Leadership Stories: Beatrice Devillon-Cohen champions teams

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Leading by example and championing her teams, Beatrice not only survived the disruption of relocation and the global financial crisis, she and her teams bonded and thrived. She was recognised as one of the 100 Women to Watch in 2020 by Cranfield University.

What does leadership mean to you, and how has your approach or style changed over time?

Leadership for me is about inspiration, challenge and team-spirit.

My first experience as a leader was managing traders’ teams in Europe, Asia and the US having just moved to London after a 15-year career in Paris. I was French, a woman and a mother, in a world led by men, in the midst of a global financial crisis. The odds were slightly against me. I was in survival mode and needed to feel like I belonged. I chose to blend in, be ‘a man amongst the men’ and earn respect by being technically excellent, always showing up 120% prepared. I listened and I learned, aiming to lead by example.

Having earned the trust of my team, I could move on to developing the team spirit of the group- not a given as the industry was very focused on the individual. Humour was a very useful tool. I found that laughing and not taking life too seriously helped people grow connections. It allowed me to get rid of the blaming culture, all successes and failures were shared and owned.

Feeling confident by then, I embraced a more empathetic style of leadership. We were working in highly pressurised situations and it was soon obvious that people were taking more risks on my behalf, they were more creative, if they knew I cared.

I made sure to champion my team constantly, pushing team members to face challenges they were not sure they could handle, helping them grow in a safe environment (read Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety). You could probably link it to my Mediterranean origins: I always felt like a Sicilian mamma! In parallel, I always gave a clear vision of where we were going, what we were building and what I saw as obstacles. A leader sees around corners and needs to deliver results.

As I become even more experienced, I feel compelled to change the culture and the values of our industry. Remember, I joined banking in the early 90’s, the time of long boozy lunches when a young trainee like me could be casually wolf-whistled when crossing the trading floor. Not a pleasant experience. Our industry needs to work on cognitive diversity and on inclusion. There is a lot of good-will but unfortunately not enough action. As a mentor and a non-executive, I want to make sure we see diversity in the workplace that is fair and makes sense from a business perspective. And I want it now! That is also part of being a leader, making sure we build a fairer, kinder and more sustainable business proposition.

What have been the biggest challenges and the biggest successes in your life, and what have you learned from them?

My biggest challenge was certainly just after having moved my family to London in the summer of 2008. I had to build a global team and customer franchise while running large trading risks in the midst of Lehman Brothers unexpectedly collapsing (and many trading desks closing due to large losses). It was 24/7 for many long months with 2 very young children at home and no time to arrange proper child care. We got through it and my business and team thrived. My children became bilingual and matured into impressive young role models!

That experience made me more resilient, patient and it definitely developed my sense of humour. It also taught me I could rely on close friends, supporters and mentors who had my back when I needed it the most. They picked me up when I struggled. And of course, I learned that family is my most valued asset!

Another recent challenge was when, after 25 years in investment banking, I realised that I had got stuck in the career-chasing game. Leaving a successful role was a difficult call, but I felt the need to learn again and get out of my comfort zone, however frightening it seemed at the time.

I planned the move carefully, made connections, took advice and worked on developing new skills that are under represented like cyber-security risk management.

I now sit on the Finance Committee at King’s College London and on the Audit, Risk and Supervision Committee at the European Investment Bank. I was recognised by Cranfield University on the 100 Women to Watch 2020.

On that journey, I have met amazing female role models who have supported me, given me advice and pushed me to take risks. And I have realised that the more you are out of your comfort zone, the less anguish you feel. When you stop limiting yourself you can dream big again. I hope that this can inspire others to believe in their potential and take the leap!

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

  • Take the time to be an expert in your industry. It requires effort, be over-prepared; you will encounter set-backs, be resilient.
  • Be different as that is the value you bring to the table.
  • Be curious, courageous, bold and hold on to your values. The definition of hell is meeting the person you could have become on the last day of your life.
  • Develop a diverse network and demonstrate a genuine interest in the people you meet. It is not about a specific agenda, it is about developing lasting relationships. They will be carrying you through tough times, making you laugh and enjoy life.

Leaving a successful role was a difficult call, but I felt the need to learn again and get out of my comfort zone.

Beatrice Devillon-Cohen
Nicolina Andall