All Frontline Leadership Spotlight on Leadership

The Rise of Female Leaders in Finance – Three Leaders Who Are Having a Decisive Impact in the Banking World

The historically male-dominated world of finance is undergoing a significant and much needed re-addressment in gender terms. Three female leaders are not only disrupting the industry with long-overdue innovation, but they’re making the entire industry more inclusive, championing female business causes whilst smashing through several glass ceilings along the way. 

This article, the 3rd in our JMW Consultants sponsored Three Leaders series, will look at how Anne Boden (CEO of Starling Bank), Alison Rose (CEO of NatWest Group) and Shelley O’Connor (CEO Morgan Stanley) are transforming the finance world and are getting the results they deserve. 


Anne Boden: From Devastating Coup to Britain’s Only Profitable Challenger Bank

The journey of the Starling Bank’s founder seems fit for a Hollywood (or Pinewood!) movie script. An industry stalwart, Boden comes from a computer science background and became increasingly frustrated with a banking industry that had failed to evolve following the financial crash of 2008. She couldn’t understand why, given the current capabilities of mobile software, it could still take weeks to open an account or why cheques needed to be paid into a retail bank in person. 

Eventually, the frustration became too much and Boden left her position at Allied Irish Banks. She headed back to the UK to work on her banking vision: one that utilised the latest mobile technology and operated free of unnecessary bureaucracy. The sexagenarian realised that she was an unconventional FinTech startup founder’s profile and the challenges that posed but it didn’t phase her. Getting her vision off the ground was tough and she faced hundreds of rejections. Worse, the regulation and red tape involved in merely launching a bank were so vast that she managed to accrue around £1 million in legal and regulatory-related debt (arranged on a contingency basis) just to secure a basis to commence operational activity. 

Regardless, she began building her team, including Tom Blomfield as Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Their paths had crossed before in the industry and his persona was fundamentally reflective of the quintessential millennial-based startup. However, despite Boden thinking that her appointment of Blomfield was a shrewd move, it almost turned out to be her undoing. The motley Starling Bank team were busy on a series of fundraising when tensions came to the surface. It all started when Boden didn’t wish to accept money from an investor with a serious criminal past, Blomfield disagreed, and after another failed deal, handed in his resignation. 

Boden, shocked, offered to leave herself, feeling the overall Starling Bank project was more important. Blomfield stipulated that she needed to take that £1m of contingency fee debt with her for him to take over the reins. Jolted back to her senses, she refused the offer. Blomfield reacted by taking almost the entire Starling Bank staff list with him to form competitor Monzo. 

After years of tirelessly grafting, she found herself back at square one within a matter of a few days. In a rather dazed state and with her staff gone, Boden came back into the office to start over. It was at this point that an old friend who had heard what had happened turned up uninvited, handed her a coffee and found himself a desk to get to work. They contacted several former colleagues and before she knew it, she had a team behind her again. An older, more experienced team that agreed to work for free until the end of 2015 (the best part of a year).

At the end of the same year, with time running out, Boden was invited to the Bahamas by reclusive Austrian-born billionaire Harald McPike, who saw Starling as a potential investment opportunity. At the end of her three-day grilling (which included a private yacht trip), she had hoped to secure an additional £3 million in funding to keep the project moving forward but left with a promise of £48 million (which he duly invested), and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Today, Boden has led Starling Bank to 1.7 million accounts in total, including almost 1.42 million retail accounts and over 256,000 small firms, with £4 billion of deposits and lending of £1.5 billion, most of which is through government-backed COVID-19 support schemes. On the fundraising side, Boden has secured an additional £263 million from McPike and Merian Global Investors along with £100 million from an RBS fund to boost banking competition and innovation. Finally, and most crucially, in a trading update recently it said it had broken into profit, making £10 million on an annualised basis. 

This news must give Boden immense satisfaction given the highly-publicised troubles at Blomfield’s Monzo. Monzo reported an annual post-tax loss of £113.8 million in its 2020 accounts, more than double the £47.1 million in 2019. Worse, the company has said that disruption resulting from COVID-19 has led to “significant doubt” about its ability to continue “as a going concern.” Blomfield has since resigned from Monzo and its future remains uncertain.  

Boden’s founding story and her continual work to disrupt the FinTech industry is an extraordinary act of leadership, which has blazed a trail for fellow females right across the finance industry in what is seen by many as a male-dominated sector. The fact that her profile didn’t fit and an ambitious male protégé almost derailed her company makes the story all the more impressive, and some would say, a perfect fit for the silver screen be it Hollywood or here in the UK, where it all started!

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Alison Rose: Shattering the Glass Ceiling and Championing Female Entrepreneurship 

Alison Rose, CEO of the NatWest Group, has broken through one of the most formidable glass ceilings in existence. Upon her appointment to CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland back in September 2019, she became the first female Chief Executive of the financial institution since its inception in 1727. She is also the first female to be appointed CEO at any of the UK’s “Big 4” banks, shattering a convention that ought to have been consigned to the history books far sooner than 2019.

Having grown up in a military family, Rose’s first wish was to pursue a career in diplomacy. However, upon her 1991 graduation with a History degree from Durham University and in spite of the UK recession thundering in the background, she decided that banking was where she wanted to be and so applied and was accepted on the NatWest graduate trainee programme.

Being a company “lifer,” Rose has steadily progressed up the corporate ladder at the rebranded NatWest Group, holding many prominent positions before taking up the mantle of CEO. She first appeared on industry analysts’ radars back in 2014, having been appointed an RBS executive committee member. Later that same year, she was charged with overseeing the commercial and private banking operations. By 2018, she was appointed Deputy Chief Executive of NatWest and less than a year later she was appointed the CEO position, which she currently holds. 

While her journey has been groundbreaking, her work to champion females in business has been nothing short of extraordinary. Her endeavours started back in 2014 when she was first elected to the RBS executive committee. Having noticed she was the only female in the room, she immediately launched an initiative to bring more females into executive positions at the bank. A few years later, in the months preceding her appointment as CEO, she was commissioned by the Treasury to author ‘The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship’. The findings of her report demonstrated the scale of the gender disparity. She found that by releasing the untapped potential of female business owners, the economy could be boosted by approximately £250billion with women, as of 2019, making up just a third of entrepreneurs. This figure fell to one in four among the UK’s most productive sectors, including technology. Worse, during her research for the review, she uncovered an even more damning statistic: only 1% of venture capital funding goes to all-female founding teams.

Her discoveries during this review have shaped her campaign to get more women involved in business. In 2020, just before the outbreak of COVID-19, Rose announced a £1 billion fund to help close the funding gap between male-led and female-led companies. Not happy with this sizeable fund for female entrepreneurs, she also lobbied other big banks including TSB, Santander, Barclays and Lloyds to join her ‘Investing In Women Code’, which promised to outlaw unfair treatment of female business customers.

In 2021, not happy with putting together the largest-ever intervention by a UK lender on behalf of women entrepreneurs, Rose announced a further £1 billion tranche of funding to help female entrepreneurs, along with 600 Women in Business specialist advisors. This move came after further research commissioned by Rose found that female business owners have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

The research, carried out in conjunction with YouGov, found that 55% of female business leaders would not recommend starting a business in their sector in 2021. Additionally, female business owners were 17% more likely to struggle with balancing business with family life due to COVID-19 and 71% of female entrepreneurs found managing their business stressful during the pandemic. Separate research from Mckinsey has reported that one in four women are considering stepping back from their careers. 

These superb initiatives from Rose aim to right the gender imbalance that has long plagued the banking, finance and business worlds. Not content with shattering conventions in a male-dominated environment, Rose aims to empower women from all walks of life to take up the challenge of entrepreneurship. Leaders who are “first” at anything are often lauded for breaking barriers, and rightly so. The leader who not only becomes the first to break through a historical barrier, and then, not content with simply being a role model, turns their efforts toward opening doors for and empowering others, is one committed to something much bigger than themselves. Rose is the very embodiment of this commitment.

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Shelley O’Connor: Removing the Limits Placed on Women

Another influential figure making waves in the finance world is Shelley O’Connor of Morgan Stanley. After spending more than 30 years at the investment bank, she was appointed both chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley Bank (North America) and Morgan Stanley Private Bank (North America) back in 2019. 

These two businesses (which serve institutional and wealth management clients respectively) were run as two separate businesses with independent boards, management teams, and support partners before O’Connor was appointed to lead them both. She immediately set about understanding how the two distinct entities could be better aligned. Within months, she brought in a single board of directors to govern both and a single executive team to oversee strategy operations and risk on both sides. 

The move proved to be a stroke of genius. By removing these barriers to agility and synergy, she was able to achieve measurable improvements in both governance and inter-bank communication. Not only have franchise and individual clients received a much-improved service but Morgan Stanley reached record loan production and loan balances in 2020. Today it ranks top among wealth management firms in securities-based lending balances.

Impressive though these achievements are during her short time at the helm, her championing of diversity and women within the world of work are perhaps even more notable. While she is a board member at Catalyst (a nonprofit focused on the advancement of women in the workplace), her work on diversity and inclusion in the finance sector under Morgan Stanley’s roof has been exceptional. 

She has overseen the development and implementation of the “Women Without Limits” programme at Morgan Stanley. O’Connor launched the initiative after commissioning several pioneering studies carried out by the bank’s research arm. The reports, which looked specifically at the impact of women in the workplace found unequivocal evidence that those companies with the most gender-diverse leadership and management teams performed better than male-dominated firms. 

The Holistic Equal Representation Score (HERS) developed as part of the research looks at gender diversity from many angles, including the percentage of women who are board members, executives, managers and employees. The researchers found that companies with a higher HERS tend to have higher dividend yields and exhibit lower volatility and risk exposure. The differences were most pronounced in the North America region, prompting O’Connor to take action and launch her diversity initiative, Women Without Limits.   

Women Without Limits is a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the lack of female representation in the workforce. The first step involves reaching out to female clients to empower them by offering financial advice that develops security and independence. The next prong focuses on going out into the community and partnering with female-oriented organisations such as Girl Scouts of the USA to provide financial literacy resources to young females.     

The last element of the Women Without Limits programme is showcasing current female leaders at Morgan Stanley and developing initiatives to grow a pipeline of young female talent. They hope to attract some of the brightest female minds by offering industry-leading childcare services and offering a specialised return to work programme for mothers who wish to re-enter the workforce. Finally, O’Connor has partnered with the female leadership platform AOL MAKERS, allowing Morgan Stanley to celebrate their highest-performing female employees’ achievements. 

Much like the other female leaders mentioned here, O’Connor isn’t just excelling in her own personal performance; she’s also breaking many of the financial sector’s long-held conventions and beliefs. Elyse Maltin PhD, Associate Consultant at JMW puts this into perspective ‘At JMW, we consider leadership to be “making something happen that wasn’t going to happen anyway”. O’Connor is a clear demonstration of this, taking on not only making big transformations at Morgan Stanley, to the betterment of everyone in the business and their customers, but also tackling a thorny and complex issue like gender diversity and inclusion with a well-researched and multi-pronged approach.’ O’Connor in this regard is a multi-faceted, visionary leader whose  impact will be felt for generations to come.

Leaders such as Boden, Rose, and O’Connor demonstrate that the age of male leadership dominance intrinsically linked with one of the oldest industries in the world is finally being re-addressed. This sector, along with the broader business world and the many customers, only stand to gain as a result. 


Haig Barrett is partnering with JMW Consultants for our Spotlight on Leadership series: Shaping the Future™. JMW are expert in developing leaders and teams fit for transformation and this collaborative series has been compiled to provide valuable insights and strategy for business growth and accelerated performance.