Penny Newman

Leaders with Ambition - Penny Newman

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In this episode of Leaders with Ambition, Nicky sits down with Penny Newman, HR Consultant and previously Chief People Officer, at Lewis Silkin.

Penny was one of the first females to attend Keble College, Oxford and she become an ACA Qualified Accountant at Deloitte during a time when there were very few female chartered accountants. In this episode, they discuss Penny’s early life, her greatest role models and her early decision to prioritise her career..

This episode covers; supporting women’s rights in the workplace, creating a work life balance and the importance of networking and building relationships.

Listen to the podcast here​

Key Takeaways from this episode with Penny Newman

Early life and role models

Penny grew up in Dorset attending a girls' grammar school. Her mother made the conscious decision to stay at home with her family and. Penny witnessed first-hand the frustrations of an intelligent women with a degree who could have had a career. Penny knew she wanted to follow in her grandmother’s path and focus on her continuing her career when it came to raising her own family.

Penny was supported by her family to go to University, at a time when University attendance was made up of only about 10% of the population. She graduated with a degree in Modern History in 1982 at a time when there were very few jobs.

Penny had a brief period of unemployment so went back home to stay with her parents while she looked for work. Penny was lucky to get a place at Keble College without having to sit the Oxbridge entry exams due to her strong A level results and through a fortunate link via her Careers Advisor.

‘If you’ve got the right opportunities and you know the right people you can often get an opportunity that might not be available to everybody.’

Apprenticeships in the legal profession

Lewis Silkin are looking at early years careers, looking at the different ways people are entering the legal profession today. They have taken on apprentices - Penny believes that the apprenticeship route helps to address accessibility and diversity issues surrounding university admissions.

Accountancy at Deloitte

In 1983, there were just 5 women in Penny's intake of 25 trainee chartered accountants. Penny was mentored by some of the senior women in the firm, despite there only being a few of them to act as role models.

At the time, there was significant underlying discrimination against women, particularly those who had children. This was regarded as a career limitation.

Penny was forced to go back to work for financial reasons when her child was just 4 months old. The perception was that women could only have a family once they'd become a Partner. Penny remarks that there is still a long way to go in professional services but things have greatly improved - for example Penny recalls being asked about her plans to have a family during an interview early in her career, something that is illegal today.

Secondment in Canada

Penny went on secondment for 3 months at the Mississauga office in Canada. She began to think about what she wanted to do with her future career. Penny recognised her interest in the people side of her accountancy career and her passion for learning and development. Her accountancy background stood her in good stead in her later board level positions.

‘I think you have to learn to talk the language of data and finance 

The world of work is changing

Staying in one firm for a long period of time is rare nowadays as people are looking for new opportunities externally and it is more commonplace to change career paths.

‘Employers have to be alert to the fact that people have different career aspirations and they are looking to develop themselves. If you don't offer them development, they'll go somewhere else." 

Moving from Accountancy to a Law Firm

After returning from her second maternity leave she moved into a job share position in HR, partnering with an experienced HR professional and learnt a great deal from her colleague, gaining experience in HR. Penny was then headhunted by a law firm She was exposed to a diverse decision making process compared to the more corporate environment at Deloitte.

Penny discovered the challenges that joining a new organisation can create. It doesn’t give you that ‘ready-made’ network of people that you can ask for favours. There was a need to restart the process of ‘building up a reservoir of goodwill’ and building relationships, which takes time.

Networking and trust

Penny expresses the importance of having friends within the organisation at a similar level to talk to, but also how useful it is to have a supportive network outside the organisation to share knowledge and advice. It's important to be willing to help people and pay it forward. In doing so, people will be more willing to help you when you need it.

‘I think it’s probably more important to network without the hope of getting something for yourself’.

Learning & Development Role

Penny has been at Lewis Silkin for 14 years. She has been studying a coaching course and Penny has enjoyed the new intellectual challenge of the course as well as the involvement in a people development role.

Penny has worked closely with the L&D team and has spent more time working on the firm's Diversity and Inclusion Agenda, something she is very passionate about. She has taken part in a reverse mentoring scheme and book clubs to educate herself.

‘The course has really forced me to question quite a lot of the subconscious beliefs that I have built up over the years.’

Creating an inclusive environment

As a senior leader it’s part of Penny’s job to create an inclusive culture, but it is also the joint responsibility of other leaders to continue to implement this. There is still a poor representation of women and people of colour in senior leadership roles within the legal profession.

The challenge of balance

Having a supportive partner is key when it comes to juggling the demands of parenting and a career. Penny is proud to have been a role model to her girls, who both have good jobs. While Penny did prioritise her career, she put her children first when it mattered.

When her children were small, there were no smartphones and so this constant 24/7 demand has created increasingly blurred lines between home and work.

Penny expresses the importance of being happy within yourself and to put your needs first. Her weekends were all about going out and doing things with her family.

There has to be a delineation between work and home, the constant pressure to check emails during evenings/weekends is not good for people's mental health.

Career highlights

Developing people and seeing them go on to be successful in their careers, even when this is outside of the organisation, is something Penny finds very rewarding.

Understanding and having interest in the business you’re in

Penny shares the importance of educating yourself about the business environment you’re in, how it makes money, and what people do. You get far more credibility if you speak the language of business and thus more alignment with your line managers if you are able to understand their concerns.

This is particularly significant for a career in HR and having a clear understanding of the overall business strategy.

Words of wisdom

Take help wherever it is offered and ensure you have a wide network of people you have helped so that when you need help in return, you have people you can rely on to assist you.

Key quotes from this episode:

  • ‘We’re now in a position where people have portfolio careers, and you might start off in one career and end up in a completely different place, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s actually really positive to be able to seize opportunities and to do different things.’

  • ‘That ability to recognise who you need to influence and who you need to build relationships with in order to get things done.’

  • ‘The values of an organisation and the cohesion of the senior leadership team are really important in terms of making sure the organisation can achieve to its upmost capability.’

  • ‘The more senior you get, the more important it is to have a network of people outside of your organisation.’

  • ‘For senior roles, it's a lot less about applying via a CV and more about being the person that gets onto the shortlist because other people recommend you.’

  • ‘If you can all come together to work to improve the culture, to address some of the issues, to address inequality, to provide an inclusive environment that values everybody, that makes for a very powerful firm.’

About Penny Newman

Penny Newman is an experienced HR leader. She is also ACA qualified. Penny has extensive experience of training, recruitment and employee relations. She has been involved in change management projects, which include Partner competence framework, HRIS with workflows, a strategy tool with 360 appraisal component, new recruitment processes and new secretarial resourcing models.

Penny's internal customers include the UK's largest employment team and she regularly keeps up to date with the latest employment law trends.

About the host

Nicky Acuna Ocana has led high performing recruitment teams for over 20 years. As the Managing Director of Ambition UK, she currently leads a team of highly-skilled recruitment consultants who are experts in their niche specialist areas. With an extensive network of senior and board-level contacts, she is also heavily involved in Executive Search, focusing on Director level appointments across Business Services for a range of Professional Services firms.

If you're a Leader with Ambition from a professional services firm and would like to feature as a guest in a future podcast, please email:

Listen to more episodes of the Leaders with Ambition podcast here >

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