Inspirational Woman: Alison Taylor | CEO, CAF Bank & CAF Charity Services

Alison Taylor Alison Taylor is Chief Executive Officer of CAF Bank and CAF Charity Services. 

She leads the strategic focus on growing lending to charities and social purpose organisations.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I fell into a career in financial services completely unexpectedly having found the finance element of my business masters really interesting. I went to Deloitte to do my accountancy qualifications and then moved into M&A and then banking. Every role I’ve been lucky enough to hold has involved meeting fascinating corporate leaders and entrepreneurs, learning about new businesses and industries, and working in teams with great people to solve problems. Working on the Executive Committee at HSBC that led the high-profile project  to create HSBC UK, the ring-fenced bank  was an incredible challenge and indirectly resulted in my being offered an amazing opportunity to join CAF Bank as CEO. We provide specialist banking and financial services to UK charities and social purpose enterprise. I feel privileged to have had the career I’ve had and it has certainly been nothing like the stereotypes I might have had in mind when I was starting out.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

The last time I had a detailed career plan was when I was at school doing everything possible to become a vet. That definitely didn’t work out! Since I qualified as an accountant I have never had a real career plan. It has been more a case of seeking out or responding to opportunities that have seemed compelling and purpose driven. I am at my best when I’m working with people I enjoy working with and I have complete belief in what we are trying to achieve as a team. I like change, prefer being out of my comfort zone, and would rather face too much challenge than too little so I really try to factor those drivers into my career decisions.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Definitely! More than I could mention. But I think that is what makes a career interesting and what enables you to build confidence in your abilities and ‘gut-feel’ reactions to issues as they arise. My greatest challenge, which a lot of people who know me find surprising, is that I lacked confidence for a number of years, something that occasionally still threatens to resurface. Getting through it involved a combination of understanding that most other people aren’t as confident as they seem, remembering that actually I can do a pretty good job, and relying on my sheer determination to keep pushing myself to overcome self-doubt. Together, this has enabled me to build confidence to a far more positive level.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

In a work context, it is hard to see past the challenges of the past 20 months. As the new CEO at the organisation, switching CAF Bank to operating remotely, making sure we were supporting all our charity customers and borrowers, and looking after colleagues as well as we possibly could whilst also kicking off a full scope transformation programme has felt immense at times. While it is still work in progress, I’d like to think that all of us have made a pretty good job of it so far and I’m very lucky to have had the amazing support of a strong and dedicated executive team leading a tremendous group of people who somehow, despite everything swirling around us, never lost sight of the charities and social purpose organisations that we exist to serve.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I am genuinely curious to learn and understand and I find people fascinating. Both what makes them tick as individuals and how they work in their business environments. I always get excited by meeting with colleagues, clients and collaborators. It is hugely energising and I think people respond positively to that. Many might not think of financial services as a people business, but in my experience it absolutely is! The other thing I would point to is the insight I have gained through my volunteer work as a Charity Trustee and community volunteer in Westminster, which has been particularly crucial during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Stepping outside of my daily work routine and seeing first-hand the challenges faced has helped broaden my perspective and informs my leadership style.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I am a real advocate of mentoring having benefited from wise counsel from a number of mentors over the years. Hopefully I have repaid some of that with my own mentees as well. Having a different perspective from a disinterested party can be invaluable. Alongside mentoring I think proactive sponsorship is also key, which I’d describe as someone with influence within your organisation who is proactively putting your name forward for recognition and career opportunities. Sponsorship is discussed a lot in the context of Inclusion & Diversity and has been linked to gender given the perception that many women find self-promotion more challenging than men. That may well be true, but I tend to think about it more in the context of personality types. If we want workforces and leadership teams to be truly diverse we need to overcome the fact that society tends to over-reward extroverts and overlook introverts and this is where sponsorship and mentoring can be truly effective.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Quotas. I have always hated the idea of quotas and believe in meritocracy first but the pace of change has been too slow and post-Covid there are alarming signs of regression. As we go into 2022, no more excuses, I think quotas have become a must do.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Have more patience! If you can’t achieve your desired outcome straightaway it doesn’t mean you should or need to change tack, it may simply be not quite right just now. To be honest though, it would probably have fallen on deaf ears.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I am very focussed on the transformation programme we are undertaking for our customers at CAF Bank and with our parent organisation, the Charities Aid Foundation. The proposition we are building for our charity customers is hugely motivating and I can’t wait to get to the stage where we have implemented our plan and can really measure the positive impact we have brought to the charitable sector. Until I’m satisfied that we’ve fully delivered our aims I won’t be thinking much further forward, although I am looking for a new fundraising challenge. I have a significant birthday next year so I feel the need to take on something big!

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