Over the years talking with senior women about their careers, many have mentioned how they applied their softer skills, as a nurturing, supportive team-player, to succeed in financial services. But I wondered if there’s a moment when the team-minded, well-liked female felt the need to break from the pack, and adjust her approach, to stand out?
I wanted to ask this question of my long-time friend Katie Murray, who has risen to the post of CFO at high-profile RBS, despite her admission that she was often happiest as a team player, working for the good of her group, not herself. Over the years, I’ve admired how Katie has remained her authentic self throughout her career ascent.
Katie’s response: “At some point, you have to raise your hand to be noticed. But you have to do it in a way you are comfortable with, and be true to yourself, despite the compromises along the way.”
Katie admits she wasn’t thinking about women’s prospects in the c-suite when she began her career: “I started in financial services almost by accident, but it was a great accident because I really liked the level of complexity, the team-work and travel.”
However, she notes that she soon noticed how, “As you get more senior, you are consistently the only woman in the conversation. It can be hard to remain true to yourself and not become a different version of yourself to fit in and be accepted.”
“The power of the collective was always something very important to me, and I liked delivering as part of the team, rather than thinking ‘It’s about me against the entire world’,” recalls Katie, adding that, “Often people get rewarded for their individual contribution. So, for me, I learned to put up my hand to do things and be seen.”
While Katie was determined to remain her authentic self, dedicated to team success, she describes how, “I made a real effort to put up my hand whenever a new or different issue came up, so I began to lead the team into these challenges.”
Today as a senior executive, Katie notices team-members who are willing to speak up: “I tell my staff that it’s easy to get lost in big organizations, but I guarantee that I’ll remember the names of people who ask me questions or put up their hand when we’re doing difficult things. If you sit back quietly, no one has time to find you, so you have to help me find you.”
Katie adds that her team mindset helped build confidence to take new risks, including a move from London to South Africa: “I’ve often made some of my biggest career changes to places where I was well-known through my past teamwork and I was well liked. It made the move feel a little lower risk.”
Despite Katie’s insistence on staying true to herself, she acknowledges that sometimes compromise is required to earn acceptance. For example, she describes how, “I would go to meetings with the CFOs of Europe’s biggest banks, and I would be the only woman. Inevitably, someone would say, ‘You don’t look like a finance director’ or, ‘Are you the finance director of the whole bank?’”
Katie realized that some compromise was required if her self-described “skirts, bubbly personality and messy hair” were creating a distraction: “At first, I started wearing boring suits and I went to the hairdresser to get my curly hair straightened, to make sure I looked the part that people expected.”
However, Katie points out that, “You may need to compromise in the moment, but in the end, you can actually show them how somebody who doesn’t look like a finance director can be really good at it. Sometimes you are playing a part, and you have to work out how you are willing to settle so you get the right outcome.”
Katie believes that compromise is required for anyone building a career. For example, she recalls when she relocated across continents for a lateral move, rather than a promotion: “At the time, it felt like a sideways move, but it turned into an excellent opportunity with a much larger organization with far bigger issues. Sometimes women find themselves offered either sideways or backwards moves. You need to be open to the change, if it’s a path to new experiences and challenges that can help you grow.”
Katie opines that flexibility is also required in regard to the mythical concept of work/life balance. “I’m not a big believer in the whole work balance term since honestly, when you are in jobs at this level, there isn’t balance if you count the hours. Instead, I try to integrate my work into my home life and sometimes I have to integrate my home life into my work,” says Katie, who was working from home during our call, nursing her flu-stricken, eight-year-old daughter. “It’s about integrating the parts of your life and making sure that you are giving the right quality of attention to each commitment.”
After my chat with Katie, I reflected on how some women feel the need to choose between the person they are and the person the world expects them to be. Katie shows that it’s not an ‘either/or’ choice, but rather be yourself - with the occasional compromise when needed - to raise your hand and earn your place.
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.
In January 2019, Katie was appointed Chief Financial Officer of RBS, the UK-based financial services company that serves personal, commercial, large corporate and institutional clients under brands such as Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest. She first joined RBS in 2015 and was appointed as Deputy CFO in March 2017. Katie has worked in finance and accounting for nearly 30 years with experience in capital management, investor relations, financial planning and all areas of financial services. Katie was previously the Group Finance Director for Old Mutual Emerging Markets, based in Johannesburg from 2011-2015, having held various roles across Old Mutual from 2002. Prior to this, Katie worked at KPMG for 13 years. Katie is a Chartered Accountant having trained in Scotland and a member of ICAS.