Red Shoe Movement Interview with Anna Letitia Cook
Anna Letitia Cook is the founder of Anna Cook International Executives, a company that teaches Business English to professionals who work at corporations in Europe. She has lived in many countries and started several businesses along the way. Her versatility has enabled her to bridge cultures with ease and to change industries and careers as her interests evolved. She’s bringing the Red Shoe Movement to France, a country where women have a tough time achieving parity.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself (where were you born, where you lived, what degrees you have, where you live now)
People say I am a mad eccentric with an adventurous spirit; strong, quick, bright, impossible to argue with, always positive, full of encouragement and ideas, very hard-working and a loyal, supportive friend and colleague. Needless to say I like “my people” very much! (Lol).
I’m a Brit and a passionate globetrotter (think Captain Cook!). I love exploring and embracing new cultures, which explains why I have lived and worked in several countries in Europe ─ UK, Spain, France and Italy ─ as well as on the other side of the pond: Canada, USA and particularly Bermuda. My original training in Business and Management Studies (with options Politics, Economics, Translating/Interpreting) gave me great scope for work and travel. As well as my native English, I speak Spanish, French and some Italian.
Professionally, I have thoroughly enjoyed the last 25 years, gaining excellent and very interesting experience at all levels in media, import-export, energy, defence, investments, commercial real estate and now working with non-native English speakers. Having an entrepreneurial spirit, I took the challenge in 1991 to set up and head my own small companies.
Anna Cook International Executives developed from having taught and coached colleagues and clients in the various countries where I worked. Discovering a great passion for ─ and fulfilment in ─ teaching and coaching non-native English speakers led me to change career, to specialise in teaching Business English and coaching senior and aspiring executives (particularly women) to help them prosper doing business internationally in English and so develop and succeed in their careers.
2. How did you get to the place in your career where you are now?
Being flexible and not afraid to change jobs/industries before setting up my own businesses; lots of hard work; taking opportunities which opened up for me unexpectedly and keeping going when things looked shaky – lol. To be honest, I didn’t always have a strategy ─ but I did have the image of my two brothers’ success and I wanted to do better than they had, but not necessarily in the same way. Unfortunately, I also had my mother’s opinion on women and careers to contend with – her answer to everything was ‘stay at home, have children, take care of your husband and let him provide!’ Luckily I am a dyed-in-the-wool rebel and my father was very supportive. He never ceased telling me I was as intelligent and capable as my brothers so I should go for it!
As I have always worked in mainly male-dominated industries, where women were usually the secretaries (how I started, by the way!) I experienced at first hand the obstacles which women can face when trying to move up the corporate ladder. Part of the problem is surely because we try to compete directly with men on their terms, instead of using our own strengths as women to the benefit of all. This is what fans the flames of my passion to help women rise to the top on their own terms, and without being forced to adopt a ‘male clone’ attitude.
3. What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a professional woman working in corporations in France?
It is much more difficult for a woman to be taken seriously here due to the very different mentality which exists in France ─ particularly in the workplace. If I am tactful, I would say that there are some rather ‘traditional’ attitudes regarding women, careers and equality!
Entrepreneurship is still very much in its infancy here, compared to USA, UK, Germany and other Anglo-Saxon based cultures. Openly admitting that you are ambitious and career-driven is unusual, and not necessarily well thought of or respected.
In reality, it is an unfortunate fact that women still tend to earn less than men, have fewer possibilities for career advancement and in general, are considered to be more ‘lightweight’. There is also the infamous four-day week for many women – children under the age of 11 don’t go to school on Wednesdays, so many women stay at home to look after them; crèches and childcare facilities aren’t as available or easily organised as in some other countries. Fortunately, some couples are more objective and the parent who has less responsibility in their career chooses to stay with the children.
This is one of the main reasons I am so involved with the Red Shoe Movement and am introducing it to France. I see so many women here who are trying to improve their situation, find opportunities, respond to challenges and achieve closer equality with men. Many of the professional women I know here are very frustrated with their situation but find it difficult to progress when they are more or less isolated; they feel that no-one encourages them. I think the solidarity which can be gained by interacting with other women in the Red Shoe Movement would be a great inspiration and support to professional women here in France.
4. What do you find the most satisfying part of your work?
- The human contact. Being able to encourage my clients to aim higher, helping them gain confidence so they no longer fear participating in multicultural teams; seeing them get promotion, take responsibility and succeed in international work environments
- I particularly love the ‘light-bulb moment’ when a client realises that other nationalities really do think differently. By understanding this, they can learn to adapt their way of presenting, introducing, negotiating etc, and seeing them achieve positive interaction and successful relationships is extremely satisfying.
- It is very rewarding when my female clients see that we all have different values and beliefs and work in different ways – but drawing on all our collective genders, characters, cultures, skills and experiences can give better working methods and forge stronger relationships.
5. What advice do you have for other women who have unusual (or challenging) career goals?
- Go for your dream, follow your vision ─ and plan it out on paper! By doing this, the dream becomes a goal and is attainable.
- Do it for yourself and for your own fulfilment and self-respect. If you get negative vibes from your entourage, don’t bother fighting them! Don’t stress or get upset ─ just keep on moving ahead towards your goal. Remember ─ you’re doing it for you, and nine times out of ten, any negative vibes from others stem from envy, lack of self-confidence or fear of change!
- Embrace the differences between men and women, see how productively each one’s strengths and weaknesses can be complementary and create more energy and creativity.
- It is never too late ─ age doesn’t enter into the equation.
On a practical level, I would say planning, organisation and small regular steps forward are key. Before you start anything, make a detailed plan with times, dates, objectives, milestones and key phases all laid out; become your own project manager. Be prepared to adapt and modify as you progress and the ‘real world’ changes direction. This can really help you keep on track and not get distracted. It keeps you motivated and focused.
Above all, enjoy the journey – don’t become so fixated on the result that you can’t see anything else. Take time for you along the way. Work isn’t everything!
6. Give us an example of how you’re currently helping other women advance professionally or fulfil their career goals?
I have two clients who are struggling at the moment. They have had a few difficult moments so as part of my professional relationship with them, I am supporting them with a mixture of mentoring and coaching to help them through their problems, keeping them looking forward, boosting their confidence and advancing to their newly-defined objectives. I am bringing my own network into action to enlarge their audience and potential field of operation.
I am introducing the Red Shoe Movement to all my female clients here in France, so we now have quite a few businesses where the number of red shoes appearing on a Tuesday is increasing regularly. I am also talking about it to all my male clients ─ and to my great delight, have had a very positive response from them. Not only have they suggested wearing red socks to show their support, but several have asked for information which they can give to their female colleagues/friends/family.
7. Could you mention one or more women who have helped you get to where you are now?
Many years ago, an old school-friend, Miriam, helped me to establish my career in Bermuda. Without her I would never have gained the extensive international experience and contacts I acquired from my work there.
For motivation and confidence, there are three women in particular (two British, Rhonda and Sally, and one French, Andréa) who have helped me by their constant support, encouragement and total belief in me and my abilities. Their faith in me has been so strong that even when I have occasionally wanted to give up, I have kept going because of them.
Also there was Madeleine, who invited me to work with her to provide the skills she lacked. Working together we expanded successfully enough to enable us both to develop independent ─ but complementary ─ businesses in Spain.
Even now, some of my current clients, (men as well as women), are particularly supportive, encouraging the development of women’s careers in the workplace, so my work and business continue to evolve and develop through a constantly increasing network.
You can connect with Anna via her social media on:
(Original interview – January 5th 2013, details updated 2014)