Katie Murray, CFO NatWest Group, in conversation with Tara Cemlyn-Jones about pathways to CEO and P&L skills

 by 25×25 team
Mar 2022

Why do you think Natwest is the only FTSE100 company that has both a woman CEO and woman CFO?

It’s amazing to think we might be the only one, but I think you’re absolutely right. I actually think it’s the culture that came up from within. You know, there was an absolute focus from the previous CEO and CFO that they wanted to make sure that they advanced the cause of women and have far more gender diversity in their management committee.

And so I know that when I was joining the bank in 2016, that Ewen Stephenson [CFO] at that time very much wanted women to be able to take part, and he was willing to wait for me to make a slightly longer route back from living overseas to come in, and then made sure I got the opportunities.

And then he put me in as interim CFO, and said “Right. Katie, I’ll put you in as interim. I’ll give you every chance to be successful, but you need to get this job now.”  I think the thing it is about being set up is so that you’re able to show what you’re capable of, and having that time.

So it was an absolute focus from the leadership before us, to make sure that we were in the right position and then something that was then felt across the executive, and had great support from the board as well. So I think it’s never one simple thing. There are lots of things that layer on top of each other to make sure that you can get there.  And then when you arrive, to give you the chance to be successful.

Could you describe the pathways to CEO at NatWest?

I think with any big organisation, there is obviously the big group CEO and then there is a number of divisional CEOs beneath that, and beneath that, there is a number of profit centre lines. And it kind of comes up generally through that profit centre line.

Ross [McEwan] was really interesting. He was HR by background, but then he came to the bank to be the CEO of retail, so covering a huge portion of our business, and then made that transition up to CEO. Where you start, doesn’t actually particularly matter. It’s the journey that you take from there.

And what I often say to the finance professionals is leave finance for a while. You can come back; we will always be happy to have you back, but actually leave and go and do different things and be on the other side, be on the commercial side. So you can get that P&L experience, and then you can continue to work your way up through that side. And if you discover that on that [commercial] side, it’s not the right thing, or you want different opportunities, you’ll be a far better functional specialist.

When you’re the CEO, you need to look to your right and your left, forwards and backwards at the same time.  And having that, running a business experience as you work your way through is something that’s really important.

What skills are important when running a P&L?

I think that people skills are fundamental in the running of the P&L. The actual P&L I think many would say that’s the easiest part. Alison and I were having this conversation only this morning, actually, that it’s the running of the people that’s really important.

Then, as you get further up in the organisation, it’s making sure you understand: “What’s happening in the media? What’s happening with the regulator? How do you manage a board? How do you manage that much broader stakeholder group.”

You know in the organisation, we’ll give you lots of that experience as you go through, but you have to be able to think beyond income, cost and capital. You need to know that because that’s kind of first level credibility often, but actually how do you take it to a much wider thinking of people and culture and productivity, and just understanding your IT and taking on the challenges. And I think really celebrating the successes when they come and learning from the mistakes, they can be as important.

Have you seen the pathways to CEO changing?

I think people like Ross were really important because they were from an HR background and actually show where you start doesn’t dictate where you ultimately end. I think there’s more openness in terms of the different routes that you can take. We at NatWest worked really hard to move people around. You know, we’ve had a very strong tradition of that. That was, something I think that was obviously easier when we were bigger. But it’s just as important now that we’re smaller and to try and move people to different roles so that they can get the experience of different roles. And I think people have to be open to that. It doesn’t have to always be upwards because actually you learn a lot by going sideways.

If I look at myself, when I came into NatWest, it was a sideways role from where I came. It was the best decision I ever made because otherwise there’s no way I’d have the job I have today.  Going to look at different things and learning different crafts along the way and go to areas that you’re not that familiar with, I think it gives you great perspective on how people learn, how people help you, how you can help others in different ways.

So why did NatWest decide to join 25×25?

It’s really important to us. I think that we’ve got a lot of really strong targets in terms of bringing women up through the organisation. Alison is the CEO of NatWest. I think she’s in a pretty small group at the top of the FTSE. So things have changed, but there’s still an awful lot more to do. And I think that what 25×25 is really doing is shining a light on the different journeys you can go on; shining a light on what’s possible; and reminding people that it is possible to go to that level. And I think, making people who are doing the recruiting look a little bit wider and feel a little bit more of the pressure of why you’re not looking as widely as you might

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