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The real apprentices

Female FDs at the top of their game should take an active role in mentoring women rising up in finance

When I started my career in finance in the 1990s, looking around for female role models was tough: there were very few, but that strengthened my determination to persevere. Casting my mind back to long weekends of studying such motivational topics as inheritance tax and company law, it is a wonder I ever received my qualification.

I was lucky enough to get the break for which all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed accountants look: a role with one of the Big Four. This was my first experience of mentoring and role models. I can remember the dreaded word ‘appraisal’ being used, and the fear that shot through me. However, this was where my steepest learning curve began. I was one of the lucky ones who had a career coach who really believed in the benefits of mentoring. She was a successful senior manager and had great experience of coaching and mentoring, passing this enthusiasm on to me.

Open and honest

The things I learned from her honesty set me on my career path and helped guide me through some tough times, promotions and, ultimately, through my departure – and this is where excellent career coaches really show their true colours. If they can support and understand you enough to realise your path is going elsewhere but still continue their honest approach, it is the most valuable advice you can have.

All people at all levels need to seek out a coach and mentor who will be honest enough to tell them the things that will help them better themselves and, even more importantly, be able to deliver these things in a positive way. A good mentor will take the time to work through ideas and plans. I believe in this approach so strongly that I put myself forward to my local Chamber of Commerce to mentor any young professionals who were looking for help. I had not specifically said I would only mentor women, but it appears the need from young women in finance is far greater than that of our male colleagues. Why is this, I ask myself?

Where are they now?

It was at this time that I realised that I was in need of a new mentor, but looking around the world of finance I realised very little had changed in the make-up of the industry since the 1990s – when I first started my studies – given that there are just four female FDs in the FTSE-100 and a significant number of those companies have no female board members at all. Where are my role models and mentors now? Who will invest the time in mentoring me, and how do I go about finding one who will? I didn’t exactly Google the Women’s Institute for finance directors, but just reading those stats made me feel incredibly lonely in my career.

Charlotte Willis is head of finance at Instant Offices

I do not want to get into the debate on whether a quota for female board members is the right thing; my answer is simply no. What is severely lacking from that debate is a real understanding of what women in high-level roles believe are the barriers they crossed to get there.

One big area that concerns me is the lack of mentoring and coaching for those of us who are just about to venture into this world from those who have been there and done it. I would welcome the chance to spend an hour just listening to the likes of Burberry CFO Stacey Cartwright, 3i CFO Julia Wilson, Cairn Energy CFO Jann Brown, or Friends Provident’s Evelyn Bourke. I would ask them to tell me what their first year of sitting on the board felt like, and I would love to find out how they survived. Do I really need to have my tear ducts sewn up? Or is there a known cure for this affliction that occurs when people shout and the panic sets in? Is this just part of being the woman on the board and, for want of a better saying, do I just need to man up?

I am counting the days to the time when I am experienced enough to pass on my knowledge to those who will be taking the same step. My ultimate goal and life achievement would be measured by how many of the women I have had the pleasure of mentoring end up sitting on the boards of UK companies.

Charlotte Willis is head of finance at Instant Offices

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