Talent Conversations is our new interview series – capturing career stories and experiences from professional people across a range of different sectors. Our aim is to provide lessons from industry, a real-world perspective and authentic personal insights into our daily working lives. First stop – “Women in Finance”.
It strikes me that if you are a woman looking for a career that spans across every single industry and sector, then finance and accounting offer a huge range of opportunities. Every business has money matters to manage and organizing, systematizing and interpreting financial data is crucial for every organisation.
While the profession of accounting might immediately conjure up the Big Four accounting firms, the reality is that the financial sector offers so much more.
Shorthand on ’the finance profession’ would say ‘it’s all about the numbers’.
I asked four senior women in the financial roles to put me right – and they sure did!
Our discussions revealed that high levels of soft skills are crucial. Beyond numeracy, these include people management, translating and interpreting information, presenting ideas, acting as a trusted adviser and growing a team culture that nurtures talent conversations.
“People tend to think of finance as all about being in an office, working with Excel spreadsheets all day, but actually I am very involved in the day-to-day running of a private cancer centre that is at the forefront of cancer care”, says Shaolin Loke, CFO of Leaders in Oncology Care part of HCA Healthcare UK.
In our discussion, I learned that finance truly sits at the heart of a business. It’s the engine room – with Director level roles working closely alongside founders and senior heads of division. Jobs in the finance director space offer a level of structured progression and hierarchy balanced with the opportunity to make the role your own.
“I like being the one who works to keep everyone in check – and I really enjoy working with people”, Dorrie Gibson, Finance Director for ITV Channels tells me.
I wanted to learn more about the kinds of opportunity finance can offer women and get their advice for other women in the field. Let’s dive in.
“I am so grateful for the opportunities that finance has given me.”
As the CFO of an HCA Healthcare oncology centre, Shaolin finds her role both interesting and hugely rewarding.
“I’m at the heart of the hospital – I talk to clinicians and stakeholders across the business and take decisions that support our staff and generate real results for our patients.”
Shaolin came to finance having left school at 16 with no qualifications. A temporary financial administration job led to developing real hands-on skills and ultimately progressing to becoming CIMA qualified. It’s clear from the relish and energy she brings to our conversation, that she loves her work and anticipates her next move will be into a Chief Executive role.
Loving her job doesn’t mean that work comes without challenges. Shaolin recognizes that as her roles become more senior it can become harder to achieve a work-life balance and that it is only human for energy to take a dip. However, she stresses the importance of being mindful of maintaining your brand as a caring and professional leader.
“You have to remember that it is not your team’s fault that you are under pressure, and you still need to keep your communication respectful and appropriate”, she says.
Shaolin also encourages women to be pro-active about striking the balance because
“Time management isn’t always easy, when we are switched on and connected 24/7 and of course family, friends and leisure are an important and valuable part of life.”
Her advice to women considering moving into finance later in life is, quite simply, “Go for it!”. She sees the move as totally feasible.
“Once you understand the principles of finance you discover that a financial career is about a lot of other skills”, say Shaolin. “Coming from a different field, doesn’t mean you have to start from the bottom.”
Experience in leading teams, developing strategy and managing time and resources are some of the key transferable skills that a more mature candidate possesses. In addition, many organizations will fund you to become qualified, opening up a structured career path that can you take into a huge range of sectors.
“The fact is you don’t have to have A Levels and a degree or work at The Big Four to have a fantastic career”, says Shaolin. “If you put in the hard work and treat your people right, you can have an exceptional career through an unconventional route.”
The Entrepreneurial Sidekick
“There’s a bit of me desperate not to be an accountant, so I enjoy the fun and casual culture in our firm.”
Following a degree in languages, Samantha spent a short period of time at DEFRA followed by an auditing role. The ACCA qualifications she acquired on the job combined with her diverse skill sets enabled her to travel and work in Australia, first for BP and then for KPMG. Auditing offered a huge range of opportunities across fields and upon her return, led to Samantha joining the music and video company, Time Life.
For the last nine years, Samantha has been the financial controller of Kingpin, a communications agency. The company is small and privately owned, offering a fascinating contrast to the international publicly listed firms of her past.
“It’s very satisfying to be able to influence decisions and see the business grow”, she says. “In the much larger organisations, finance can be quite isolated from the rest of the business, whereas here I am playing an integral part in business decisions.”
In her latest role at Kingpin, she came on-board at a crucial point in the business and set about immediately improving cash flow, providing the processes and purchasing strategy to help the entrepreneurial founders to make the most of their opportunities. She has recently helped the company open an office in the US and has been on hand to manage growth and ensure the viability of the next steps for the company in this exciting new phase.
The downsides? As the only financial expert on the team, Samantha says it can get a little lonely!
“You don’t have the peer group or mentor with whom to bounce ideas off in-house so I have had to expand my network beyond the business to make sure I continue to get input and expertise from other peers.”
Samantha also shared that being in a smaller more entrepreneurial business has meant a greater diversity of talent.
“I think the larger corporations tend to employ a set type of person. There are advantages, like less opportunity for conflict, but at the same time my current work has a lot more diverse people with diverse points of view and as a result, I am challenged more! It is also a much more relaxed culture and more fun and casual than a traditional corporate environment”, she laughs.
When Samantha wanted to move into more creative businesses, she found it challenging to have to sell her relevant experience and transferable skills so that recruiters would put her forward. She overcame this with persistence, recognizing that some recruiters will be a little blinkered about your background, while others will be willing to put you forward. She advises going directly to your ideal employer if the recruiters are putting up an opposition.
“If you are going to make the move across sectors, it is well worth adapting your CV to speak the language of the new industry”, she shares.
Once in her new role, she discovered firsthand how crucial it was to adapt her messaging and information to suit the new culture she was in.
“I remember when I produced my first Board Pack for the creative business I now work in. I worked so hard to produce beautiful spreadsheets mapping the current state of play. And guess what? None of the creative entrepreneurs was remotely interested! I learned to tailor the information accordingly and now we have a very simple dashboard, so Directors can see our current position in simple graphics and visuals. You’ve got to know your audience and tailor accordingly”, she shares with a smile.
Her key advice for other women is to remember to let people know what you have achieved.
“I am a really “do-do” type of person. I was so busy doing the role that I didn’t think to champion my achievements. To be honest, I couldn’t understand why people would want to know that I have done my job!”
Now that Samantha understands the importance of visibility she has adapted her approach accordingly.
“So I would say, really remember to articulate your achievements regularly, so you can be recognized accordingly.”
“I have always been an entrepreneurial person and never meant to have a career as an employee.”
When Sarita left education, she partnered on a number of ventures and made some good money. Sarita’s mum wasn’t impressed though and encouraged her to ‘get a proper job’!
“I eventually met someone who worked at a creative agency and that was the start of my love affair with the creative world.”
Sarita has specialized in taking on finance roles in creative companies ever since. These have included Global CFO roles that have had her at the helm of multi-million-pound holding companies and steering large-scale growth.
We discussed the challenges of juggling a home life with a high-pressure role. Sarita is nothing if not pragmatic.
“I used some common sense about what I took on during pregnancy” she says.
“And when I am at home I am 100% there and my family really know that. So our conversations are rich and we use our time really well and there is nothing I do not know.”
Sarita’s has enjoyed the experience of working alongside her male colleagues.
“I’ve worked in some quite male-dominated environments but I know who I am and have always held my own”, she shares.
“In some ways, It’s been easier working for men as they haven’t always taken the world so seriously and approach the vision or the strategy with much more humour, which is important in fast-paced companies.”
In fact, the best career advice Sarita received was from a male colleague. The advice was ‘give every new role at least six months’.
“He told me that you can have these initial thoughts about a place and person but it really takes six months before you can make a fair assessment.”
Sarita thinks that advice about making an impact in the first ninety days is misplaced.
“It can take time to form relationships and to really understand the business and it is only once you have both these things that you are in a position to shape the role and make an informed decision. You want to commit to building something on solid foundations”, she says.
Sarita’s belief is that the best way to do that is to really focus on getting to know the company and the people in it, without having one foot already out the door.
“I think one needs to focus on gaining respect by being really very good at what you do.”
Her key advice to women in business: “A* players hire A* team members. You have to play as a team to succeed – so remember to focus on hiring phenomenal people and being an exceptional collaborator and team leader.”
The bottom line for Sarita?
“You are as good as the people you hire, so keep the bar high.”
The TV Exec
“I am an accidental accountant, yet it fits a lot of things I knew I wanted. I was numerate and organized and quite a structured person, plus I knew I wanted an office based job”, shares Dorrie Gibson of ITV.
Dorrie took a history degree.
“A variety of temp roles eventually saw me arrive at the National Audit Office for my first permanent role, on their grad scheme. It was there I became ACA qualified.”
It was only when she began to explore opportunities outside the NAO that Dorrie realised what a good choice it was.
“I discovered that being both experienced and qualified means lots of options are open and lots of people would take you.”
Dorrie chose to join ITV’s accounting division in 2006. She has been with ITV ever since, progressing through from management accounting to commercial accounting, with jobs that changed somewhat organically over time. This has been combined with some lucky timing, where opportunities came up to progress in seniority and she chose to take them.
“When I came back from maternity, I took on a different role. There is so much you have to get used to after time away from a company, I thought why not go into something new, as the old job is unlikely to be the same anyway.”
The step up role that was offered to Dorrie when she returned after maternity was full time and full on, but her view was “If I don’t take it then someone else will”. The same experience repeated itself when she returned after her second child and took on further responsibility. While a full-time role with two young children may not be for everyone, these roles have worked out well for Dorrie.
“I just really enjoy getting stuck in!” she laughs.
A career in TV certainly has a sheen of glamour to it!
“When people ask what I do, I sometimes say I am in TV and sometimes say I am an accountant. It depends on the audience.”
The ‘showbiz gloss’ of working for a well-known and well-loved brand is not the only difference Dorrie observes between ITV and many more staid work environments. Dorrie describes a fun and lively workplace, with a nice balance of character and culture. Finance and legal are both very integrated with the wider business and there is a sense of real partnership and collaboration, with Dorrie’s team helping creative directors weigh up the risks of investing in a new pilot TV show.
“We combine the best of our skills to make the right decision. The smart and quirky creatives don’t always have a head for figures and it is important that they can make an informed decision.”
Dorrie describes some of the challenges of holding the tension between what shareholders want and what the creatives in the business want. She explained that judging the likely success of a new TV idea can be hard and though these ‘punts’ can feel risky, it’s wonderful when audience figures show the gamble was worthwhile.
Dorrie’s most valuable advice came from her parents. During her first interview process, they told her how important it was to be likeable and to check for fit.
“Environment and people really do matter”, she says. “We spend so much time at work and when you like the people you work with it can make all the difference.”
Dorrie’s own advice for women thinking about an accounting career is ‘take the exams’. She shared that even though they are ‘boring and life-sapping’ they provide an important stepping stone for your career. The qualification demonstrates that you have the academic rigour to go the distance and Dorrie feels women may hit a career ceiling without them.
So for those considering a career in finance, what are the crucial takeaways?
A head for numbers is part of the picture but transferable soft skills are essential to thrive in the finance environment and should not be underestimated.
Financial professionals do need certification to progress beyond a certain level.
The range of roles is vast, so consider which industries you might find the best suit you and your interests.
What have you learned from this article?
With thank to our four talented women!