Mary Biddlecombe | 40 Outstanding Global Women 2023
Supporting the next generation
Mary Biddlecombe, executive director – development and external relations, at TASIS, The American School in England, has forged a successful career across multiple sectors by connecting and leading people.
Mary Biddlecombe has built a career on breaking the glass ceiling. Moving from HR to business development, Mary’s career progression also shows the transferability, value and relevance of HR’s professional certification in today’s workplace.
“I can’t think of any areas where we don’t have female leaders. I’d like to say now the question is more ‘what does a good leader look like?’ I think that’s very encouraging.”
Mary Biddlecombe, Executive Director at TASIS
Mary’s ambition, coupled with strong leadership attributes spotted early on by employers, enabled Mary to help organisations and individuals grow. Today, Mary is supporting the next generation of globally minded leaders and their families by championing TASIS’s vibrant diversity, equity and inclusion programmes, STEAM subjects and innovation.
Blazing a trail to senior levels in a male dominated industry
Mary started her career in graduate roles in HR with SMEs in the electronics and mining sectors. “My very first graduate position was with Racal Defence Electronics,” says Mary. “I remember going on an Outward-Bound course with a group of fellow graduates in Wales. I was terrified about how I was going to get through sleeping on a mountain top without access to cloakrooms and things, but it was fantastic!”
Out of a cohort of 25 graduates, Mary was one of only two females in the group. “It was very male dominated, but I didn’t pay much heed to it. I’ve always worked very hard and was lucky enough to be offered promotions.
”From Racal Defence Electronics, Mary’s next significant move was to a global mineral producer. Here, Mary was soon promoted to divisional director of HR and became the company’s first female director – something very remarkable at the time. “Twenty-five years ago, that was such a big deal,” says Mary. “Now it’s just something that we don’t even dwell on. It’s completely unexceptional now for a woman to be in that role.”
A Leadership trainer who spotted potential
These senior roles brought with them the opportunity of further personal and professional development. A prestigious leadership course proved pivotal for Mary while she was at Omya. The course leader spotted Mary’s potential; a moment that highlights the ongoing importance of ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion in training and leadership development opportunities.
“On this leadership course, I just went about my business being myself,” says Mary. “Then the course leader took me to one side to say, ‘you have a lot of talent, you could be doing this.’ He very much inspired, encouraged and promoted me to others as well. He was pivotal and really changed things.”
This course, like the Outward-Bound course in Wales a few years earlier, again took Mary outside her comfort zone, but also brought opportunities. This time “a chance to project manage a small sales team within the organisation,” and an opportunity for Mary to extend her leadership qualities and business development skills in a new area.
Building mutually sustaining networks
After a career break and consulting projects, Mary moved into the education sector to capitalise on her passion for people and wider understanding of business, including the importance of relationships. This move has been equally as successful and fulfilling for Mary.
“It’s a privilege to work in such a vibrant organisation helping to shape the next generation,” says Mary. “I’m in my seventh year now at TASIS and I’ve had amazing opportunities. My current role is as executive director on the leadership team. I mainly look after the leadership of marketing, admissions, communication and external relations. We are very much an organisation that cares about enduring relationships. So that suits me to a tee. It’s a very good marriage there.”
Supporting and promoting the school and collaborating in networks “goes with the territory now,” says Mary. “External relations cover alumni and parents, but it also very much relates to business partnerships; so professional services organisations, education, relocation services. Our school is a member of BritishAmerican Business, for example.
Why networking and relationship matters
“I also still connect with some of my colleagues from my HR days in forums. Then a couple of years ago I completed a counselling diploma, which is something I always wanted to do. I thought it tied in well with the people aspect and I connect with people there too.
“There is always the same old challenge that we are all terribly busy and there are so many networking events. But networking is so important. You always learn something and pick something up from other people.
”One area TASIS can share its experience in is its leading DEI and wellbeing initiatives, which underpin the school’s mission “to embolden our learners to flourish as principled, open-minded and compassionatemembers of a global community,” which ties in with worldwide events like International Women’s Day.
“We work really hard, as I’m sure many organisations do, with our DEI initiatives,” says Mary. “I think the thing that really shows our commitment to wellbeing is that we now have a senior leader – Darren Singh MacPherson – who now works with inclusion, compliance and wellbeing. It’s quite awesome to have a leadership position dedicated to that.”
Embracing equity at TASIS
Embracing equity – the main theme of 2023’s International Women’s Day – is clearly a common goal at TASIS, which has been working hard to break traditional gender stereotypes that play into the career choices of young people.
“The very best way to get that message across I think is to role model,” says Mary. “We have exceptional teachers at TASIS, including generalist science teachers in our lower and middle schools. In our upper school we have exceptional teachers in these traditional male subjects like physics and chemistry, as well as biology. We have some amazing role models.”
Former students also have a key role to play in influencing the next generation. Mary had just shown a former female student around, who was now working in engineering and on assignment in the UK. Many alumni also return to talk to current students and support their projects in school. They show how much has changed over the decades.
“Now, I can’t think of any areas where we don’t have female leaders,” says Mary. “I’d like to say now the question is more ‘what does a good leader look like?’ I think that’s very encouraging.”