Each female leader I’ve interviewed for Mind the Gap has possessed a memorable characteristic. And each time, I’ve seen how they applied that unique trait - and their genuine self - to succeed and overcome the challenges.
In the case of Janet Matricciani, what I found most memorable is her ability to laugh at a situation, and then move forward in a positive way. Perhaps it’s her theatre training at Cambridge that helped this former CEO of World Acceptance Corporation laugh about each experience as the ‘first woman’ on the job, over and over again.
Whether Janet is describing how she was mistaken for the “English tea lady” while leading a deal team in Mexico, or other seemingly uncomfortable moments as a two-time woman CEO, she made people laugh, and redirected the situation. In fact, she’s penning her autobiography with the working title “Knocked Over,” to recount how she bounced back from ups and downs with wit and focus. But make no mistake, Janet has clear advice for women making their way in tough situations.
As we chatted, I learned how Janet used her cheery, ‘ready-to-try anything’ attitude to earn each new opportunity. She became one of the first foreign female engineers to work in Moscow and later became the only woman in financial modeling at a European M&A consultancy. “I made myself helpful to someone who was doing what I wanted to do, so it was a win-win for me and them,” recounts Janet.
However, she makes it clear that the resulting opportunities didn’t occur by chance: “All the things I’ve achieved in life were from being proactive. She cautions that women need to be prepared to say ‘yes’ to hard challenges: “In my experience, women often get their first big opportunity as the result of a difficult situation – it could be a transfer to a business line that is not growing and no man wants the job. I would say ‘yes’ to the challenge, figure it out and grow it.”
Janet definitely makes a positive argument for taking such risks. “I believe that the more you’ve experienced, including different problems and new industries, the better leader you are. The world tries to put you in a box, but the more you do, the more versatile you become, and the more options and success you’ll have,” advises Janet, who happily ‘pivoted’ from consumer lending to education and language technologies before returning to financial services. It’s a more interesting life if you can avoid type-casting. (She is now exploring new opportunities so it will be interesting to see in which industry she ends up.)
Janet speaks frankly about the awkward moments that accompanied her steady climb as a female executive, telling me how, “I’d go to business meetings as the CEO, and they would look right past me and say, ‘Where is he?’”
Rather than stamping her feet, Janet used humor and subtlety: “One of the best pieces of advice I learned is to always make others look and feel good. I make them laugh and I redirect the situation.”
She put that approach to use at a high-stakes meeting in Mexico City when her counterpart in a joint venture mistook her for a secretary and asked her to serve tea to the 25-person group. “I just turned to someone on my team and said, ‘Even though I grew up in the UK, I’m actually not good at making tea, so could you please pour the tea?’ I made my point and we moved on to discuss the deal,” says Janet, noting how the other executive discreetly studied her business card and realized she was in charge.
Learning to redirect the discussion has been invaluable whenever Janet was the only female in the room. “I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to discuss a project and someone would ask me, ‘How are your kids?’ It’s always a work in progress to bring the conversation back to business, but I’d reply, “The kids are fine – thanks for asking – but I want to tell you about something we’re working on…”
Many of Janet’s tips come from her time on the stage, or absorbing the tricks of improvisational comedy, where performers must handle unexpected moments and respond with speed.
To this day, she utilizes the “First thought can be the best thought” motto. Explains Janet, “In a meeting, it’s easy to get sucked into group think, so don’t dismiss the initial thought you had because it may well be the best idea.”
Janet also notes how her stage training improved her leadership style: “On the stage, even a lead actor cannot be successful without a supporting cast, else it’s just a long soliloquy. You need to draw others out and respond to their actions and ideas. Humor is also great for breaking down barriers. That’s how you become a great leader and empower your team.”
Despite the thrill of the stage for Janet, she is candid about the highs and lows that come with the spotlight. I’ve grown through having the humility to learn from my mistakes, get up again and laugh it off when you’re knocked down. You need resilience and grit to move onward.
She is also serious about sharing her failures, since she feels they are instructional for other women: “I think we hesitate to talk about our struggles, but it’s important to hear the real stories. I tell women about the time I lost my job, and how it made me stronger and I learned to get up after I was knocked down.”
Most importantly, Janet acknowledges that such a career is not for everyone: “You have to ask yourself if you want an adventurous life or a secure one, because I don’t think it’s possible to have both. You need to know yourself and what you want because it will lead you on a different path.”
While I found myself chuckling for hours after hearing Janet’s self-deprecating tales, I reminded myself of the serious lessons she shared: Make them feel good, but re-direct them to what you need. Know your audience, but know yourself, to find the right place for you on the world stage.
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.
More about Janet Matricciani: Janet is the Former Chief Executive Officer of World Acceptance Corporation (NASDAQ: WRLD), a consumer finance and tax preparation company. Under Janet’s leadership, where she held the post of CEO from 2015 to 2018, the company’s market capital quadrupled from $237 million to $1 billion. Previously, Janet was the CEO of Antenna International, a private equity portfolio company and the global market leader in the audio tour industry, where she helped company value increase 2.5 times. Janet held senior executive positions in technology and online education companies, as well as in financial services, where she was an executive vice president for Countrywide Financial Corporation and held executive posts with Capital One Financial Corporation. She is a McKinsey alumna, speaks six languages, and holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Cambridge University. Janet is a member of the Committee of 200 (C200), an invitation-only membership organization of the world’s most successful women business leaders.