Sarah Bennett: A career in the financial sector

This blog features Sarah Bennett. Sarah works as a Director, EMEA Risk Business Unit Manager for Citigroup within the financial sector. Here she talks to #YesSheCan about her career within a traditionally male industry.

My name is Sarah and a typical day for me is very varied as I am the Business Unit Manager (Chief of Staff) for nearly 1000 Risk staff covering 56 in the EMEA Region where Citigroup has a business presence.   Currently due to lockdown my day is played out on zoom calls that start early in the morning and continue into the evening.   As you can imagine at this unusual period we are in much of my time is focused on our staff and their wellbeing and connectivity, especially important for those that are new joiners to Citi or the Financial industry and due to the pandemic may have never spent a day in the office or seen another colleague in person.   As well as staffing, I am responsible for oversight of the function’s budget’s, governance and controls and basically any project or issues that come across the EMEA Reginal Chief Risk Officers (EMEA CRO) desk.   I can be on a Compliance call one moment regarding privacy controls, then hop on a senior staff meeting around displaced staff in the region due to Covid border issues and then move onto a diversity/inclusion meeting with the UK Citi Women’s network, where I am one of the co-chairs and then onto a call with the EMEA CRO to discuss the documentation required in her role as a Senior Manager under the PRA Senior Manager Regime.   Really no day is ever the same as there are so many different variables at play.

‘I got to where I am now by taking chances’

Honestly, I didn’t really choose this career or industry, it – I was 20 and working for a building company in Victoria in their marketing department.    I realised that the role and the company was too restrictive on what they could offer from a career perspective and I felt that I wanted more and could do more.   I went to a recruitment agency in Victoria and they said that I should work for a financial institution and that there was a broker dealer at the end of road in Victoria (Salomon Brothers).   They arranged an interview for me to be a desk assistant in the credit / market risk area and that was the start of my 33-year career with Salomon/Citi.

I got to where I am now by taking chances, putting my hand up to learn new things and be out of my comfort zone and being authentic with who I am and how I treat others has led me to be where I am today – also add in a touch of luck there!   I stumbled into banking and then was lucky and grateful that it was Salomon Brothers/Citigroup that I stumbled into as they have given me the opportunity and guidance to try new things and sponsored my training to first pass the FSA Registered Representative trading exams and then brought in a chartered accountant 3 times a week so that I could learn how to read a balance sheet.   My bosses (many of them female) have also been mentors, sponsors and friends.   I have spent 33 years at Citi and it’s more my family than a place of work.  Yes, everyone faces challenges and I have had my share.   At the beginning it was not knowing anything about the financial industry and then as I progressed so did the company and we merged several times which meant a lot of organizational changes and each time learning to deal with new people, processes and technology.   

I overcame setbacks by putting my hand up for new projects and embracing change. Also working hard to understand, each time a new structure or product or leader came into play.   Networking is key – I can’t emphasis that enough.   I have always ensured that I have a strong base of friends and allies internally, externally and globally, but it’s a two-way street and I am there to support my network, just as much as I may rely on them.

I am passionate about the Risk Wisdom Circles for our junior female staff which I run.   We started a pilot in London last year for 36 AVP-VP Risk officers and are looking to broaden it across the region this year.   It is a programme where senior MD/D Risk females impart very candid and personal guidance to the circle on their career and how they dealt with issues like promotion, family, mentoring and sponsorship etc.   It was very powerful to sit in the circles and see how lived experiences can really help the next generation of females work through some of the issues they face in today’s working environment.

I got the determination and drive from my own personality. I was brought up to believe that you can do and be anything you want if you put your mind and hard work into it.   

What I see as being great to be a female in my role is that I am in a position as a senior female to continue to pay forward to others the kindness, wisdom and support that others showed me in my career.

‘You can do and be anything you want if you put your mind and hard work into it’

My biggest achievement in life is having my daughter Amy.

The biggest lesson that you’ve learnt along the way is just don’t sweat the small stuff – if you can’t do anything about it then move on and don’t worry about it.   I spent too much time in my early career worrying about things I had no control over and it’s a waste of time and energy

I don’t feel that gender has bought unnecessary challenges to my role because I may have been blessed in this, but I have always had support to be able to achieve my goals and never felt gender got in the way.

Outside of my working life, I like to walk and belong to a female boot camp.  Unfortunately, that’s been online for most of the last year!  Also looking forward to getting back to going to the theatre and to concerts.  I am also an advocate for diversity and inclusion.   As well as my co-chair role on the Citi Women’s UK network, externally I am also on the Board of London Women’s forum and a SteerCo member of the Canary Wharf Chapliancy group.   

My mantra that I live your life by is ‘This too, shall pass’. It’s something I am always telling my daughter.   Basically, nothing stays the same, so if it’s a bad time have comfort it will eventually end but equally if it’s a great time make the most of it and cherish it, because it will also eventually end or change.

The three tips that I would give to young females starting up their careers are to network internally and externally – join groups to do this, find different mentors (male and female), keep putting your hand up for projects.

The best bit of advice that you have ever been given is that If you have to be anything, be kind.

One woman who has impacted my life would be one of my previous Salomon bosses, who really did sponsor me and believed in me and did me two great services, firstly she said if you are ever tempted to leave this organisation think twice, as the grass is never greener.  I have never left and 33 year’s later I am confident that for me it was the right choice.  Secondly when pensions were changing and we were being asked if we wanted to opt out of the final salary scheme pension to the new personal pension, she made it very clear that I was to opt out over her dead body!   Again, I am very lucky to be in a position to have a final salary scheme pension after all what happened over the last 33 years to the stock market and private pensions.

‘If you have to be anything, be kind’

My key motivators are to be successful for my family so that we can continue to enjoy the life we do and to keep in a position to be able to keep helping people and to see more change in inclusion.

I don’t think enough is being done by businesses to address gender imbalance as I think there is a magnitude of great work that is being done but it’s too slow – interestingly Covid has done more for flexible work as an example in one year then collective corporates and governments have done in centuries.

Some strategies to help women achieve more prominent roles in their organisations would be to ask to get involved with projects, take leadership courses that are on offer, get involved in a network, speak up when in meetings and always sit at the table not in the back row.

My advice I have for women aiming for leadership positions is to be bold, be proactive, be yourself.

The key leadership lesson I’ve learned along the way is to just be authentic.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is to stop, take a breath and to say ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t know.

‘Be bold, be proactive, be yourself’

If I could give any advice to my 16-year-old self it would be… fulfillment isn’t found over the rainbow—it’s found in the here and now|!


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