allows her head to rule her heart
  • Sustainable strength – thick skinned
  •  Keeps weaknesses at bay
  • Keeps doubts at bay – toughness in decisions

Many of these elements are personal and unique to Karen but others have been developed over time that has allowed Karen to negotiate the challenges she has faced. What Karen’s experience demonstrates to women is that it is often a combination of conscious choices women make and other personality traits that can help in developing their careers.

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