Rowena is a Banking & Financial Services Executive with over 20 years’ experience in the markets of Europe and Asia, expert in general management, corporate governance, establishing start-ups, risk and credit, anti-money laundering, finance, and client communications. She is a Change agent with a proven track record of building new and restructuring existing units in various FSIs over more than 20 years.
You started your career in accounting - was that a conscious decision or did you fall into it?
I studied Geophysics at university, which I enjoyed, but it didn't really set me up for a career in Finance and, by the time I graduated, I knew that that was what interested me. So, I felt that I needed to have some form of business qualification that would enable me to bring value to roles. I'm also quite an independent person and I wanted to earn my own money and be independent, so those two things really drew me to looking at possible next steps and the Chartered Accountancy process felt like the best way to get exposure to a broad range of industries. I focused on financial markets early on, such as insurance companies, banks, and pension organisations, which gave me exposure to a range of business topics, and that was a good foundation. By the end of the three years of qualifying, I felt well set up for my first role in an actual bank.
What was it that attracted you to Finance?
I was possibly influenced by friends and colleagues who had graduated before me, who'd moved to London and moved into roles on the financial side. I was probably also influenced by media at the time: Wall St movies were very popular then and they may have sparked a kernel of an idea! The more I investigated various career paths, the more I realised that what interested me was working in Financial Services, though I didn't know whether that might be Insurance or Banking or even staying in Professional Services and moving over to the consultancy arm of the accounting firms. The exposure through the Chartered Accountancy qualification really helped me decide. I remain fascinated by the innovation and pace of change in Finance Services, and how banking in particular can really drive business and even cultural change. It’s a lifelong fascination.
You moved into managing projects quite early in your career compared to most people. How did that come about?
I moved into a Projects team, handling the Europe region, with projects around new currency implementations and looking at capital structures in branches, and other technical areas. I'm not a formally qualified project manager, I'm just an extremely organised individual. I believe that there are skills you can learn and there are skills that are your natural skill set. Back then, typically, large-scale change programs would have a deadline, a budget, a team, all the milestones required, and then inevitably things would change and run over budget or people would leave etc. Today, projects are done with a much more agile mindset. The large-scale objectives are still set out, but the fixed milestones and the path to get to the goal isn't the same. Achieving change is much smarter now and you can flex what you're doing, experiment and change course throughout. Not everyone has an agile mindset but being able to respond to change is crucial. If I look at my colleagues, it's an enormously diverse group of people in every sense of the word, but specifically, in terms of industry experience. While we do have people who have banking experience, we also have some from Fintech, some from different geographies, and some from completely different industry sectors who are implementation experts or change experts. We've even got people who've come from the media side and are bringing in those skill sets. It's a hugely diverse group and it brings a lot of different abilities and different viewpoints together.
Tell us about your career switch, moving out of Banking and doing something different and then back again.
I was working for a bank in Asia, and I'd just achieved a promotion, but things felt like they were on a path that was narrowing. I also had this nagging feeling that a part of my brain somewhere was going to sleep. I wanted to do something different because when I looked ahead, I felt my career wasn’t necessarily heading in the direction I wanted to be going. I had an opportunity to pursue something I wanted to study, so I joined a course with the London School of Journalism and managed to land a role with an agency doing interviews and writing pieces on everything from real estate to sporting events. At the end of that two-year program, I joined a Media & Events company that specialised in retail banking technology, so I was able to combine my Banking knowledge with this newly developed skill set in the Comms space. After a few years, about a year after the financial crisis, Standard Chartered approached me as they were looking for somebody who had a strong Banking background as well as a strong Communications background, to set up a technical comms unit. While it was a surprise, it seemed like the logical next step in my career to move back into the corporate banking world and bring both of those experiences together.
Is there any advice you would give to somebody in a similar position in their career and thinking about doing something else?
Firstly, have a clear idea of why it is that you're thinking of switching careers. For example, a poor relationship with a boss making you hate your job isn't a valid reason for switching entire careers, particularly if you've invested a lot of yourself and time and effort into it. Then, do your research and consider how best to go about it, working out the paths that will get you to where you want to be. The third thing I'd say is, if you decide that now is not the right time, that's also fine, but be wary that if all the other pieces make sense, don't give yourself excuses that it's too difficult or there are too many things stopping you, because you could regret it later.
What career highlights are you particularly proud of?
I spent the last three years in Poland setting up the new office, and one key highlight for me was the first Christmas party there. There was a photo taken on the night, and the faces of the management team in that photo tell a great story of the elation and relief we all felt at what we'd achieved. For 165 years, the bank had never operated in that market; we had no brand presence; our competitors were all there already; and we'd needed to achieve a steep hiring trajectory, getting to 150 people by the end of the first year. We just got there in time, and it was a huge highlight and relief for me and the team. It really vindicated the belief my backers had placed in me.
What about times that have been more challenging? How did you overcome those?
This is going back to a much earlier point in my career. I remember sitting down in a performance review with my then boss in London, which went well, so I thought it might be a good time to ask if there was any chance of an overseas posting. I wasn't sure I would get one as it's a popular thing to ask for, but he came back to me just two weeks later and asked if I would go to Hong Kong. I said yes and it changed the course of my life, and I spent the next 15 years in Asia. However, I remember the first time I stepped off the plane into the chaos and humidity of Hong Kong in June and asked myself what on earth I had done. I took it literally one step at a time to acclimatise, get to know people, my role, the country, the region and of course I ended up loving it. But it taught me to be bold, to try things. What you get might not be exactly what you were expecting, but it might also be better.
How have you factored in D&I into your strategy when you've built teams and how has that differed across locations?
Within large organisations like Standard Chartered I think the application of values is reasonably consistent across geographies, but outside of your corporate bubble the culture impacts a lot more strongly. In the UK, it is easier than in some locations to raise topics which might be considered difficult elsewhere. That said, the fact that it's easier to raise those topics, doesn't mean that they don't exist, which means that it is still important to focus on D&I. In Poland, we were hiring in areas of the business that were much more male dominated, such as cybersecurity or specific programming languages for risk modelling or financial crime compliance. Rather than aiming for fixed quotas of women, we tried to create the right enablers that would position us to be an employer of choice for the smaller female talent pipeline that was available. We used social media, as well as targeted events and made sure that the broader community was aware of what Standard Chartered brand values stood for. We also used techniques such as ensuring there was always a diverse interview panel, which makes a huge difference.
I believe that good leaders who embody the values that you're looking to present as your corporate values, tend to act as a magnet for people with those same behaviour patterns. So, being physically visible as a female leader in the bank at events that were focused around the sectors that we were looking to hire in was important. At traditionally male-dominated events, such as those in cybersecurity, we found that by having a female presence there, the few women that were there tended to get drawn towards you. Having a diverse team is critical. Diverse teams are more successful and more innovative, but it's an ongoing process. It's not something that you can do once, it must be constantly invested in and reinforced.
Once you've attracted that diverse talent, how do you retain them and develop them as future leaders?
Creating good career pathways, particularly in a new entity, is challenging because the variety of opportunities grows with the size of the business. We had a lot of programs around awareness of opportunities within the organisation and up to 30% of roles are now filled internally in the Poland entity, so that's quite an achievement after only three years. The enablers like open days and training are important too, as is getting hiring managers to be open to the fact that internal hires may not have the perfect skill set, but they are already well networked in the organisation, which can outweigh the benefits of hiring the perfect candidate externally who is new to the organisation.
In terms of retention, the more challenging part of the D&I agenda is being inclusive. A lot of large organisations can create diversity, but struggle in terms of creating and measuring an inclusive environment. Even some of the best managers who are extremely good at focusing on diversity in their teams may not always have the inclusive culture they think they have. One of the best ways to approach that is through self-awareness. Unconscious bias training is very helpful to raise self-awareness of when you might be showing bias. Setting out clear corporate values and letting people know what is expected is also important. One of the things we do in the early parts of people's careers is focus on understanding what the value structures mean and what's important and why it's important.
What do we need to be aware of in relation to inclusion when it comes to the new ways of working?
Over the last year and a half, we've all addressed how to pivot running a team or how to run an organisation in a very different operating and working environment. One sector of the workforce I think we need to focus on are people at earlier stages of their careers. The need for mentorship, supervision, and on-the-job training is more significant than when you're more matured into your role or career path. It's very challenging to create the casual support that is needed in those early stages in a virtual environment, which is by nature more formalised. You can't just pop over to someone's desk to ask a question now. It is a naturally halted and more structured approach and lot less casual. Casual interaction results in a faster learning trajectory that can lead to a more successful start to someone’s career path. Casual interaction also supports corporate stickiness because time in the office with your peers helps to infuse good corporate values and in feeling part of the team.
Do you have any final advice that you would give to someone early in their career who aspires to be a future leader?
My first advice would be to be bold. Ask for what it is that you want. You might not get it, but the worst that can happen is somebody says no. Very often, people don't say no, and even if you don't get exactly what you want, quite often you will get something else. The second thing is, be open. The path that opens up for you as a consequence of being bold might be different, but it might also be more rewarding than expected. Lastly, be inquisitive. Never stop learning, never stop being open to new ideas, never stop inquiring about individuals, different subjects, or different parts of your organisation, to keep learning and growing.
Posted about 2 months ago