Associate Dean Kathy Harvey interviewed Brenda Trenowden on her career and advice for young women today
From small-town girl to Global Chair of the 30% Club and Head of FIG Europe, ANZ Bank: the career of Brenda Trenowden has stretched from Canada to Hong Kong and London, via a stint running an investment bank in Bangladesh.
In the fourth event of the Inspiring Women series, Associate Dean Kathy Harvey interviewed Trenowden about her career and asked how young women today can benefit from her experience.
Get comfortable with risk
Harvey suggested that Trenowden’s early career ran counter to the prevailing narrative that women do not like risk. Trenowden agreed, although, she admitted, ‘I didn’t take on board the risk it was at the time.’
Looking back, even coming to London was a risk, she said: she had large student loans, a working holiday visa, and hardly knew anyone. But ‘I was excited and interested. This was an adventure. [and] I got comfortable with more and more risk after each move. I was young … I was just curious.’
Another risk, that she could not possibly have foreseen, was moving from stockbroking to corporate banking just before the financial crisis. Although she ‘knew nothing’ about banking and had no background in credit, a new role was created for her which involved managing relationships with large institutions including Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, and Morgan Stanley. And then the crisis broke. ‘It was a baptism of fire,’ she said. ‘I spent a lot of late nights studying, learning about it so that I could go in front of the chief risk officer and look as if I was on top of everything. It was quite frightening.’
But then she realised, she said, ‘none of this is rocket science. If you actually applied yourself … you could do it. A lot of it was just language and words and acronyms.’ She urged the women in the audience not to give in to the feeling that they should not take a job unless they feel completely qualified for it: ‘I’ve seen so many men take jobs and learn how to do them on the job.’
Find someone who will ‘wear your T-shirt’
In finance if you are a woman you need to cultivate the hide of a rhinoceros to be resilient enough to keep going, Trenowden said. Near the top of the sector it is still ‘very testosterone-fuelled and male dominated’, even though many leaders are genuinely trying to change this and promote more women. But there is no doubt that women leave the sector in droves before they get to the top because they simply do not like the culture: ‘You can create as much diversity as you want but if the culture isn’t inclusive and you don’t feel as if you belong it is very difficult.’
Trenowden advised the younger women in the audience to research organisations before working for them, to ‘find out about the culture and find out who you’d be working for, and whether that person will be a champion and whether you will get sponsorship.’
Sponsorship is key. Reading between the lines of Trenowden’s career story, it is clear that she benefited from the support of people who recognised her talents and actively pushed her forward. Indeed, she admitted, ‘When I’ve been in an institution where my sponsor has left or I haven’t had a sponsor it’s been really difficult’.
Mentors can be good sounding boards and coaches, either inside or outside your company. They are good for talking things through and offering different perspectives – but when it comes to actual promotion and advancement, what you need is a sponsor – ‘someone who sticks their neck out for you, someone of influence and power in your organisation. They wear your T-shirt and stick up for you and talk about you when you’re not in the room.’
Learn how to raise your profile
The problem for audience members was: how do you find someone who will be your champion? What do you have to do for the sponsor in order to create that relationship?
The only answer to that, according to Trenowden, is learning how to raise your profile. ‘You can deliver all you want, know that you’re doing a fantastic job. But unless you’re telling people about that, getting your name in front of the right people, it just doesn’t count.’
However uncomfortable the idea of promoting yourself may feel, the plain truth is that is how big organisations work: ‘You not only need to deliver but you need to find a way to raise your profile without sounding as if you’re blowing your own trumpet.’
Understand how to communicate
Harvey suggested that this was sometimes difficult for people to do this because they felt inauthentic.
Trenowden was sympathetic but also practical. ‘When I was younger and working on a trading floor you had to become like the dominant culture or else you’d be alienated,’ she said, describing how she even attempted to look like the men, wearing a feminised version of a suit and tie. But ‘I think that as you get older you get more comfortable in your own skin and your abilities… Now I don’t even own any suits. So part of it is that things have changed and part of it is that I have been getting more confident.’
But she was clear that authenticity was not the only consideration. You also have to think about the person you are communicating with and how they understand things and engage with people. She told how one of her clients – a middle-aged man from a US bank – had received a blinding flash of insight from interview training. He was told that, typically, a woman will spend the first half of an interview talking about all the development points she needs, and in the second half will describe how qualified she is. On average, men will spend 90% saying how qualified they are and 10% explaining where they need development. ‘The problem is that I had tuned out by the second half,’ said her client. ‘Now I know to focus on the second half of the interview, but I had been missing so many talented women.’
Having said that, women should perhaps practise interviewing differently. ‘Mostly women are not under-confident but realistic,’ said Trenowden. ‘Men are socialised to be over-confident, and people confuse confidence with competence. It’s not intentional.’
Find the people who will give you confidence and validation
Neither is it intentional that people tend to recruit in their own image. Both men and women need to be trained to be more open to understanding people not like themselves and to digging a bit deeper; and on the other side, interviewees should learn to present themselves so that people will ‘see their brilliance.’
In order to do this, Trenowden recommended ‘finding those people who do see your brilliance and who will give you confidence and validate you in the organisation.’
These can be friends, colleagues, or women’s networks. ‘If you go to a women’s networking event you find it really boosts you and makes you feel much better about yourself,’ she said.
Know your market value
Questions from the audience introduced the subject of the gender pay gap. Did Trenowden have any practical tips about negotiating pay and reward? She said the most important thing was understanding your market value. ‘When I’ve had the most success it’s because I’ve been confident about what I’m worth and what the market value is.’ She recommended researching what other people got paid and approaching negotiations objectively, saying not ‘I need to be paid this,’ but ‘this is what these roles command’.
Call out bias
Overall, the gender pay gap was mostly structural, she said: there are more senior men in organisations than there are senior women. Rectifying that will involve men as well as women: ‘It’s not just about what women can do, but about what we can do as a society and organisations systemically. The 30% Club is women and men working together,’ she pointed out.
Where there is clear bias, it is vital that it should be ‘called out’, she said, touching on the recent press coverage of the lamest excuses offered by FTSE 350 Chairs and CEOs for not appointing more women. ‘Any Chair CEO who honestly believes those things is so out of touch with reality that I would question whether or not they are truly qualified to chair/lead a public company,’ she said. ‘We need to call it out. We need other board members and directors to say this isn’t acceptable.’
This does not have to be confrontational, and nor does it have to be one-way. In fact, as we are all prone to bias of different kinds there is an argument for talking about it more openly, admitting your biases and asking people to help you with them.
The same thing needs to be done at the institutional level, with organisations taking a long, hard look at themselves. Trenowden mentioned one organisation that analysed how long employees typically spent in a role before being promoted. They discovered that women were spending six years longer in a role than men. ‘They can’t explain it all through maternity leave. They can’t just have hired a bunch of duff women. Where is the bias coming in?’ she asked.
And that really is the key. Legislation (of the ‘soft’ kind – Trenowden was cautious about quotas) can create an environment positive towards women. Individual women can develop their skills and confidence and endeavour to find opportunities. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Companies serious about diversity must look inwards to find the real issues. ‘Where are the gaps? Is it a promotion issue? Do women get the same types of career-defining jobs or projects? Does the company create sponsorship opportunities for women? Is there agile working for everyone? How does each company work out how to feed the pipeline and give women opportunities without overworking them?’