Recently, I was lucky enough to interview Nicola Tunney, the Head of Operations at Allica Bank, the bank built specifically for small and medium sized businesses. We spoke about her career path, and the obstacles and challenges she’s overcome to get to where she is today.
Nic, could you tell us a little about your career progression to date?
I started out at catering college and was determined to be a chef, so my career hasn’t exactly gone to plan! Unfortunately, I had to leave catering college after a year when my parents moved to Tenerife to open a pub and restaurant.
When I came back to the UK after a couple of years, I couldn’t get the funding to get back into study. However, thanks to a couple of secretarial roles abroad, I could type. So I ended up at an admin role in London. That progressed to other admin jobs in various IFA roles, building up to Office Management, Paraplanning, before then onto being an Adviser (IFA) in my own right. Along the way I got a Diploma in Financial Planning (FPC), followed by the Advanced Financial Planning Certificate (AFPC).
I really enjoyed the IFA environment. I was an investment adviser (the pensions route really not being for me back then… G60 and all that!), but didn’t see any means of advancement. So, I decided to move to a larger company. My role progressed with several different brands within HBOS (Clerical Medical and Bank of Scotland), Lloyds (C&G) and TSB. First of all, I used the AFPC to good effect in a Technical Service role. Then I became more aligned with Customer Services and Operations centrally, before becoming more focused on things from a branch perspective.
My move to Allica Bank has given me the opportunity to bring all my experience together into one role.
What key factors propelled you to enter the Operations space?
I love the direct contact I get to have with customers and with brokers. It means I can constantly get feedback and make a real, tangible difference to my main priority: the customer experience.
I also enjoy the delivery focus and ‘can do’ attitude of Ops teams and the fact that we support and work with so many different parts of the business – I really enjoy that collaborative approach.
Also, for me, having a bit of fun at work is really important. And I love the fact that Ops teams invariably have a bit of personality. Not that others don’t, of course, but you really get a buzz in Ops that comes from working so collaboratively.
Having worked across a variety of roles within Financial Services, what challenges did you experience moving to Head of Operations at Allica Bank?
So many things were different from the large corporate businesses I had worked with previously, so every day was a challenge and new opportunity. There are three things that stand out:
- I joined Allica when we were still in the ‘Building the Bank’ phase, so we had very little in place in terms of processes and procedures – everything was new, everything was a question and everything was a challenge!
- The speed at which Allica works and delivers for its customers was, and still is, incredible. It’s a very fast paced environment.
- Learning every part of the Bank rather than just my own particular corner – I couldn’t have told you how a Bank truly works before I joined, but now I understand each function and how they all inter-relate, as well as the various governance forums and their rationale.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in your career so far, and are any due to gender?
One of the key things I’ve learnt to develop is having confidence in myself and my own abilities, and standing up for what I believe is right. Whether that be policy, process, procedure or people. It’s very easy to let others intimidate you into not expressing your own opinion – particularly if you’re the only woman in the room. But gender isn’t an excuse here and that’s something I continue to work on.
Also, managing a career and small children – that was definitely hard! It was very much a ‘treading water’ phase for me, and I consider that alone to be a big achievement looking back!
I hope that working mums don’t face this as much these days, but when my kids were young, the expectation was certainly that I did the drop-off/ pick-up at nursery, rallied around if anyone was poorly, made tea and did all the household chores. That was just what being a wife and mother meant. It was hard, hard work and I invariably felt guilty that I wasn’t giving everything I wanted to my work, while at the same time guilty for not being there for my children all the time. It was like I couldn’t win.
Do you believe there's a glass ceiling for women in the workplace, and has it changed?
There definitely was, but I don’t believe that there is a glass ceiling now. You only have to look at Anne Boden, who’s doing great things at Starling Bank or Allison Rose at Royal Bank of Scotland. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still work to do to improve opportunities for all across the industry.
I don’t believe in quotas when it comes to diversity in the workplace – I believe it should be the best person for the job – but businesses need to be making sure that they advertise, recruit, train and develop in a manner that supports the growth and build of a diverse workforce. It’s very easy to sleepwalk into a position where ‘like has recruited like’ and you miss out on so much doing that – the hiring pool needs to be really representative.
How do you feel the Financial Services industry compares to others, regarding diversity, and how has that changed?
The Financial Services industry is definitely more diverse now than it was, say, 20 years ago. I remember being at an annual conference back in the day, with 250-300 people in the room. There were six or maybe eight women present – the rest were all suited and booted (white) men, of a very consistent age, too! Going to a similar conference now looks very different indeed and I think that’s particularly true of the lower level roles where you can see real diversity coming through and being celebrated.
Looking back on your career, what are some of the key moments that have helped or hindered you in getting where you are?
Hindered… that’ll be the confidence thing, and not thinking that I am good enough to put myself forward or challenge myself enough.
Helped… the advice and support of other people and taking the time to sit back and learn from mistakes.
Your Manager and your relationship with them can go either way and it’s so important to work on this one – don’t put all your time into managing down, but instead think about how to manage your relationship with your peers and those above you too. By the way, some of the hardest taskmasters are the ones to look out for; they set high standards and they expect nothing but your best. That can be incredibly motivational if you can work with it.
What advice would you give to a woman looking to progress their career in Banking?
Go for it! Financial Services and Banking in particular is a fabulous industry that is constantly evolving. It’s far more genuinely customer centric than it has ever been in the past, creating products and services that really do make customer lives easier and technology is leading the way.
Thank you Nic, for opening up about your own experiences and journey to leadership. If you, or someone you know, is an Inspiring Business Woman in Compliance, and has a great story to tell, then I’d love to hear from you! Contact me at email@example.com.