Banking on diversity    

July 18, 2018

Sue Fox, CEO of M&S Bank, spoke at the Northern Powerhouse Business Summit in Newcastle, as part of the Great Exhibition of the North. On stage, she talked candidly about her Liverpudlian working class background and the importance of creating a business culture where people can be themselves – even in the highly-regulated banking sector. Alison Cowie caught up with Sue afterwards to find out more

In your summit talk, you spoke about not having the traditional upbringing to become the CEO of a bank – but that your family gave you the confidence to succeed. Can you tell me more?

My dad instilled a self-belief in me so I never thought there was a reason why I couldn’t be successful. I didn’t have those insecurities around not having the ‘right’ education or mixing in the ‘right’ circles. I had that confidence in my own ability and work ethic. I didn’t have a day off until my maternity leave, aged 44.
Another thing that came from my family background – and particularly from my dad – was a focus on inclusivity. My dad would always look to see the best in people, regardless of their background or their differences. He was also very generous with his time and never left anyone out. That has influenced my leadership style. When I’m with people in the team or with customers, I think they get that sense of genuine care and authenticity that came from my dad.

You started your banking career at 18 years old, in 1987. Were you conscious of the male dominance in the industry at the time?

My first job was very junior – I emptied the confidential waste and I made the tea – and at that level it was actually quite female dominated. It’s fair to say, as I got more senior, the lack of gender diversity became more apparent. I’ve done well, despite some of those challenges and, in many ways, I believe I’ve had to work harder than some of my male peers.
I think there are good intentions to correct this now but it still seems that people are often more willing to take a leap of faith recruiting a man, rather than a woman.

You mentor a lot of people now. Did you have a mentor who influenced you as you build your banking career?

I had female and male role models but I probably have more formal mentoring now. The chair of our board, Dame Denise Holt, and I have a very strong relationship both on a professional and a personal level. I’m a better version of myself because of some of the guidance that she’s given me. Denise is very encouraging and embraces what I bring to the organisation.
I mentor both men and women and I often talk about insecurities, and where they start from. I tell them not to be influenced by the sins of the past and I make sure they know they’re better and more valuable than they think they are. At M&S Bank, we also have reverse mentoring because having good feedback loops is important for the culture. It shouldn’t be a hierarchy.

In your talk, you described the importance of building trust in an organisation but that this can have its challenges given that banks are very regulated organisations. Can you expand on this?

There’s obviously a lot of rules governing banking, and they are important, but what we look to do at M&S Bank is create a culture of trust among our team. What the regulators – who visited M&S Bank last week – want is a good tone from the top and the ability for staff to use judgement so that they’re not so bound by rules and regulators. They know you can’t have a policy for every single scenario that you’re going to come across.

Diversity and inclusion has formed a large part of your remit since you became CEO of M&S Bank four years ago. Why is that?

I firmly believe you can’t be your best if you’re not yourself. When I became CEO of M&S Bank, we launched a new diversity and inclusion board and we refreshed some committees. Our first two focuses were around LGBT, and Respect (for people living with visible and non-visible disability). In the launch meeting, we got people to tell their stories. Just one example was from a relatively new member of the team who revealed that when she came out as a gay woman, her previous employer treated her differently and she didn’t get invited to meetings. She also said that when she moved into a home with her partner, her car was set on fire in the street. At the time I felt guilty because I didn’t think this sort of stuff happened.
I thought everyone was like me. But I realised, actually, that’s not the case, and we have a real responsibility at the bank to allow people to be themselves.

You told the summit’s audience that M&S Bank doesn’t ‘accept differences’, that it ‘embraces differences’. Why is this distinction important?

Diversity has many benefits. It creates a richness of debate. You might think you’ve made the right business decision but someone will say, have you thought about it this way? By embracing differences, you become a better organisation at delivering relevant customer services. It goes back to creating an environment where you can be yourself. It allows you the confidence to challenge something and be able to say, ‘I think we should do that differently’.

Do you see yourself as a role model for the industry?

In banking, there’s a stereotypical CEO, who has been privately educated, went to Oxbridge, got onto an international manager programme and then became CEO. That’s changing and there’s starting to be an openness to people from different backgrounds. I’ve been one of those people who has broken that mould. I’ve never compromised my values; I’ve always been my authentic self because my view was, if you don’t want my authentic self then you don’t want me anyway. I’m proud that I’m part of an organisation that allows people to be the best versions of themselves.

M&S Bank