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There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the C-Suite

Karen Williams, CFO of American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT), says a career pathway to successful leadership can reflect individual values and life choices – and she wants to empower women on their journeys

As we approach International Women’s Day on March 8, I want to advocate for breaking the mould of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to leadership. My advice is simple: have the confidence and self belief to chart your own course and do it your way.

This is vital if we’re to make the C-Suite more inclusive and accessible to women. According to McKinsey, just 28% of C-suite roles are filled by women. Part of the reason for that is a misconstrued perception of what it takes to reach the top. Could I really work all those hours? Will it destroy my personal life?

Instead of striving to fit a predefined mould of what a C-Suite leader should look or be like, blaze your own trail. Focus on building your personal brand and contributing in ways that are authentic and suit your priorities.

Twists in the road to CFO

If you are strategic about where you want to go and what you need to learn to get there, your career won’t necessarily be a straight trajectory but rather a series of S-curves. The role of a CFO has evolved to be an increasingly multi-faceted position.

Beyond finance, you need to be a fully integrated strategic partner to the other business functions, tech-savvy, up to date on the latest risk management and compliance parameters, and, of course, be a positive people leader. My advice is to take risks, move out of your comfort zone, and take on new challenges; these moments can be tough to begin with but are so incredibly rewarding from a personal growth perspective.

As a woman, you might also experience “the baby years” – juggling pregnancy, parental leave and keeping your career mojo. Around the time of the birth of my first child, I moved country with my family and started a new role outside of finance. I felt incredibly supported, and the change proved that anything is possible.

Sadly, when I became pregnant again less than two years later, the news was met with evident displeasure.

My status seemed to suddenly go from hero to zero, and the undermining continued for some time. This experience reminded me of the importance of self-belief and having a great support network – it’s not about going through experiences alone.

It was a tough year, but I kept true to myself, learned from the experience and never gave up. And 18 months later, I was promoted.

Karen Williams (CFO) at AMEX GBT, photographed at the London office on 16 November 2023 (Picture by Nick Morrish)

Breaking barriers in a male-dominated field

Only 12% of CFOs in Fortune 500 companies are female. In the UK FTSE, this number drops even lower. I know the challenges and obstacles women can face in this male-dominated field. But it’s about self-belief and passion, being the authentic you and not creating your own barriers.

Building relationships and a broad network has been fundamental to my journey.

At times, I have struggled. In fact, as somewhat of an introvert, early in my career, I bombed at networking. This was something I had to work hard at to build the skills and confidence, but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.

Paving the way for the next generation of women in finance

I’m a strong believer in the power of connection – which may be why I’ve been so drawn to the travel industry in my career. I see trust and connection with others as vital to success in a C-Suite role, particularly when leading large teams.

For me, this includes mentoring colleagues, from younger graduates to those at the senior level. I’ve also learned to find mentors and allies who can support and guide me.

Most recently, as I have transitioned into the CFO role, Linda Zukauckas has been a brilliant sounding board/mentor as a fellow leader in finance and someone I hugely respect.

This year, I wanted to expand my reach more broadly across the travel industry by joining the CFO Board of WiHTL, a community committed to increasing diversity and inclusion in finance.

As part of the WiHTL community, I also act as a role model and mentor for the Global Women Leaders Program. The program is for women leaders who aspire to work across different countries or take on global responsibilities and reach a C-suite executive position.

I hope that by sharing some of my insights and experiences from the C-Suite, I can motivate other women to pursue financial leadership roles and make a positive impact in their organisations – in ways that are authentic to them. Above all, my advice is to have the confidence and self-belief to chart your own course and do it your way.

Notes for editors:

  • About American Express Global Business TravelAmerican Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT) is the world’s leading B2B travel platform, providing software and services to manage travel, expenses, and meetings and events for companies of all sizes. We have built the most valuable marketplace in B2B travel to deliver unrivaled choice, value and experiences. With travel professionals in more than 140 countries, our customers and travelers enjoy the powerful backing of American Express Global Business Travel.Visit com for more information about Amex GBT, and follow @amexgbt on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.
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