We are super excited to interview Isobel Race who is the Head of Culture and Engagement for Coutts Bank for International Womans Day.
Isobel has worked in financial services for many years having started her career on the trainee scheme with Aviva in York. She then moved to the Royal Bank of Scotland’s financial planning division in Edinburgh and then into the Private Banking division of RBS. The majority of Isobel’s career has been client facing having been a Financial Planner, Private Banker, Area Manager and Regional Director under both the RBS and Nat West brands. Isobel joined Coutts in 2012 as part of the management team in the North of England. She now heads up the Culture and Diversity & Inclusion agenda for Coutts working closely with the Executive Committee and Senior Leadership team.
Thanks Isobel for having us! Can you please tell us a little about yourself and your journey from graduate to now?
I’m married and have two children who are currently away at university. I live in the North of England but work in London on a regular basis. I’m based on the Strand at the Coutts head office. After leaving college I joined the trainee programme at GA Life (what is now Aviva). This was a great grounding as I was dealing with intermediaries such as solicitors/accountants/IFAs – they were tough nuts to crack! After 4 years at GA Life I moved to the Royal Bank of Scotland in the newly formed Financial Planning division called Royal Scottish Assurance. I worked my way up to join the Private Banking team as a Private Banker. From there I progressed to Area Manager, Regional Manager and then Regional Director. At the time of the financial crisis in 2008 I was the Regional Director (Private Banking) for RBS in Scotland and Nat West in the North of England and had around 300 staff to take care of. Leading colleagues through the crisis, dealing with private clients who were very uncertain about the markets and RBS itself, was the most challenging time in my career. They say what doesn’t break you makes you stronger! After things had settled down, I started to look for new opportunities within the group and came over to Coutts 8 years ago as part of the management team in the North of England. Having always been client facing, after 3 years I wanted a change and when an opportunity came up for a secondment into HR I took it. I worked in HR (London) for around 18 months to support the HR team with a restructure of the business – they wanted someone who knew the business well to be part of the team. This secondment then led to the role I’m currently in where I lead the Culture and Diversity & Inclusion agenda across Coutts.
What are some of your challenges/ experiences of glass ceiling and how did you manoeuvre your way around it?
I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have support from most of my line managers. There has been the odd exception and, looking back, it now makes me realise what a huge difference your line manager can make as to how you feel about your career. When I had my second baby and returned to work, there were no conversations with my line manager about any flexible working options, I was expected to return full time and to continue travelling and being away from home. I tried to handle this on my own with my line manager – it didn’t work. After six months I decided that he wasn’t going to change and knew that if I wanted things to change then I had to find an alternative solution. That prompted my move into Private Banking.
What are you most excited about in the industry?
The Financial Services industry has changed a lot over the years and I really believe it has changed for the better - there are so many great career opportunities with a diverse range of roles. It is more of a level playing field than it used to be but I acknowledge that we still have a long way to go. Things are changing, behaviours that used to be part of the norm are no longer tolerated. People feel more comfortable to speak out about things which is great. Things are changing and improving, as we speak!
What is Coutts doing in the D&I space?
We are very focussed on building a high performing and healthy culture. Part of that is creating an inclusive workplace and having a diverse workforce. We have an active and vibrant Respect, Diversity and Inclusion Council who do some fantastic events that raise the profile across the business. Strategically we’ve also put governance in place around recruitment, mentoring and sponsorship. From a development perspective we operate ‘open chair’ at most senior meetings to encourage people to explore and be curious.
How did you make sure you stood out of the crowd?
I’m not sure I did or do stand out from the crowd! I like to think that I am gracious with people but very tenacious. If I set my mind to something or want something I find a way to try and be successful. I believe in being kind, authentic and true to yourself. When I first started out I tried to be something I am not i.e. more pushy and forceful. I remember completing a psychometric test for my first trainee role and they said ‘don’t touch her with a barge pole’! (Northern expression!) I had tried to answer the questions to be something that I thought they wanted me to be….needless to say, they saw through me. Fortunately and thankfully, I got the job and didn’t look back!
What was the most important thing that helped you land your current role?
Without a doubt it was taking proactive action and a bit of risk! There was no such role at the time but I knew there was a need for a role that focussed on Culture. I put down on paper what the business need was, went to see the new CEO and talked it through. I highlighted the need and was honest and said that I wanted to do this role. The CEO thought about it and agreed there was a gap. I then wrote the role profile and had it signed off, to start with it was on a temporary basis later becoming permanent. I’ve always tried to focus on what is important to me and where I think I can add the most value to the business – I no longer want to do a role I’m not absolutely passionate about, just because it might get me promoted or noticed.
What advice would you offer to others interested in doing a similar role as yourself?
Be proactive, if you genuinely think there is a need for a role that focussed on culture then put your thoughts to the person who carries the most influence. Be open and honest about why you think there is a need and why you are the best person to fill that need.
How do you make sure you have a good balance of home and work life?
Although I work away from home on a regular basis, I’m very fortunate that on the days when I am close to home I can work in a local office or work from home. It is a nice balance. It hasn’t always been easy, I used to do a lot of travelling and disliked being away from home when the children were younger but I had great support from my husband – teamwork is key when you have children and both have careers. When I talk to our children now, they are always proud about what I have achieved career wise and don’t seem to have suffered too much on that front!
What's next for your career?
I absolutely love my role and who I work for - if anything I would want to bring it to a wider audience.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to those positioning themselves to be promoted?
Be gracious but tenacious! Create the opportunity where you can and take the risk of stepping out of your comfort zone. Don’t shy away from taking a secondment or a side way move…you never know where it might lead?