• Laura Hay, Leadership |

We all know how positive role models can shape an individual’s aspirations. Amanda Pullinger remembers how a visible female leader stirred her ambitions, and today she leads 100 Women in Finance, a global network that provides other women with inspiring examples.

And, as I learned recently, Amanda has great ideas for women to move forward, despite the disruption of  COVID-19.

For Amanda, growing up in a middle-class English family, she accepted a scholarship to study modern history at Oxford (the first in her family to attend university) when she learned British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a graduate.  Recalls Amanda, “As a teenage girl, I saw a woman who looked like me and got to the top of her game. I said to myself, ‘If she could do it, I can too’.”

Amanda went on to build what she calls a “weird and wonderful career” across seven male-dominated industries – from London’s muddy landfill sites, to a macho tractor dealer in Pennsylvania, to New York’s rowdy hedge fund sector. Amanda recollects that, “Whether it was luck or my demeanor, I just never noticed I was a woman in those industries. I enjoyed working with men and got along well with them.”

At age 23, Amanda had the opportunity to move to the US with just two boxes of possessions: “I believed that, with a couple years’ experience in America, people wouldn’t see me as ‘a women in my industry,’ but rather as ‘somebody who has expertise in a foreign country.’

Since that risky move turned into a successful, 30-year career in America, Amanda now urges young women to take opportunities beyond their home country: “Take those chances early in your life when it’s a smaller calculated risk and you don’t yet have all the ‘stuff’ we accumulate in life.”

Create your peer network:

Although Amanda didn’t care about being different, she knows that this is a major issue for many women: “Most women feel the sense that they’re the only one. And often it’s a double whammy, since they feel different in the workplace and also in their communities where they live, since they are juggling work and family.”

For this reason, she’s proud to lead 100 Women in Finance: “We encourage women to build peer networks - whether among women or men - so they can form allies outside their workplace and have a conversation, share experiences, and feel like they are not that different.”

Amanda’s advice to young women is remarkably suited to today’s uncertain environment. For example, she tells members to develop a range of career experiences, in different roles and industries, to equip them for today’s evolving workplace. 

“Things are changing so quickly, that we must learn to use a compass, not a map,” says Amanda. “As women, we often like to have our lives scripted, but we have to accept that not everything has to be perfect before we make a move and take a calculated risk. Our life may not be a straight line and we must use a compass to find our way.”

Amanda admits that her gut instinct has been to plan ahead, but she points out that: “I never planned my career, but I took opportunities. Over time, each of those opportunities helped form a cohesive story, and it created a great narrative of my skills and what I can do.”

Reimagine relationships in age of COVID-19:

Such counsel is particularly relevant today, as COVID-19 overturns the best laid life and career plans.

Amanda applies her experience running a virtual office – and her past studies in modern history – to the challenge of working from home, leading teams and keeping everyone motivated. “When you look at major crises, including 9/11, the Global Financial Crisis or now, our initial reaction is to cancel everything and hunker down,” observes Amanda.

“Actually, in these times, what we need as humans is to connect and build community, so we must be adaptable, whether it’s learning to manage remotely or embrace video calls for networking. In a crisis, you need to focus on what you can do – not on what you can’t – so instead of cancelling things, we need to re-imagine those things.”

That’s exactly what she challenged her dispersed 100 Women in Finance staff and volunteers to do as they find ways to curate online educational, peer networking and community engagement activities, despite the constraints of social distancing. “We’re asking our women to make the most of this moment in time and learn new ways to connect virtually. It’s not perfect, but our members really appreciate that there are regular events to look forward to and the sense of continuity they create.”

Although this process of reimaging things isn’t easy, Amanda points out that there could be a silver lining to the COVID-19 chaos: “There are interesting opportunities for women in this period of time. For instance, if the old boys’ network created barriers to women building relationships, suddenly those old boys’ activities, like golf and drinks after work, can’t be done.”

Instead, women can adapt and find ways to become visible during this new era: “In traditional in-person meetings, the loudest person got the most attention and extroverts would dominate. Video calls are a less flexible and informal channel, so it’s easier for quieter people to get their moment to speak, particularly when leaders learn to direct the discussion and include everyone in the conversation.”

Amanda also points out how the new way of working means that it’s more acceptable to reveal your vulnerability: “Suddenly, we’re all seeing into each other’s home lives and we can’t hide that we have children or whatever. All of us – women and men – are dealing with the same situations and women can start to be their real selves rather than trying to look like Superwoman.”

She adds that, “This is actually an opportunity for women since we have a knack for building relationships that are more vulnerable.  For example, colleagues in the business development field say it’s easier to reach investors now, since everyone’s at home. And you can have conversations that are more personal, since everybody is in the same boat.”

Genuine conversations are also important to help women face one downside of COVID-19-induced isolation, namely the increased demands on women as caregivers.  “It’s not easy to figure out the caregiver piece, but it starts with a conversation with your significant other about balancing those duties,” suggests Amanda. “I believe that men can help move the needle for women’s advancement if we include men in the conversation and say ‘Look, we both have work calls, how are we going to split up our responsibilities?’”

As I wrapped up my own conversation with Amanda, I felt freshly inspired that, even in the face of a new hurdle, women can continue their climb. Seeking peers and taking new risks to stand out remain important. And the COVID-19 situation forces us to apply our strengths and find new ways to beat the challenge. As Amanda concludes: “The elephant in the room is now staring us in the face, so let’s have a conversation and get through this in a creative way.”

For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.

More about Amanda Pullinger: Based in New York, Amanda is Chief Executive Officer of 100 Women in Finance, a group of 15,000 members in 24 locations dedicated to strengthening the global finance industry by empowering women to achieve their professional potential at each career stage. She works with a small staff team, 500 volunteer practitioners and a Leadership Council representing 20 top financial firms, including KPMG International.  After working in diverse industrial sectors, Amanda rose became the Principal with Aquamarine Capital Management, where she oversaw marketing, investor relations and administration of two private investment funds. After establishing a consulting firm for non-profit organizations, including 100 Women in Hedge Funds, she later became President of that organization, renamed 100 Women in Finance. Amanda is also on the Boards of the HALO Trust (USA), the American Friends of The National Portrait Gallery Foundation and is a Director of the Oxford University Alumni Board. Amanda earned an Honours Degree in Modern History from Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an MBA from La Salle University in Philadelphia.