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Executive Education

Women Leaders Programme

Beyond labels and limits: Claire Johnsen’s journey of risk and reinvention

Claire Johnsen

Head of ESG and Innovation in the care industry

Education is a useful tool because it introduces you to a new network, it gives you confidence, it gives you insights—everything you need to reinvent yourself comes with education.

People have respect for doctors and nurses in hospitals, but the same is rarely accorded to those in the care sector. In fact, the care sector is often stigmatised for its lower salaries and bureaucratic processes. It is seen as inferior and shunned, Claire Johnsen observes.

She witnessed this firsthand during the last days of her mother’s life. Dissatisfied with the treatment and processes her mother went through, she was spurred into action and entered the sector herself, hoping to use her experience in technology and innovation to improve the systems and processes.

Breaking through stereotypes

Such bold moves are not unusual for Claire, who has proven time and again that she is not afraid to rewrite her narrative and break clichés in the process. At an age when many would consider her too young, she started her own business designing and manufacturing ceramics. After a decade, it began to flourish, but as a new mum of two, her priorities began to shift.

“I had a young family and one of my children wasn’t doing very well. I found I was juggling a lot and felt like I wasn’t doing any of it well,” she recalls. When a competitor offered to buy the business, she put all sentimentality aside and finalised the sale, taking a well-earned career break to look after her family.

When Claire retired, the internet was still in an “embryonic stage”. When she wanted to return some eight years later, the first iPhone had just come onto the market. The world had changed so dramatically that at the first job interview Claire went for, the interviewer was frank and told her she was out of touch. 

You need to get a degree and re-train yourself.

“She turned around and started mentoring me, saying: ‘You need to get a degree and re-train yourself. Everything you’ve done is in the past tense. I can see that you’ve done a lot, but I can’t see anything tangible,’" Claire recalls.

“Within a month I was sitting in a lecture hall studying enterprise and entrepreneurial management,” she adds. “That’s how I got into the innovation sector—it was the result of a conversation, a bit of serendipity and me deciding that the interviewer was right, that this was the right thing to do.”

Unleashing the power of education

Which is not to say that Claire had no concerns. It had been decades since she'd set foot in a classroom, and she was now old enough to be the mother of her classmates. But she refused to be cowed and approached the new phase with an open mind.

She found that learning alongside the younger generation gave her the opportunity to understand their way of thinking and taught her volumes about diversity. Her experience of running a business made the theories she learnt even more meaningful as she could clearly see how they played out in the real world.

By the time she graduated, Claire had refreshed both her skills and her confidence— all of which helped her to break out of the role of a stay-home mum and re-enter the workforce.

This is why it is with confidence that she declares: “It was through education that I was able to redefine myself. Education is a useful tool because it introduces you to a new network, it gives you confidence, it gives you insights—everything you need to reinvent yourself comes with education.”

Finding connections and support

The same can be said about Claire’s time on the INSEAD Women Leaders Programme. She joined when she was new to the care sector and still struggling with the challenges of changing roles in the midst of the pandemic. Lost and unsure of her position, Claire found that the programme was crucial in showing her that she was not alone and providing her with a support system to fall back on.

“It was easy to think that other people were coping well, but during a coaching session people started to reveal their worries and concerns and I realised that this wasn’t just a problem for me. We were all here to get the tools to overcome,” Claire explains.

Particularly beneficial for her was to be able to connect with the participants in her coaching group. 

Our diversity gave us strength.

Explaining that in her group of four, everyone came from a different industry and had different approaches. “We saw things from differing perspectives so the contributions were varied and we never found ourselves in an echo chamber. When I put forward something I was concerned about, I was reassured I would get three very different observations. That made our conversations incredibly valuable,” she shares.

The friendships that developed have lasted even after the programme ended; today, Claire and her coaching group stay in touch via WhatsApp, and in 2022 they even flew from their homes in America, Geneva, Holland, Spain and England to Fontainebleau to meet up . “The fact that all of us came from across the world says a lot about how much our relationship means to us,” Claire enthuses.

Gaining confidence to lean in and ask

Perhaps even more important was how the Women Leaders Programme built Claire’s confidence as a leader, something she believes is essential for women. She explains that although glass ceilings and discriminatory practises are gradually dissolving, there are still mental barriers that prevent women from realising their full potential.

“People say when you see a job description that women will only apply if they fulfil all 10 criteria, but men will jump in if they have five,” jokes Claire. “I think that's true for me too and I sometimes talk myself out of things.”

The female-centred course drew on well-researched and up-to-date studies to address the challenges women can face in the workplace. For Claire, one of the most important lessons was to simply have the courage to ask, because:

People are not mind readers.

“It was a huge revelation for me, because I think I might have been a bit reticent or assumed that people would understand,” she says. “Now I explain it and ask other people to explain it to me, because maybe I missed something as well.”

She also appreciated learning about the differences between men and women in building networks and why women’s networks are more diverse in comparison. “Understanding that and the best way to make the most of it was very valuable because your network is a very important aspect of your career, especially when you become more senior,” she says.

Looking to the future

Claire believes that the lessons learned at the Women Leaders Programme have put her in good stead to advocate for the care sector.  Drawing back to the reasons that she joined the care sector, she says: “The discrimination in this sector frustrates me a lot; given global longevity trends, this culture is something we need to address. Social care is likely to become more and more important as we look after the increasing senior population.” She hopes that with time, technology and education, attitudes will change and the situation will improve.

The road ahead will not be easy, but none of the hats Claire has worn—as entrepreneur, wife, mother, student and manager, have been. To those facing similar obstacles, she says: “Believe in yourself, and trust your gut.”

I think to be limitless is to have that confidence and optimism. To listen to that voice in your soul, saying just go for it.