I spoke to Vicki Long, most recently Director of Corporate Finance at Imperial Brands PLC, about her journey to a leadership role and how she thinks more women can reach leadership level in their careers.
The disparity between genders fulfilling senior level finance roles has historically been significant. Whilst the landscape is gradually changing as more people, and employers, talk about and take action against the lack of women in leadership positions, there is still more to be done.
I interviewed Vicki Long, a successful female leader, to learn about her career experience and how she thinks other female finance professionals can go about achieving similar success in their careers.
I graduated from Bath University with a degree in Economics and began my career in the risk consultancy practice of Arthur Andersen. Having gained my chartered accountancy qualification, an opportunity came up in the Treasury team at Allied Domecq that seemed like a logical step given my background in financial risk. I quickly identified with Treasury as a profession and enjoyed the forward-looking, fast-paced and dynamic environment, and subsequently moved to the John Lewis Partnership where I was responsible for setting up and professionalising the treasury function. I felt out of my depth at times and it was a steep learning curve, but I quickly realised I had a great support network and was inquisitive which helped me to be successful. I obtained the MCT Treasury qualification which encouraged a more strategic and holistic mindset, and at this point I knew I wanted to move into a broader finance role where I could deliver across all aspects of finance in a leadership capacity.
I moved to Imperial Brands in 2015 in a Treasury financial controller role where I could join up my experience of corporate finance, internal control and financial reporting. An opportunity then arose to work on various strategic initiatives with senior stakeholders across the business and I really enjoyed the autonomy, challenge and breadth of experience as well as the networks I built up internally. This provided the platform to join the finance leadership team as Director of Corporate Finance where my key focus was around balance sheet efficiency and the impact of commercial decision making on cash as well as profit – and driving a cash culture to deliver results. I’ve learnt a lot not only about the business strategy and results delivery, but how important it is to understand other people’s agendas and motivators to be successful.
Success for me is making things better. Reflecting on my career to date and my personal journey, I always strive to make things better and I love change. I could not do a role that requires me to repeatedly do the same things, I have to find better ways of doing things and do this through networking and learning in order to find solutions. I believe that making things better and helping people is my definition of success; I get a lot of satisfaction from this.
“Success for me means that you’ve done things differently; you made a real difference and you’ve impacted people.”
I am proud of the relationships I have established - mentors, friends and colleagues and am surrounded by fantastic people. I am passionate about changing lives and making an impact, which I’ve done in my professional and personal life – I am a Trustee of two charities that help people fulfil a more active life through sport and am inspired by the difference they make.
Although I’ve always wanted to fulfil a senior role, I also knew I wanted to do it successfully and in the right environment. Looking back, I would say my own fear of failure was the most significant challenge in my career. I am a perfectionist; I like to do things well and I like to surround myself with good people. I am a dreamer – my Dad always encouraged me to have a dream - and because of that, sometimes I’m not always living in the present because I’m thinking about the future. I also used to suffer from impostor syndrome, asking myself whether I’m good enough to do this. It didn’t hold me back hugely, but as I reflect, I think I could have been more assertive at times.
Don’t be afraid of making decisions. It took me until recently to realise it’s positive to take responsibility in this sense. When I was going through a difficult time at work, my mentor gave me invaluable advice: There are lots of distractions in life; everybody has a different opinion. If you sit there and wait for the biggest opinion to win, you’ll never get anywhere. Follow your gut, follow your heart and do what you believe is right – don’t be afraid of taking the risk.
Always believe in yourself. This is not necessarily just to female leaders, although I do acknowledge there is a difference in the way men and women think and it’s useful to have that diversity of thought. Self-awareness is hugely important because you need to be adaptable and agile to succeed within the environment in which you operate, whilst maintaining a strong sense of who you are and what you stand for. It is also important to understand that not everybody has your values - you don’t need to change yourself or your values, but just being aware helps. Also, if you know what motivates people, then it is easier to influence change and create new leaders.
Another thing I would say – and this might be more for the female leaders – is be honest with yourself about what you want! There is a lot of pressure in society these days, but if something is not what you want, don’t do it. If you are good at something, you will do well - life is short, so enjoy it.
Equally, know your brand and build up your network. It’s important to have a strong support network and it’s worth investing your time in. Always understand who is backing you and helping you, everyone needs a sponsor. If people know who you truly are, they are more likely to help you.
I met a lady called Baroness Sue Campbell, who is the Director of Women’s Football, when she was presenting at Bristol Sport. I found her speech about all she has done for Women’s Football, and sports in general, very inspiring. She left some very marked words and talked about the importance of having a structure in life and always having an ambition, a belief and a goal. Two of the quotes I wrote down were;
“If you want someone to do something – know what their values are and understand their agenda.”
“If you want to make a difference, be part of the difference you make!”
“The show must go on” by Queen. My Dad sadly passed away recently and these were pretty much his last words to us.
I am not good at sitting still long enough to watch movies or series! But a good movie I saw recently was Bohemian Rhapsody.
At the moment I am reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg which is inspiring and focuses on building strength and resilience for life’s challenges, whatever they may be. Also, the Alchemist is an old-time classic by Paulo Coelho.
Vicki has had a successful and diverse career so far, and she’s showing no signs of slowing down any time soon! For any aspiring female finance professionals who may have read this (and anyone for that matter), believe in yourself and you can achieve great things.