Rising through the ranks: Becoming a female business leader in finance and IT

Wendy Rowe Oct 2018 colour

By Wendy Rowe, Director, Wolters Kluwer, TAA UK

My early years in the accounting profession were spent as a junior tax assistant working in a number of compliance tax departments for Ernst & Young.

In the eighties, accounting was still a male-dominated industry and back then, a set of Trust Accounts were still being prepared manually. Spreadsheets were being used more progressively, although tax and accounting applications were very much stand-alone and not consistently used by any means.

I saw the use of software solutions as essential in delivering efficiencies and increasing productivity. So I threw myself into any opportunities that allowed me to develop my appreciation for what software had to offer, and I became increasingly exposed to new scenarios which challenged and inspired me in equal measure.

Prior to joining Wolters Kluwer, tax and accounting UK nearly 18 years ago, I had held a number of product management leadership roles. I have always focused on pairing my tax and accounting expertise with producing technology solutions that are fit-for-purpose for this sector and, as a member of the leadership team in my current role, I heavily influence how we invest in our products and how we support our customers.

I am constantly asked by young women, both in accounting and in IT, how to navigate the complexities of male-dominated fields to secure senior management, director, partner or board roles. The key learning that I always share with new colleagues that join Wolters Kluwer stems from advice I received from a mentor when I was just 23 years old. He said, ‘Wendy, always think of yourself as a customer – this will guide your career and will ensure you focus on what’s most important enabling you to make the right product decisions.’ This has stayed with me throughout my career and has proved to be an invaluable mantra time and time again.

It’s a fact that women are still up against unacknowledged barriers to advancements in many professions, and many highly talented and high-achieving women still struggle to rise beyond a certain level in a business hierarchy. But it can be done – I’m living proof! And the landscape is improving. In September 2018 it was widely reported that three in every ten directors of FTSE 100 firms are now women. It’s been a hard-fought victory, and there’s every opportunity to continue building on this success.

On that note, here are my top tips for rising through the ranks to leadership, be it in accounting, IT or indeed any other sector:

Value and appreciate who your customer is:

Take the time and trouble to get to know your customers and/or stakeholders. What do they need and want? What makes them tick? Invite candid feedback. It’s always great to know when you’re delivering on (or indeed exceeding) their expectations but if you’re disappointing them, you need to know so you can remedy the situation. Otherwise, they won’t remain a customer for long!

Recognise yourself as a leader:

At Wolters Kluwer TAA UK, every member of the team is afforded several days’ training around the Living Leader programme, which recognises each and every person as a leader amongst leaders. The programme helps employees develop and fine tune employees’ own personal and individual leadership styles. We’ve had amazing feedback from the programme, but what always stands out is people’s realisation that they can, in one way or another, act as a leader to others within the business because of specific strengths and skills that they have. Women looking to move into management and leadership roles would do well to recognise their ability to lead early on and have the confidence to nurture this ability through mentorships with more experienced leaders.

Become visible within your organisation to build presence:

Flying under the radar may have its place in certain scenarios, but if you want to move through the ranks, you’ve got to stand out. There are two ways to do this: firstly, be the best and most innovative at what you do. Secondly, make yourself known to management. One of the best ways to do this is to ask senior role models and managers, either male or female, whether they would consider coaching or mentoring you.

Be a role model or mentor for others:

One of the biggest mistakes I see many women make in both IT and finance is that they underestimate the value of their skills within the business. If you’re five years out of training or university, don’t underestimate what you’ve learned within those five years – to a newly graduated trainee, your expertise will seem vast. If you want to rise to management and eventually board level, you need to engage with all levels of the business, including those less senior than you. So, give something back – offer to mentor or train those just starting out. And if your company doesn’t have an official mentorship programme, why not suggest it? Or, start out by running ‘brown bag’ training programmes at lunchtime where people can share their expertise and experience in a relaxed environment over a bite to eat.

Be yourself at work and use the strengths of your unique personality to your favour:

In many instances it’s important to separate our working and personal lives, but the best workplaces are the ones where people feel free to be themselves. It’s okay to stand out from the crowd in a good way – in fact, you’re likely to rise through the ranks quicker if you do. As a woman in IT or accountancy, you’re likely to find that both your organisation and the media want your female point of view. Make sure you make yourself known to your organisation’s PR team and ask for media training if it’s available. There are endless PR and profile building opportunities for women in IT and finance and it’s up to you to demand your share of the media footprint. Your CV should include links to any coverage you’ve received in the press.

Watch and learn how to navigate complex leadership issues:

Leaders should observe and take on board the ever-changing business landscape as new requirements and new people are introduced. When you’re just starting out in your career, you’re in the fortunate position of being able to observe different leadership styles from afar, assessing what works, and how various leaders make you feel as an employee. This is your opportunity to handpick the best methods and principles along the way so that you can prove yourself capable as a manager and leader from the very early days of your career.

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