Kjirste Coltham
Kjirste Coltham
Transformation Director
Old Mutual Wealth

Professional Background: Kjirste Coltham joined Skandia Life in 1995 as part of the IT Graduate Trainee program. Following the purchase of Skandia by Old Mutual in 2006, Kjirste moved into the retained IT function and is now Delivery Assurance and Service Management Director, responsible for the provision of live IT services to Old Mutual Wealth. Kjirste assumed the role of chairperson for the Old Mutual Wealth Women’s network in May 2014.

Education:  BA Hons, De Montfort University, Leicester.

Personal Passions:  Traveling, cooking, photography; also, very excited about becoming an auntie in 2015!

By Kjirste Coltham, Transformation Director, Old Mutual Wealth

You can scarcely open the business pages today without reading another article about the lack of women in the executive ranks of the Fortune 500 and the FTSE 100 or the challenges of being a woman working in technology. While I worry that some of the negative press only fuels the problem, there is no doubt that both situations must be addressed.

Indeed, within the financial services industry, in which I’ve spent my career, it is no secret that women are greatly under-represented in senior roles across the board. Here, in the IT function at Old Mutual Wealth, we can lay claim to be one of the exceptions to that rule. One-third of the members of our IT leadership team are women. That wasn’t necessarily by design; we didn’t have a quota we were trying to meet. But we do give talented professionals the opportunity to experience everything they can and to grow with the organization.

I’m a prime example of that. Twenty years ago, I joined the graduate program for programmers at Skandia (which was purchased by Old Mutual Group in 2006 for $6.5 billion). I had no technology background, having studied business at university. Of the six who joined the program, four were women and three of us are still here today. And I’ve been in IT ever since.

 One of the biggest factors in my success is that I had a lot of opportunities to learn. I moved back and forth between the project development and support world, I did programming, I ran operations, I led teams. And as I grew, so did the company. When I joined Skandia, we took up five floors of a seven-floor building in Southampton. Now we’re based in three high-rise buildings in Southampton and the Isle of Man and have a number of regional offices around the world. Technology has been fundamental to the company’s growth, and that has provided countless opportunities for those of us in IT to develop and advance.

A Paradigm Shift and Leadership Opportunity

The biggest growth opportunity for me came when Old Mutual purchased Skandia. The IT organization moved from an entirely in-house IT organization to a largely outsourced IT model. In a matter of months, I had to evolve from actually “doing” IT to managing a service provided by an entirely different company.

I was managing our insourced support team at the time, and it was quite a change for the employees who moved from my team to the outsourcing provider. I had to learn to work with them in a different way. No one in our organization had any experience managing outsourcing partners. Most of us had only seen how IT happened within Skandia.

Certainly one of my biggest challenges is that I’ve been with one company for my entire career, so I have taken advantage of external contacts that my fellow IT leaders have shared with me. In particular, I recently benefited from a mentor outside Old Mutual Wealth who has 30 years of experience with IT service management. We met monthly as I moved into the IT Exec team, and he taught me through his experience.

Over the years, I have learned to manage those partnerships on an increased scale as we added more and more technology suppliers. And I’ve learned to work with teams from different cultures as we did more offshoring. It’s been a challenge, but something I really enjoy doing.

Removing Barriers for Everyone

Speaking honestly, I don’t think that being a woman in IT has been an issue for me. If there have been situations where I haven’t progressed as fast as others, I’m conscious that it can be due to my own performance or skills rather than the fact that I’m a woman. I’ve certainly taken advantage of every opportunity that I could in my career, whether it’s being mentored or a new role or training. I owe that tendency to my father, who was an electrical engineer in the aerospace industry.

He said, “Provided you match 65 or 70 percent of a job’s requirements, just try it and have a go.” And that’s what I’ve done. The worst that happens is you get some feedback that can help you moving forward.

However, the leadership at Old Mutual Wealth does recognize that women have had a difficult time advancing in the industry, and this year they set up the Old Mutual Wealth Women’s Network, which I have been asked to chair. The initial goal was to find out what barriers there might be to progressing in the company and what we could do to remove them. Upon launching the network, it quickly became clear that this was an effort that should not be restricted to women. Our purpose statement is “Enabling positive futures: Recognizing the value in gender difference to harness the strength and power of both.” As the actress Emma Watson said in her speech this year before the United Nations, gender equality is an issue for men, too. We all need to be involved.

The network exists so that everyone — male and female alike — has access to a community support system and opportunities for development, learning, and growth. And while the impetus was the recognition that women are under-represented in our leadership ranks, by definition men manage women here and make decisions that impact them.

So it’s crucially important that they are involved and understand what difficulties women within the company either feel they face or do in fact face and that they are not doing anything to hold them back. The goal is to become part of the 30 percent club — to be a company in which women inhabit a third of the senior level positions, which just happens to be the current female representation in our IT leadership ranks.

The network has been up and running for nine months. The focus thus far has been trying to gauge interest in the network and what employees want from it. The most successful workshops we’ve had have been around the topic of building confidence. We’ve had sessions on personal branding and overcoming the “imposter syndrome” (that feeling that you’re a fraud or inadequate compared to others in your position). Attendance at these workshops has been good — typically 40 people (the maximum) at each, and I hope they’ve encouraged attendees to find the courage to put themselves forward.

As much as I’ve pushed myself and taken advantage of opportunities, I have to admit that I sometimes still really struggle with confidence. That may not be apparent to all the people I work with, but if you were to ask any of my close friends, I’m not the kind of person who necessarily puts her hand up and says, “Me, me, me!” For much of my career, I was more likely to wait for situations to present themselves to me than to put myself forward for a role.

But mentoring and general life experience have helped me overcome that. When I was studying, I never intended to work in IT. It was never my goal to become a technology leader. But I tried to take advantage of opportunities that came my way. I asked a lot of questions and I have learned a lot. I’m hoping that this network will help others in the way that I was helped. We want to make people aware of leadership opportunities and create an environment where they are both encouraged and supported in pursuing them, no matter their gender.

Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 6 (February 2015)


The Takeaways

One way to begin addressing the dearth of woman in senior roles is to help talented professionals gain experience in multiple areas.

Technology functions, which are now central to the strategies of many companies, can offer opportunities for employees to develop their leadership potential.

Formal efforts to address gender imbalances may work best when they include everyone. Men are also affected when woman don’t have equal opportunities, and so they need to be involved in dismantling barriers to advancement.

Confidence is crucial to aspiring leaders. Workshops in topics such as personal branding and mentoring programs can create an environment in which women and men alike can develop the tools they need to move up in the ranks.