A balanced approach to business

Aug 01, 2016
Sinead Mahon FCA, COO at Barclays, talks to Accountancy Ireland about her career to date, the accountant of tomorrow, and the satisfaction of balancing work and family commitments.

Growing up in Tullamore, Sinead Mahon – now COO at Barclays – considered several career options before choosing accountancy as a basis for “a strong professional grounding”. From her early days in PwC, she has become a well-known figure in the world of financial services, holding a variety of roles including group accountant at KBC, a senior finance role at Ulster Bank, and CFO and programme director of a major transformation project at Danske Bank (formerly National Irish Bank).

While Sinead has worked primarily in industry, she credits her Chartered Accountancy training with much of her success, describing it as an “exceptional training ground”.

“The accountancy qualification itself is only a portion of what training delivers – I learned professional skills such as balancing the requirements of multiple stakeholders, building respectful relationships, teamwork, negotiation, managing fees and budgets, work ethic and consistency. I was also motivated by the fact that, in my experience, it was a very level playing field where the focus was on quality performance.”

The move to industry

Having been promoted to the position of manager at PwC, Sinead opted for a career move that would allow for a deeper insight into a single organisation. Her journey into the world of financial services began in the shadow of a well-known crisis, however. “At that time, the ‘dot-com’ bubble was very fresh in everyone’s mind, so I focused on opportunities in the financial services space and joined KBC as a group accountant.”

This set Sinead on a path that would bring her face-to-face with another more dramatic crisis that would test both her resilience and skillset. She recalls, in the third week of August 2007, a notable shift in the financial services landscape. “It was a very difficult and challenging time, without clear and tested processes to follow. And, of course, it evolved into experiences which were dreadful for many people on many levels,” she said. “My lasting memory is of thinking on our feet, developing a clear sense of focus and of a lot learned in a short time.”

As a young professional, those years underlined some important messages for Sinead: the value of a balanced temperament when events are stressful, a positive approach to challenges and opportunities, and to be vocal, as the best outcome will likely come from multiple inputs.

In 2012, having moved to Danske Bank, Sinead was appointed to the position of CFO and later, programme director for the bank’s withdrawal from the personal banking and business banking markets in the Republic of Ireland. By this time, she was an established member of the bank’s C-Suite – but this achievement wasn’t a career goal in the strict sense.

“Starting out, I’m not sure I had a plan to navigate myself to the C-suite or anywhere else, I just took the job in front of me each time and did the very best I could with it,” she said. “I also expressed an interest where I had one and sought to adopt a partnership approach to tasks. This helped identify me as a likely successor for subsequent roles.”

Work-life balance

This level of progression naturally brings with it a degree of challenge, according to Sinead. “There have certainly been tough days and situations where I didn’t know what to do next, but experience had taught me to just get on with it, take the first step and the rest will come,” she said. “Personal equilibrium can be a challenge with a young family, and I try to share my experience of balancing work and home life with female team members – it’s okay to have personal ambitions along with your professional ones. I’ve gone on maternity leave twice and don’t feel I was disadvantaged as a result. In fact, I returned to more senior roles both times.”

As you might expect, family is a priority for Sinead and she regards her two small boys as her greatest success. “They are the most precious part of our lives and a refreshing break from office life. They are fortunately very forgiving when I have a Lego man in one hand and a bundle of papers for the following morning in the other,” she said.

Professionally, Sinead has had “many good days” but she cannot pinpoint one single great success. “In my view, a career is built on consistently getting small things right, or better than the last time. That’s what I try to focus on,” she added.

Agility and the 80/20 rule

This philosophy permeates Sinead’s working life and she now operates firmly by the 80/20 rule rather than seeking perfection. “Agility in this fast-paced environment means finding ‘good enough’ and then going for it with conviction. That works for me,” said Sinead. “Investing in relationships is also critical; building a team spirit and respecting colleagues, so coaching, providing and receiving honest feedback, supporting colleagues who need it and maintaining standards. To me, it’s important to be kind to the people around you, particularly as the responsibility of the role grows.

“As I have a broad COO role at the moment, I speak a lot about driving performance through discipline – sourcing relevant information for decision-making, selecting an approach and then sticking with it, delivering with consistency and managing the message. This inspires confidence in our stakeholders and provides a frame of reference for the next set of activities.”

The accountant of the future

Operating in this fast-paced environment also requires a degree of personal adroitness if accountants are to be prepared for the challenges of tomorrow, according to Sinead. While ongoing professional development is something she both undertakes and recommends, she has identified three key skills for the accountant of the future – a people-centric partnership approach, acute strategic awareness and an ability to be flexible.

“The traditional approach I trained in 20 years ago is almost gone. Preparedness and the capacity to meet challenges head-on is key,” she said. “With the current pace of change, the ability to interpret what is happening promptly and have a network as a resource to utilise are differentiators. Taking the time to successfully develop and nurture relationships within your own team, the wider organisation, group stakeholders, other local stakeholders such as regulators, service providers and so on are prerequisites now.”

According to Sinead, it is a given that a trained Chartered Accountant has the skills to do the job – it’s how the job is done that defines success. “Putting relationships high on the agenda, staying close to valued peers and lifting the head to consider the broad picture unfolding around you are aspects that have set me apart through the years.”

New threats in financial services

While the effects of the financial crisis are now ebbing, new threats face the financial service industry and wider economy. Persistent low interest rates, increasing demands and costs of regulation, cost-cutting, reshaping, the threats and opportunities of technological and cyber advances, and challenges to the old ways of doing things – and that’s before Brexit and its potential impacts are taken into consideration – will all guarantee that Sinead’s skills will remain in demand.

“We are operating in a new world and new skills are required to enable positive reaction to change in real time. A challenge within all of this is to attract bright graduates to the sector rather than Silicon Valley-type organisations. This is a real test,” she said.

“To insulate ourselves, we must focus on the day job – serving clients and providing solutions, doing it consistently well, alongside continuous horizon scanning to identify and manage risk,” she continued. “Plans and preparation inspire confidence in times of uncertainty. To do this, we need to attract and retain top class people, embrace proactive communication with stakeholders and act with integrity.”