Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the top, Penny James- Direct line CFO

Route to the top, Penny James- Direct line CFO

Penny James, CFO of motor insurer Direct Line, reveals her career progression

I undertook my accountancy training in Bristol after gaining a degree in statistics. I was keen not to be in one of the large, central London firm offices, where you get pigeon-holed into a particular field.

The accountancy qualification gives you an insight into how businesses operate, holistically what a business is all about. You get a window into businesses and you can talk to people way above your station as you’re auditing- and you get a real feel for what makes a business work.

I knew I was a financial services girl after three years after auditing a quarrying company, a life assurer, a sports club and lots of other stuff in between. Shortly after I qualified I was approached to join what was Allied Dunbar that is now Zurich Financial Services (ZFS).

Accounting teaches you how to deal with stakeholders. At a very early stage in your career you’re having to deal, work out how to influence people and engage with people from different backgrounds and disciplines- I think for any business person that’s a huge attribute.

ZFS had a finance function ahead of its time. It believed that that finance’s job is to set the tramlines for the organisation, and to be a source of strength in the middle of an organisation. There I had to learn to be able to argue a point and be able to hold my own with an actuarial department that’s very strong, or senior individuals.

The group was also very good at was spotting talent. They would pull them out and throw them into interesting roles- something I’ve always tried to do, tried to work out who the young, emerging person is.

Make sure you say something early in every meeting, one of my bosses told me. You’ll get used to saying something and people will get used to the fact that you’ll be saying something. And over time you just won’t care- it was a great early piece of advice. Before that I was always scared to speak, because it was full of very bright people, who were much more experienced than me and I never thought anything I could say would have value.

Watch how people operate with one another, and try to find a way of assessing that, was another good piece of advice.  I’m relatively intuitive re assessing people, I’m fortunate for an FD in that regard. I got this from a book by Erica Ariel Fox, called Winning from within who says people are a worrier, a thinker, a lover or a dreamer.

I felt it was time to move and spread my wings. So at insurer Omega I took on the first listed CFO role I’d been offered, and I was somewhere lost in my mid-30s. It was a very much relationship-driven market- the London markets are broker-driven- they tend to be very much about individuals, there weren’t many mid 30s females there either.

I learnt more from it than any other spell in my career– about being true to yourself is what really matters- not being afraid to express what really matters and just being resilient. Learning what investors actually expect and what your responsibilities are as a board director is a skill you can’t be taught on paper, you just have to live it.

Arriving at Prudential as finance controller was a sideways role into something much bigger.You’ve got the variety of a very technical financial business in the US and a huge consumer type retail business in Asia, so the diversity of the things you’re dealing with is huge.

If you can do your job in 50% of the time in a couple of years, then something interesting will come along to fill up the rest of your time, and makes you hire great people underneath you. There I helped in a negotiation of a very big bancassurance deal in Asia.

Careers are about what opportunities you’re given-what you put your hand up for, and I tend to put my hand up for things a lot of people shy away from, because of personal risk, or they’re uncomfortable, and Solvency2 was one of those at that point.

Leadership at the top of businesses is all about drawing off the different specialisms and bringing coalescing views in, so I try and be quite straightforward, I try to be quite fair, try and be open and honest.

What regulators look for from the large financial services firms is to understand their own risk appetite or risk tolerance. So it’s not just a set of numbers on a page, they want to understand what it means and what would happen to make them trigger it.

The Admiral board I joined gave me more experience. Always looked to get onto a main board so as to consider the quality of people round the board table.

Leaving Pru to join Direct Line as CFO came after we reached a point where it ceased to be a matter of whether you’re going up, down, sideways or backwards- it’s more whether its adding to the experience set.

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