Dawn Conneely - Director of Cost, UK Cards Finance, Capital One
As part of our celebration around International Women's Day, Macildowie spoke to some of the amazing women we know in the local market about their route to the top of the their profession. Dawn Conneely has worked for some of the largest businesses in the UK in Senior Leadership roles. Currently, she works as the Director of Cost – UK Cards Finance at Capital One.
Read about Dawn's experience working her way up through major blue-chip companies and her advice for accountants in their early stages of their career. We also quizzed her on Capital One's fantastic diversity & inclusion programme, and the imbalance of females in leadership roles....
Was accounting always your dream career? Or would you have chosen a different path if given the chance?
I actually wanted to be a vet as we always had a lot of pets when I was growing up. But this all changed when I helped my father deliver a litter of Golden Retriever puppies! I had a serious rethink, and went to study Biochemistry at Warwick and then a PhD at Cambridge, where I spent three years growing and smashing open cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) to extract and analyse their DNA. A lot less bloody then being a vet.
After that, I decided I wanted to do something more mainstream, and the career department put me in touch with PricewaterhouseCoopers. I did eight week’s work experience and absolutely loved it. I felt I was constantly being challenged and developed, which is something I still seek out today.
You’ve built your career in major blue-chip companies. What have been your career highlights and what has driven your personal success?
Looking back, the highlights of my career are people or project related, and the best ones are combination of the two. I think that there is nothing more rewarding than being in the position to coach, develop and then promote a member of your team, but also being brave enough to have those courageous conversations with people, when it is just not working for them. Helping someone move into a role that they are able to really flourish in is so rewarding.
In terms of projects, I have been involved in some major ones over the years – from introducing automated stocktaking at Next, to completing the FCA market study at Barclaycard. They normally start out with a bold ambition, compressed timelines, a feeling that there is too much to do and too little time to do it. However, through pulling a team together with a shared goal, regular communication and a sense of joint ownership, it always amazes me as to what can be achieved.
If you were giving advice to accountants in the early stages of their career now, what one thing would you encourage them to do to allow them to eventually reach the upper echelons of an organisation?
I really believe that in the early days in your career as an accountant you benefit from getting a breadth of experience. When I was at PwC, I sought out opportunities outside of audit, resulting in a secondment to tax and corporate finance, both of which enhanced my skills. So look for opportunities that add to your current experience – I really think that this breadth of experience this is often better for your long term career than being promoted quickly.
You currently work for Capital One in Nottingham which is a company with an exceptional reputation for diversity & Inclusion. How does this live and breathe and how has this helped the business to excel?
You are right – Capital One really does live and breathe diversity and inclusion. We have had some really exceptional external speakers into the office to share their stories as well – including Karen Blackett OBE, who topped the Power List of Britain’s 100 Most Influential Black People
sharing her story and thoughts on inclusion; Geoff McDonald on burying the stigma of mental illness and Hayley Barnard whose perspective that ‘diversity is a reality; inclusion is our choice; we can all choose to take action on inclusion’ is truly powerful. Research has shown that more inclusive companies have happier employees, lower attrition, are easier to recruit into and also have higher productivity.
We still see an imbalance of Females in Senior Leadership roles. In your opinion, why does this imbalance currently exist?
Capital One is a technology lead, data focussed company, and therefore tends to draw on people from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) backgrounds.
Unfortunately, in the UK, we are in the position where less girls than boys study these subjects at school and beyond. In fact, the male to female ratio of graduates STEM subject in 2016/17, was 3:1 for STEM subject overall, and for computer science, this ratio was over 5:1.
We really need to be encouraging all students to pursue whatever interests them, without being influenced by gender stereotypes. One way to do this is through appropriate role models, so getting more women who have studied STEM subjects into schools to talk to and inspire young teenage girls to consider pursuing STEM subjects at A level.
Within Capital One we have a Women in Tech group, which is open to all employees (not just women and not just if you work in Tech) and this group have been working with schools on a coder’s programme encouraging all children to learn to write code. Also, we have been looking at our job descriptions to ensure that we are not unconsciously introducing gender bias through our application process.
Who are the people that have inspired you during your career? What influence did they have on you and how you work?
I have had the pleasure of working with some truly inspirational leaders in my career to date. The most inspirational leader I have had is a CFO from my Barclaycard days. When he came into the role he was very clear with the team as to what his vision was, how he liked to work and what his expectations from the team were.
He was consistent in his message and really lived by his values. He was also extremely personable and brought his whole self to work - a truly authentic leader. He promoted an atmosphere where you could freely share your thoughts with him, not just about the financial information but about the decisions that were important to the business. He was a true business partner to the CEO, and promoted the fact that within Finance, we are in the privileged position of being able to see the whole business and have a key role to play in shaping the direction of the business in the future.