‘Confidence is critical, and you need advocates’

Áine McCleary is the newly appointed director of distribution channels at Bank of Ireland and the incoming President of the Institute of Banking. Here she discusses the realities and myths of ‘balancing it all’, and why enabling customers, colleagues and communities to thrive is the priority in her workplace.

I’ll start with a bit about myself. I am from Dublin; married to Alan, we have four children aged between six and thirteen. In my spare time, I enjoy family time, walking, travelling and GAA.

Following on from my Bachelor of Commerce in UCD I undertook an MBS in International Business through the Michael Smurfit Business School. Since joining Bank of Ireland, I have completed the QFA diploma, and I have obtained the Certified Bank Director designation through the Institute of Banking.

My career to date has been across a variety of roles. I started in Ulster Bank as a foreign exchange dealer before moving to Bank of Ireland Global Markets in 2000. Over the following twelve years, I led sales and service teams engaging with retail, corporate and institutional customers.

After my last maternity leave in 2012, I decided it was time for a change, and I moved to the retail banking division of Bank of Ireland. Since then I have held a number of roles including strategy and planning, head of mortgages and director of direct channels. Earlier this year, I was delighted to be appointed the director of distribution channels.

As you can see, I have moved role many times, and my ethos is to take all opportunities.

“Women can tend to be quite hard on themselves and can suffer self-doubt.”

The stats show that Irish women are more likely to hold a third level qualification than men, yet women fall below the EU average for employment. Why do you think that is?

I believe there are a few reasons. Unconscious bias can be a factor. Some women also choose to take the time-out to raise their family for a period. Another reason I have encountered with women I work with and mentor can be confidence; women can tend to be quite hard on themselves and can suffer self-doubt.

“I believe confidence is critical and you need advocates.”

Have you any thoughts on how to change this imbalance?

Everyone individually has their part to play in changing this imbalance. I believe confidence is critical. Building strong social and business networks, having a strong coach and mentor can be pivotal (male or female). You need advocates. I’d also encourage women to ask for advice and help. It’s not a weakness; it shows that we are all human. No one has all the answers.

We can also support one another through networking and build our confidence, empowering each other to have self-belief and take the brave steps to success.

From a corporate perspective, businesses have a part to play. For me a key priority is building up the bench, asking ourselves ‘where are the women in our pipeline’, and ‘what support and skills are we helping them to develop’. Within Bank of Ireland, we have launched an Accelerate programme designed to address the aspects that can hold women back.

Organisations also need to recognise the need for flexible working, to encourage growth within these numbers.

“I’m there for the important moments.”

How do you balance your professional ambitions with your personal life?

It’s a question I get asked a lot, probably the most in fact. How do I manage to be a mother of four while pursuing a successful career? I don’t see myself as different from other parents in this regard.

The truth is being a good parent, whether working or not, whether a father or a mother, can be hard. For me, I try to stick to the following principle: I’m there for the important moments. Being at the children’s nativity plays; their parent-teacher meetings and big sporting moments in their lives is a non-negotiable for me. If it means some late nights or early mornings to catch up on work, then that’s what I’ll do.

I want my family and especially my children to be proud of my work, not to resent it. I try not to give out about work or to bring a bad mood home. My children have visited my work and attended Christmas parties there. I work from home one afternoon a week.

Strike a balance; there will always be speed bumps, adjust and get back in the saddle.

“Strong females are authentic; they trust in their abilities and strengths.”

Where are women leaders getting this right?

There are many great women leaders across the world. Women who inspire others and show us what is possible. Role models who demonstrate that it can be done and help us stretch our ambitions. Strong females are authentic; they trust in their abilities and strengths to deliver and are not afraid to show their vulnerabilities. They use their leadership roles to make the world a better place.

I like the following quote from Michelle Obama: “Whether you come from a council estate or a country estate, your success will be determined by your confidence and fortitude.”

“They display authenticity and have resilience and persistence that drive them.”

For you, what makes female leaders inspiring?

When I consider the female leaders that inspire me, they have the following traits in common. They are optimistic, with a strong sense of purpose. They display authenticity and have resilience and persistence that drive them to deliver. They ask others for their views and support, which builds a connectedness and a humanity that endears others to follow.

“I believe we will move to a future where the mix of skills will be more important than gender.”

What does the future look like?

In leadership, I believe in balance. I believe we will move to a future where the mix of skills will be more important than gender, a future where the question of gender balance will no longer be asked.

Businesses are changing, and it’s becoming more apparent that you can strike a balance between career and personal aspirations. It does not have to be a choice.

“Every company can benefit from diversity in their organisation; it makes an organisation smarter and more successful.”

Where do we need more female leaders?

For me, it’s more about all areas of society needing to examine their diversity policies and practices. It’s about including and valuing a diverse and balanced organisation and all that it can achieve.

Research has shown that collective intelligence is most powerful when built on gender diversity and a balanced mix of skills and life experiences. Every company can benefit from diversity in their organisation; it makes an organisation smarter and more successful.

I love this quote from Mary Barra, General Motors CEO: “Cultivating diversity isn’t about taking a gender count when you walk into a room. It’s about valuing all ideas and building teams with different backgrounds and experiences.”

“For me, communities are central. If we pool the strength of these communities, we will all progress.”

Finally, this year’s IWD call to action is #pressforprogress. How does that translate to your business, what can the women leaders of Ireland do to encourage more progress?

I believe women leaders of Ireland have a role to play in supporting and helping other females to progress. This can be indirectly by acting as role models and helping others to see what is possible, and also more directly through mentoring and coaching others. I am honoured to take on the role as President of the Institute of Banking, and aware that as the first female President in the history of the Institute I am forging the way for others to follow.

Our purpose at Bank of Ireland is to “enable our customers, colleagues and communities to thrive”.

For me, communities are central to everything we do. Our customers are a community; my colleagues are a community; my employer, my family; charities I’m involved with; inclusion and diversity networks; women in business; working parents; my kid’s sports clubs – all communities.

A community is a small or large group with something in common, a shared purpose, values, or goals. If we pool the strength of these communities, we will all progress; we will all thrive and be supported while “balancing it all”.

Interview by Lesley Tully.