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Voice of Experience: Carole Berndt, Head of Global Treasury Solutions, EMEA, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

CaroleBerndtBy Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog

At an early stage in her career, Carole Berndt, winner of the 2011 Women in Banking and Finance’s Award for Achievement, stood on a mountain in Hong Kong and was asked to quote on the risk element of turning the side of the mountain into an airport. She duly quoted, the site was purchased and developed and is now Hong Kong’s Chep Lak Kok international airport – a story which reflects Berndt’s geographically diverse career, first in insurance and now in banking.

“I was born in the UK and in 1970 my family moved to Australia; I grew up in Sydney and went to university there. My first job was as a book keeper with an insurance company – subsequently purchased by Allianz – and they invested in me. I did accounting, then computer science, then an MBA in international business. I led the very early efforts in the e-commerce space in the 1990s for the company’s Asia region and spent considerable time in Singapore and Indonesia.

“Around the late 1990s, I became known in my company as the “grandmother of the internet” – that’s when I knew I’d become part of the furniture and life had become too easy. I was offered and took a role with Citi in Hong Kong running the project office for their e-business unit, which then become known as Global Transaction Services.”

Berndt stayed for eight years, leading the client delivery services team before moving to New York following her promotion to global head of client delivery. She was then approached by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, so with a great opportunity on offer, she relocated to London in 2010 into her current role of head of global treasury solutions for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Pride and impact

Berndt’s recent WIBF award acknowledges her lifelong support for women in business and she told us how she used her position in client delivery to champion the sometimes invisible work that women do.

“There are some really thankless tasks in the back office of the banking industry – it’s hard grunt work with very little recognition. We had 2000 people globally, 70% were female but less than 5% of leaders were women and in almost every geography, the women were paid less. So I started on a campaign; I gathered the facts and looked at why the divide was like this. I worked with a consulting group called High Performance Coaching (HPC) to give women in the bank the skills and the confidence to speak up for themselves. We rolled out the programme over three years and were able to identify 20 women who could be fast-tracked into leadership roles. I particularly remember a young service representative in Jakarta; she was timid but talented and in less than a year she went from the bottom of the food chain to being shortlisted to lead the Indonesian operation. Over time, we shifted the needle from 5% to 40% of the leadership positions held by women.

“Why is it like this? I think that women forget to ask – they think they’ll be noticed. But they need to be given the confidence and the skills to ask and to step up.

“Yes, I can deliver the revenue plan, but if, as a result of what I do in the diversity space, people enjoy what they do and give more back, then that’s way more impactful.”

Unique opportunities

She continued: “I have a fantastic job in a business that I enjoy, with great clients. It’s a unique opportunity in a very mature global business. That said, for the business I lead in EMEA, it’s more like a start up, and we have a mandate to build a business. I’ve been able to hand pick a leadership team of around 50% women, the best in the business. We have the most volatile and unpredictable markets ever seen and there’s no rule book to grow your business. Instead, we’re faced with unsurpassed speed at which information travels coupled with high levels of regulatory scrutiny. The balance between global business and the needs of sovereign nations has never been more topical. For me and my role in transaction banking, it’s an exciting time for the optimist – or Armageddon for the pessimist. I’m an optimist and I see enormous opportunities for us and our clients. Every day is interesting.”

What about the future? “In five years’ time, I want the business to be even stronger and I want to be more involved in coaching and mentoring. I’m keen to continue building our business and give it a good growth trajectory, based on a platform that’s interesting to people of diverse backgrounds who want to come and work here and have interesting careers whilst having some fun along the way.”

Barriers and advice

Berndt is clear that she sees confidence and the ability to speak up as crucial to success and describes BAML’s programmes for women which include sponsorship, mentoring and diversity councils, chaired globally by CEO Brian Moynihan. Their network Lead for Women is focused on attracting and retaining female talent, training and engagement, accountability and supporting women and their line managers through parental leave.

“The mechanisms are largely there. The barriers are, in part, self inflicted – women have to want to progress, and to acknowledge that things may not always go to plan. I also see organisational barriers, such as the way in which people network, like around golf and football. Women have to step into their discomfort zone before they can change anything – then, over time, influence evolves and is gained and won. But as an industry there’s still a lot more we can do – there are too many dark suits running around!”

As a role model to others, what advice would Berndt give to young women?

“Sometimes the path to where you want to go is not a straight line – and somebody might have a better view of how to get you there than you do. Somebody other than you may see your skills in a different way – so it’s smart to bear that in mind and to trust them. Take the long route. When you see a brick wall, don’t turn around, go up to it and push hard – you can break through.”

Balance outside work

“I’m very much an active, outdoors person and I like to run and hike. My husband and I recently bought a boat which we moor on the Hamble river and that’s my new obsession, along with spending time with my family – I have many nieces and nephews, both in Australia and in the UK, and I love being a friend, mentor and Aunt to them.

“You have to do what makes you happy. If you don’t have a passion, no matter how successful you are, you won’t necessarily be happy. Put your heart and soul into life and success is a by-product.”