Women in Leadership – Management Insight: Carla De Geyseleer, Chief Finance Officer
I am a strong believer in diversity which, for me, goes beyond gender. Diversity is simple; it is nothing more than the natural order of society.
Throughout my career, I have been lucky to have been in organizations where diversity has been embraced. I started out in a global company that was hugely diverse, with around 80 different nationalities represented in the headquarters alone, and I assumed that this was the norm. Diversity, of course, is more than nationalities, or cultures or gender; it is about the synthesis of internal and external talent, cultural and philosophical backgrounds, qualifications and soft skills, age and experience. There are too many false barriers to promoting diversity based on traditional beliefs or cultural attitudes. For instance, why should a German or, say, a Spanish company insist on hiring a leader of the same descent? Age, too, is another false barrier. I have seen a 62-year old man driving a transformation project harder than people half his age. We need to challenge perceptions and encourage people to be open-minded about diversity. Instead of asking ourselves why we should employ a person in a role, maybe we should be asking why would we not employ this person in the role.
Around half of the managers in my team are women. I did not positively discriminate or impose my choice of women in management roles; I simply selected the best person for each job. The concept is easy for me; I am goal-driven, which means that when I appoint a member of my management team; I choose the person that I think will be the best for the job – someone who can deliver and who is driven by determination, engagement and, passion. These are important qualities for anyone in finance, irrespective of gender.
Thinking specifically about women in leadership, companies should challenge the perception of the glass ceiling. Investors rightly want to be reassured that our company and our management team accurately reflect the diversity of our client base and the societies that our services touch. However, adopting a positive attitude toward this issue requires patience, perseverance and encouragement. In my role as a woman in finance leadership, I am often asked what I consider to be important qualities for people working in my discipline and I focus on the core competencies in finance – none of which is defined by gender. These qualities are the same for everyone, and I believe that anyone can master them. However, this does not explain why there are so few female Chief Finance Officers! Below I set out what I believe are five important enablers for women leaders, although the same qualities can be applied equally to men:
First, chose the right partner! Having someone who is wholly supportive of their partner in a leadership role is crucial. In my career, I have met many very capable people, particularly women, who would have made great managers and leaders, yet their partners have been the decision-makers and have ultimately held back their partners’ ambitions.
Second, be prepared to be flexible. So often, employers are expected to be flexible in accommodating the needs of working women, yet women must also be prepared to accommodate business demands; it’s a two-way street.
Third, compromise. Personally, I find this the most difficult trait of all to master. I am a perfectionist, which means that I expect everything in my work and my personal life to be perfect. I have had to learn to lower my expectations of the standards that can be maintained. For example, at home where I am unable to manage the running of the household, I must accept that things will get done but in a different way from how I would do them.
Fourth, be prepared for life to get messy, because it will. The higher up the corporate ladder you travel, the more embroiled you become in politics. These situations need someone who is neutral and indifferent to the emotions around them and who can a steer a clear course. It so happens that remaining neutral, objective and pragmatic are exactly the qualities you need to be successful in finance – especially at CFO level.
Fifth, be a risk taker. Trust yourself and your team, and trust the process. Be prepared to take a risk and accept responsibility for the outcome, whatever the outcome is. Ask yourself the question, “Am I in the game to win or am I in the game not to lose?”. This will make a huge difference to your approach and to your potential to contribute to the substantial progress of a company. Of course, you cannot achieve any goal entirely on your own. Success requires you to drive and unlock value through engagement. Leaders understand that engaging people is critical to achieving goals.