17 Aug 23

Inspiring Woman in Fleet : Kay Saunders (Polestar)

“Proud of being a role model to my family and my team”

Kay Saunders, Head of Global Fleet Operations (Polestar)

Kay Saunders is “in awe” of the previous interviewees in our Inspiring Women in Fleet series. “I don’t see myself as that impressive”, she says. Well, we beg to differ. The fact that she got to be Head of Global Fleet Operations at Polestar when she was over 50, counts as a pretty awesome achievement in our book. And proves it’s never too late to get your dream job.

Kay grew up around cars and the car business. One reason she’s a late bloomer is the fact that she took the long way around to get into automotive herself.
“My mother worked in the office of a British Leyland garage, so I’m very familiar with the dealer environment. One of my Saturday jobs as a teenager was to process warranty claims in the office. However, my first career was in hotels and hospitality. At 30, I decided I had enough of travelling around the UK. One result of being home most nights was that I soon had my first child (laughs).”
“With no idea of what I wanted to do next, I set about looking for jobs requiring my skills – customer-facing, sales. A local dealership advertised a retail sales position. I got it, spent 18 months in the dealer environment before moving on to leasing… and travelling around the UK again. That was 28 years ago!”

How did it feel to be a woman in an industry that was then still overwhelmingly male?

“It’s never felt as an issue for me. There are things about the gender mix that are irritating, but that’s a different story. I started in 1995 in a retail showroom as one of two girls in a three-person team. We all had a background in retail and hospitality, and that set us apart from our used-car colleagues of the day and helped us be successful.”

How so?

“We spoke to the daughter who brought in her dad to help choose her car. We smiled sweetly when we offered a low trade-in price (laughs). And we didn’t mind getting our hands dirty, jump-starting the demos if necessary. Yes, times were different. But it’s also about how you as an individual approach things. I have always jumped in to do things.”

Did you ever experience any discrimination?

“Luckily not, but I know others who have. I have a lot of empathy for those women. It’s not been easy for many women, and at times it has been downright unpleasant. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact that has on a person.”
“For me, I’ve never thought of myself as a woman in a male-dominated industry. I’ve always been the right person for the job at the time. But maybe that’s because of how I react to things, and many things just bounce off me.”
“You know, I see more challenges that come from being ‘of a certain age’. It’s often said that women over 50 become invisible in the workplace. It’s not in my nature to disappear like that, but I do see fewer people my own age as I get older. Many companies have a tendency to ‘retire the oldies’ when they need to clear out staff. But when they bring in new talent, they lose the ones with experience. This is something that affects both genders, and loses a skill balance. It forces us to re-examine our priorities, and to shout loudly: I’m still alive – and I have a lot to offer!”

Does being a woman in the workplace come with any special insights, talents or other advantages?

“Women can be good at building relationships, and that’s important in fleet. We’re also good at remembering details that may seem small and irrelevant – say, the names of a customer’s children – but can be very powerful. That being said, I believe balance is important when it comes to gender. My team is very mixed: in terms of gender but also languages and countries of origin. Working every day with such a global team shows the value of understanding diversity.”

What would you say to CEOs looking to correct the gender imbalance on their workfloor?

“That it starts from the top. The workfloor mirrors what happens at management level. And also, that women may need more encouragement. They have a broader view of the work-family balance, and many make decisions in favour of family, which means their ambitions and fulfilment can get delayed. In a place like Sweden, a society centered around the child, that isn’t such an issue. Both parents get parental leave, and it’s not uncommon for one parent to take one year off and the other to take the second year off. And it’s not seen as a career interruption.”

What’s your advice to women coming into the workplace now?

“Three things. Firstly, network. When I look back on my career, most job moves started with a conversation that then led to the formal process.
Secondly, get a mentor. Find someone you admire, and get their help and support. New starters would do well to tap the experience of their seniors.
And thirdly: get different work experiences, by asking for it. I’m in my current role because of a call I made.””

Knowing what you know now, what would you say to your younger self as she started out in this business?

“Be braver, and quicker to promote yourself. Believe you can do a big job, don’t wait for it to come to you. And if sometimes there isn’t a direct path forward, consider making a sideways move. That’s also a way to create a new path.”

Looking back at your career so far, what are your proudest achievements?

“All of it! (laughs). The fact that I managed to balance work and life, and that I’m a role model to my children. At the start of her bachelor’s dissertation, where you thank everybody like at the Oscars, my daughter wrote about me: You’ve been my rock (…) You make me want to strive for great things.”
“I’m particularly proud of where I am now. It’s the kind of job I always wanted, and the fact that I got it late in my career means you should never say never. Within Polestar, our team is responsible for the order take processes and systems for fleet sales. We ensure the orders get processed. And we’re working on digital systems to create smooth experiences for our fleet customers. We’ve achieved so much since our launch in 2020, and our road map shows much more to come. I’m proud of my team, and of the opportunity to build great things. In 2021, I won a collaboration award, but that’s really a win for the whole team.”

It's often said that it’s harder for women to combine their jobs with the other roles in their lives – as mothers, wives – than it is for men. Do you agree?

“Would you ask men the same question? I don’t think so. Why should the question even be asked of women? All parents have to make choices in terms of work-life balance, and everyone handles it in their own way.”
“I remember women’s rights discussions from the 1960s and 70s that were about creating the ability for us to ‘have it all’. In reality, that meant that women ended up doing everything – work and home – themselves. Fortunately, things have moved on from that and now people no longer think of work or home as destined for this or that partner.” “In my house, we shared responsibilities. We had to, to be a successful family. Even so, I think the younger generation takes equality more for granted than my generation did. I made sure my son grew up with the same skills as my daughter. He can cook and clean too!”

Final questions: Who’s your hero? And what’s your motto?

“My hero is (former U.S. Supreme Court judge) Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a force to be reckoned with. A powerful user of words. Her legacy affects many, and safeguarded freedoms that many now take for granted.”
“As for mottos, I have a few. In our family, we jokingly say: I’m not scary, I’m respected. That’s because a former manager once described me as well respected and the kids said: They are all scared of you, mum!. My current one says my personality type is helpful and aggressive. When I’m on a mission, I don’t take prisoners.
But my personal motto is: Don’t panic. Things go wrong. It’s not the end of the world. Deal with them, and move on. It’s a motto that comes in handy quite often. This weekend, I had one of those calls from my daughter, and I had to remind her of it again! (laughs).”

Name Kay Saunders
Company Polestar
Current position Head of Global Fleet Operations
Previous roles Hospitality Industry, Dealerships, Leasing, then Fleet and Marketing at  Volvo Cars UK, and Global Fleet at Volvo Cars Corporation.

Inspiring Women in Fleet (IWIF) is coming to Latin America!

Following the successful launch at the 2022 Fleet Europe Summit in Dublin (Ireland) and an equally popular follow-up at the 2023 Global Fleet Conference in Cascais (Portugal), the IWIF initiative will soon be crossing the Atlantic. On 25 September, the first day of the 2023 Fleet LatAm Conference in Mexico City, female professionals in the Fleet and Mobility industry in the LatAm region are invited to an inspiring IWIF networking lunch. You can register here for the Fleet LatAm Conference and the Inspiring Women in Fleet Lunch

Authored by: Laurie Marganne