Career advice and remembering Villiers Park with Sharon Lewis

Interview with Sharon Lewis, VP Alum and Deputy Chief Operating Officer at the Insolvency Service
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Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your current job role?

I’m Sharon Lewis, the Deputy Chief Operating Officer at the Insolvency Service. The Insolvency Service is a central government agency within the Department for Business and Trade. We give debt relief to people, realise assets so creditors can get some of their money back, disqualifying directors where they have done something wrong in the management of their company; that kind of encapsulates everything that the Insolvency Service does.

I joined as a trainee at age 19 in what we call an examiner role which involved interviewing bankrupts and company directors, finding out what they failed and reporting on any misconduct. This was what my training was in before moving into leadership roles.

How are you connected to Villiers Park?

I spent a whole week at Villiers Park during my A-levels, with a mixed group of people from schools across the country. The idea being that we mingle and talk as this was in the days before mobile phones and social media. For me this was the first time that I got to see a different group of people, all with very different lifestyles.

The residential was Geography based, but we also had the chance to go to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon and to go into Oxford for some human geography work. But it was really things that I’d not done before and I met people I’d not interacted with before. I came out of literally just that week feeling like there’s a big wide world out there!

Did you attend university or complete an internship or apprenticeship to help you get into your role now? 

I very nearly went to university, as I did have an offer of a place to do Maths, but something was telling me that I didn’t want to anymore. So, I initially applied for the Civil Service, something that my parents weren’t sure about. I think they saw me being young and female, clerking at the local bank or working as a secretary. But I applied for the Civil Service, sat an entrance exam and got in that way.

I suppose it was an apprenticeship, but they didn’t call it an apprenticeship at that time. I had a day off a week studying, which I did for three years to qualify for what I needed to do. And I haven’t looked back! University has its place without a doubt, but actually, you don’t need a degree to get into this job. So, I don’t regret not going to university.

In that week I spent at Villiers Park, I got a taste of there being a whole world out there with different people. I think the impact it made on me was not so much the course and whether I wanted to go to university or not, it was more about the type of potential environment I wanted to work in.

Can you tell us a little more about your career journey?

Initially, I worked in the High Court complex in The Strand but was soon singled out to help with recruiting new people and did some work with the HR department. Then, I got a job in our policy area and ended up doing monthly trips to Brussels focused on EU Law. I hadn’t really been abroad then so it was a new experience to go to Brussels.

I then worked on a lot of director misconduct cases where I was preparing evidence for court. Then, I went into audit, which involved travelling around the country, we’re a nationwide organisation with offices in different cities, and I headed up an audit team going in to check that our offices were complying with all their statutory requirements. As I progressed in my career, I started leading more people, at the height of this, I was responsible for around 600 people.

Now, I am the Deputy Chief Operating Officer, I’m currently doing a big transformation piece where we’re closing some of our smaller offices and going into more regional centres. I’m leading that big work stream. But it’s a real whatever’s going type job, it’s a multitasking, multi-skilled kind of job.

What I also really like is to get involved a lot with employee networks. I’m the senior sponsor for the LGBT+ network here and I take that really seriously. They’re a great bunch of people and I’m their lead ally. What made me think about Villiers Park is that I’m a founding member of what we call our ‘no-limits network’, which is a network a colleague set up for those who came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

So, there’s never a dull moment! I would say in this job it can be different virtually every day, but it’s very much a leadership role it is a great place to work. That’s why I’ve never left. I’ve always found it massively interesting. You know, this organisation dealt with Woolworths back in the day and Wilko recently. I just find it fascinating; I like the legal side of it and I like the accountancy side of it. That’s where I think my skill sets lie really.

What would be your advice to young people now when they are planning their next career steps?

If I had my time again, I would have done a lot more planning. Because as your life experiences change, sometimes you have to change tack. But you have to be flexible sometimes, you’ve got some people who say ‘Right I want to be a barrister and I’m going to do absolutely everything’, then actually they don’t make it, and they’re devastated because that was their one single goal.

So, I think planning is great, but you’ve got to be flexible in that and be realistic but at least have some idea because otherwise you can drift. If I had my time again, I would be thinking more than one step ahead all the time.


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