This International Women’s Day, we spoke to Michelle Giles, QEF Mobility Services Manager about her strong upbringing and passion for working to help others achieve their working goals.
“Every job I have ever worked I have always started on the ‘ground’, so starting as either a sales assistant or as they called it back in the day a ‘checkout chick’.
Then without fail, within a few months I’ve been asked to become a supervisor or to take on additional responsibilities. That has always been my life, no matter what position I’ve worked in.
I grew up in a small market town in West Wales and as a family we were what they call ‘land rich, cash poor.’ I am one of three children, I have two brothers and so I was the only girl and was very much brought up in the era of ‘girls aren’t as good as boys, boys can do better’ and I always thought ‘no, I’m not having that, I’m going to prove that I’m just as good.’
Growing up I sometimes felt as though I was competing against my brothers, trying to demonstrate that I’m just as good as them. Anything they did, I trumped it, always. If they climbed a tree, I climbed a bigger tree. If they went down one hill I found a steeper hill.
During that period, women were seen as the ones who had to do all the housework and the domestic stuff, so I would have to iron my brothers clothes and cook etc but on top of that I’d be alongside my dad learning the ‘masculine’ roles such as cutting down logs to sell and carrying the heavy bags etc. I am grateful in a way that I got the opportunity to do that as a child because I can turn my hand to anything. I’m not frightened and nothing really fazes me. It’s made me strong and independent as a person.
I was brought up around a hard working woman too, my mam left school at 14, as you did in those days and she was a homemaker as well as working in offices to make some money to help support the money my dad was earning. So it’s always been my environment really.
I’ve never not worked. I had my first job when I was 10 working on the market with my brothers on a Friday afternoon and through the school holidays. Then from 14 to 18 I worked in a pub. When I went to college I was studying for a BTEC whilst working in Safeway and eventually I started working in Safeway full time.
I moved to England in 1995 to work in a different Safeway store and ended up working for them for 13 years in total. I quite quickly went up to their management programme and eventually became HR manager. During this time the business grew and I thoroughly enjoyed it. That’s what I get my buzz from, working with staff, developing staff and helping them to develop their career. Even just helping them to resolve any issues and problems.
I think growing up working in a pub, you were always told you should put on your face and do your job, leave your problems at the door and of course it’s not like that now and people are encouraged to share whatever is going on and I really love how it is more supportive and helpful. I enjoy being able to work with people and have honest conversations and see the impact you can have. I think it’s really important to identify what is happening for someone, how can we explore that and support.
How did your career progress into QEF?
I had worked in food retail for 18 years and worked bank holidays and Christmas for all those years and I was missing out on a lot of family things. So I moved over to England and my career took many different turns until I joined an agency and they pointed me towards a job at QEF. I’ve been with QEF for 11 years now.
For me, working at QEF, it’s always about the staff because here we have staff and volunteers and contractors all working to help achieve the same thing. It’s very important that they all feel that they are the team, it’s not me. It’s not the manager, you know, we might be the ones that have to make the decisions or make sure that we’re going in the right direction, but it’s the staff that actually deliver the work. It’s important to feel that they’re part of that and that their opinions are valued. If the people you employ are happy, they will deliver whatever you need them to deliver. And ultimately this passes down and benefits our clients.
You should feel that your voice matters and your opinion matters. And you have a part to play in whatever the environment is that you choose to work in. And I think that’s really important.
So that’s very much what drives me now, in being in a position of authority and responsibility, I can make those calls to help support people. And to make sure that I do all that I can to make people’s lives better.
Did you have any background working in disability or charity?
At the time I wasn’t really aware of disability issues and I had only worked in profit making organisations, so it was a very different playing field moving into charity. I hadn’t been touched by disability, there was no experience of disability in my family that I was aware of and I grew up in a time when disabled children weren’t in mainstream schools. So, it just wasn’t really something that I had thought about in all honesty.
It was a big learning curve for me and I think in a way it is where my natural instincts in being open and honest helped me in that learning. It meant I would just ask people how do you prefer me to engage with you and it helped me to really understand the best way to work with different people’s needs.
I have become more aware of unconscious bias and it’s something you don’t realise you have until you’re around people who experience life differently and it’s been really interesting to get to know myself and understand myself better, so that I can learn and develop those areas that I’m not aware of and support staff in doing so too.
You took a step up in QEF too in terms of becoming the GDPR lead?
Yes, that was also a bit of a ‘I can learn to do this’ moment. In 2017 it was announced GDPR would be coming in and QEF didn’t have anything in place. I was just listening to the conversation as they were trying to work out what they were going to do about it and I said ‘I don’t know anything about it but I can help, I’m happy to learn’ I was comfortable in my work, the team was well established, I had all my processes in place and I had capacity to do something more.
Senior management agreed and I had a short time frame to get up to speed on everything I needed to know. So I did my research and found what we needed to be compliant and started making things happen. In six weeks, I visited all 6 of our different services , found out what information they stored and made a register of it all. I created 7 privacy policies and retention policies for all the services and I also worked to make sure our archives and services were compliant with the NHS regulations. It was a huge step up and a big success in a short amount of time.
My thirst for knowledge and general inquisitiveness allows me to turn my hand to pretty much anything and has driven me to achieve academically while working full time. I acquired my BA Hons degree through Open University and developed my data protection skills by acquiring IAPP qualifications – CIPP/E and CIPM.
Did growing up with brothers and working in more male dominated environments mean that you were even more keen to use your voice and encourage other people to have a voice too?
Yeah absolutely. Even in retail, the majority of managers were men and the workforce were female. My mind is so strong, if I say I’m going to do something, there is nothing on this earth that will stop me from achieving it, and I love that.
My Mam bought me up to never be shy of hard work and to enjoy what you do. She would say you can be anything you want to be, just be happy in what you’re doing.”