Continuing our Women in Leadership series, Morgan McKinley recently met with Paula Bradshaw, Finance Director at Clarkson Evans and previous Group Financial Controller at Superdry, to discuss her experiences as a successful woman in executive finance.
Tell us about your career to date:
I studied Biochemistry at Imperial College and didn’t know what to do with myself after that so I decided to apply to train as a chartered accountant through the ‘Milk Round’ in my final year. I received a few offers and chose PriceWaterhouse where I spent 5 years, including a secondment to Milan for six months and a management consultancy stint with the BBC.
I then moved into advertising as a Financial Controller which was quite a learning curve. After three years I moved to an oil services FTSE 250 which was initially an international systems implementation project role, and then moved into a Deputy Group FC position. I then became Finance Director with a marketing communications agency until I took a career break when we started a family.
We then moved to Bristol, and after having two boys, I worked part time back with PwC. I then went back to Imperial College and completed a full time masters in Environmental Technology, which I achieved with distinction. On returning to Bristol, I went into a Financial Controller position within a private equity owned healthcare business, then quickly progressed to Director of Finance. After 4 years in this post I had my third child, then took a Group Financial Controller opportunity with an international FTSE retail business. At present, I am settling into my new role as Finance Director of Clarkson Evans LTD.
What is your definition of success?
Helping a business through a challenging period, resolving the issues and setting up for future growth. I like to see finance as an integral part of the business, not a back room function. My goal is to always be out there working with other functions to really help support the business.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Making a success of moving into four completely different sectors, adapting myself and working out the drivers of each business and how to make improvements. I also think I am quite resilient. Coming back to work after a 3 year career break raising a young family is hard, especially for a woman. You have to start again and you need to muster the self-confidence and belief in yourself that you can move back up the career ladder. I am proud I was able to do that.
What has been the greatest challenge(s) in your career and how did you overcome it (them)?
Coming out of practice in PwC, which was focused mainly on auditing, and moving into M&C Saatchi (advertising) in an operational finance role where every bit of paper that crossed my desk had a financial implication on the business. Also the business was a start up and growing really fast which was challenging to manage at the same time. At the time I put my hand up and said this is too difficult and switched to an International Financial Controller role. This experience taught me that you don’t have to keep pursuing something that isn’t really working for you. It’s okay to have a re-think and make changes.
Also, going back to work after a three year career break and having to re-invent myself and work my way back up the career ladder. By taking a step back to take a step forward, I got back into the market as Financial Controller then quickly progressed back into a Director of Finance position.
If you had advice for your eighteen year old self, what would it be?
Don’t worry too much about not fitting in. I went to comprehensive schools in West Cornwall and then to Imperial College; a lot of people I joined with at PWC came from public school and Oxbridge backgrounds. My advice is to be yourself and don’t worry how others may perceive you. Have confidence in your own ability.
What is the most valuable advice that you have been given?
To flex your style depending on who you are talking to and what level you are talking to. You have to really understand what each person in your team does and think about working at their level. This will help you understand how to get the best out of them, and what help/support they will need.
In your opinion, what are the key challenges for a female leader and how are these overcome?
I think it’s about perception. As there are so few female leaders in business people either perceive you as too soft or too hard. You have to maintain self confidence in how to approach issues, if you’re in a successful leadership position, there is obviously a reason for that. You have to be self-aware about how others perceive you but at the same point in time not let criticism set you off your course. The middle ground is a difficult thing to find.
List three key words to describe yourself
Positive, Outgoing and Resilient
As a leader, who is your role model and why?
Not really a business leader, but I have always admired Shirley Williams, MP as she is very eloquent in what she has to say and people take her very seriously. She is always very calm, able to hold her own and comes out well in arguments. A very intelligent and grounded woman.
What else would you like to achieve in your career?
I would really like to be involved in a business where I am making a real contribution and to be an integral part of a success story. I have been fortunate that most of the companies I have worked in have been success stories, however I want to play a more major part.
Name two/three things in your bucket list?
I have done a lot of horse riding including in Argentina, Canada and South Africa already, but really want to gallop for a week across the plains in Hungary as that sounds amazing. Another would be to take my boys on a safari trip once the youngest, who is 4, is old enough.
Do you have any final pieces of advice for women looking to progress in their career?
Believe in yourself. Have the self-confidence. You don’t need to necessarily conform. As a woman you bring other things to the party and you need to have the confidence that that is what you do. At the same time be self-aware, so that you do understand what impact your behaviour has on others and modify if you need to.
Always remain positive with a can do attitude. Looking back, even when I was training, the first work you do can be menial, however if you do it with the right attitude, and seize opportunities to do a little extra, this will open doors to other things.
I spent over 6 weeks photocopying on a consolidation, then took on an extra bit of spreadsheet work for a manager, who was really impressed with my work, and positive attitude even through the mundane/menial tasks, this then opened doors to other opportunities. It’s important to be that ‘can do’ person even if it’s not really work you want to do, as it will pay off along the line.
Must read book?
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, written by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.
Connect with Paula on LinkedIn