What’s it like being a female leader in professional services, and how has the sector changed? Nina Haldorsen from Protiviti’s iGROWW network interviews Janet Barberis, managing director at Protiviti UK about her career and why ‘being yourself’ matters.
Nina Haldorsen: Welcome, Janet, to the first in a series of interviews with inspiring women leaders. I’m pleased to sit down with you, our very own female managing director in Protiviti’s internal audit and financial advisory practice. Please tell us your professional story and how you started your career?
Janet Barberis: Thank you, and it’s great to be involved. When I was doing my A Levels, I wanted to be an English teacher, but I applied for a Business Studies degree at university. My family had their own business, so the decision was related, I think. I also specialised in marketing while I was there.
My father always said to me: ‘become an accountant, it’s a job for life’, but at the time I thought, ‘no way, it’s just really boring’. When I left university, I went into advertising, and worked with an agency for about nine months; after a while, though, I thought there was something lacking in terms of a future career.
At the time, I was talking to a friend of mine, who was working at one of the Big Four accountancy firms. He suggested applying for the graduate trainee programme, gaining the Association of Chartered Accountants (ACA) qualification, to develop a sound professional services platform. It sounded like what my dad suggested, but I did apply, and got in.
From there, I have worked in professional services, investment banking – both in operations and internal audit – and moved back into consulting about ten years ago. The longer stints of my working life have been in consulting, but it wasn’t a conscious decision to develop my career in that way.
Nina: Wow, you’ve touched on so many different areas, and it’s interesting how consulting has walked you through it, thank you so much. Our second question is related to work-life balance. How do you manage that as a female leader? And how has it changed throughout your career?
Janet: The answer is to prioritise and be organised. It’s easier for me now, because my children are grown up, but I have twins. When they were born, I was lucky enough to be able to take some time out, and I came back to work when they were three, but it was tough. I didn’t have a nanny, so everything was categorised: mealtimes, sleeping times, holiday clubs, time with grandparents, for example. I had to be super organised.
My other advice is to build a strong network because there are always going to be times you need help from someone else. Whenever I had a day off, I would invite almost the entire school class round for tea, which meant I had many more people I could ask for help. I was lucky because my parents and in-laws were in the UK as well, and I’ve lived in Greater London all my life, but many people don’t have that network.
Work-life balance doesn’t mean you just work from home, though; it’s about organising yourself to work smarter. I have worked for several global firms, and I knew I had to leave at a certain time to come home, help the children with their homework, and other things. But then I would dial into calls with New York in the evening, and Asia calls the next morning, before taking them to school.
Nina: That links well to the next topic, which is about adversity. We’re really interested in how you’ve dealt with adversity in your career…
Janet: Coming back to work after the twins was very hard at first. The way I overcame it was taking one day at a time. Days became weeks, weeks became months, and I got myself into the new routine. I think I was naïve in thinking I could switch straight back into work mode and be my best self on a fulltime basis. Looking back, I should have phased my return.
Nina: What’s the best work-related advice you’ve ever received?
Janet: Be fair to yourself in setting realistic priorities. Don’t try and change yourself to meet people’s expectations, because you can be successful without having to compromise. Also, have a game plan as you go through each stage of your life.
After I started in professional services, my career was on an upward trajectory. When I came back after the twins, it plateaued; I was consciously allowing it to because my priorities had changed. But as they got older, it went upwards again. You will always have conflicting priorities, and things that are important to you; just make sure you allow for that, because otherwise, you’re going to end up stressed, anxious and unproductive.
Nina: That’s a great tip, thank you so much. As a women’s business group, we’re naturally interested in gender equality; have you seen any improvement in the gender gap throughout your career, and how has that evolved?
Janet: Definitely, and I’ve been in the City for over 30 years. When I look back, there were occasions when I was one of the only females in my team, but I just accepted it as the norm. Things have changed; we’re not quite there yet but, thankfully, we are going in the right direction.
It’s not just about gender, though. Women’s rights and equality has been discussed so much, with equal pay and board representation, but there is also disability, sexual orientation, race, religion… So much needs to be done to elevate those groups, alongside women.
Nina: That’s really good, thank you. We’ve come to our last question, and we want to finish on a high: What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?
Janet: It’s becoming a bit of a cliche but bring your whole self to work. It’s the advice I am giving to my son and daughter. If they aren’t accepted, or feel uncomfortable, they should absolutely speak out and be honest with themselves: Is it the right organisation for them?
When I was growing up in the industry, the perception was that if you did speak out or make a fuss, it would come back to bite you because financial services in the City is a small place. I’m not sure if this perception was true but, luckily, I worked with some great people and did not need to test it.
Nina: Was that a gender-based perception, or do you think it was across the board?
Janet: It was probably across the board, and the same for men. That’s why openness is so important now, and support. I do remember sometimes saying to myself, before I went into the office: ‘Take a deep breath, right, this is going to be ‘work Janet’’. People shouldn’t need to do that, and I don’t anymore, of course.
Nina: Thank you so much, Janet, it’s been really interesting to hear your story, from when you started out in marketing, to becoming a chartered accountant and now being here with us at Protiviti. You’ve shared some great tips that will help other people like me, who are only just starting their careers.
Janet: It’s a pleasure; thank you for having me.
iGROWW is Protiviti’s internal women’s network group and stands for ‘Initiative for Growth and Retention of Women at Work’. It has a strong voluntary membership that tackles women’s professional issues through forums, and facilitates networking events and community service activities.
For more information, please contact Nina Haldorsen [email protected].
For more information, please contact Rhianne Williams [email protected].