I will read it differently today

18 Dec 2012 23:36 | Armelle Loghmanian

 “I will read it differently today"

By Melanie Barker & Armelle Loghmanian


Christine Van Rijsseghem

Senior General Manager Group Finance

CFO KBC Bank NV, KBC Verzekeringen NV en KBC Groep NV

The topic of the PWI anniversary conference was “Gender balance in the Talent pipeline”. As you are the only senior female manager at KBC, we really appreciated having your testimonial during the conference. Christine, can you tell us what were the most important elements in building your career?

First of all I think you have to make clear choices in life although unfortunately there's not always a possibility to have an end-end concept in your life. When I joined KBC coming out of the university, my husband and I took clear decisions concerning career development. It was very fortunate for me as the gender role model in current society is still hindering women in that perspective. I am a fighter too so from the outset I said to myself that I have at least as many qualities and chances than men to succeed. Of course, the world has changed in the meantime and in terms of leadership, we now have a more balanced way of approaching things in life but 25 years ago, that was not the case.

The second thing that was also very important I think was that in my first assignment I worked for a manager who was a strong believer in gender balance. He was very committed to gender diversity so I got the possibilities and the trust necessary to prove myself in the job.

Then, third factor, I was picked up quite early in the talent pool. 25 years ago KBC was already following the talent pool but without a systematic approach towards women and towards the possibility of women forming a career via the talent pool.

Mentorship and sponsorship were also important. In addition, I had the possibility throughout my career to follow management courses on leadership internally and externally.

And also predominately I got the opportunity at quite an early age to really have a lot of accountability and responsibility. When I look back, I was 32 years old and I was running the branches in France and then the branches in London. I consider I was very fortunate to get this kind of accountability, to have responsibility for a balance sheet which showed a number of billions euros at that moment.

One important thing not to forget is also to be open to receive feedback. I still receive quite a bit of good or negative feedback. You need to be able, on one hand, to absorb that and on another hand to do something with it.

Studies have shown that women in senior management (20% worldwide average) are most likely to be employed in HR or finance (13% as CFO, 13% as controller). As banking seems to be a very feminine sector at least at the entry level, one would expect a higher proportion of women in all management’s levels than in other industry. Do you see a difference? Do you think it is easier for a woman to make a career in the banking sector?

No, it is not easier and although the banking sector is at the European average for women at the top level, it is still a very male sector within the service industry. When you enter a branch the majority of employees are women. In KBC for instance, the total number of women working is over 50%. At the entrance level, the gender balance is fine, but when you move up the management level, you see the gap.

When you look within the banking & insurance sector, the number of women in general management functions and the commercial area is low, we see also more women at the top in areas such as HR, finance and risk management.

KBC decided to take gender diversity seriously and to set some clear targets. Which concrete actions have been put in place? How do you measure the progress made?

Yes, the target is clear: 25% of all senior management staff has to be female by 2016. We follow it on a quarterly base. We have seen quite a good progress through the different years. We are not yet at the 25%, so it remains quite a challenge. We are at around 15- 16% so we still have another 10% to go.

Now in terms of actions, KBC has been working on 4 elements, first of all on the appointment process, secondly on the continuous detection and the follow up thereof,( which I consider as extremely important), thirdly on mentorship and sponsorship and last but not least on communication and networking.

In terms of appointments, we have a kind of positive discrimination i.e. if two people are fit for the job, the preference goes to the woman. When there is a vacancy at the managers’ level position, the top list of female candidates is screened beforehand. Now, we are in a very specific economic climate, and whilst we want more female managers we are also reducing the size of the firm by about 30%. 

Detection is extremely important: is also of terms of detection, we do see however that it is not easy to fill in the talent pipeline at a decent level and we will all agree that if you don’t have the candidates you have a problem. To solve this issue, we have a KPI at the middle management level. Every 6 months, together with HR, managers need to identify at least x number of women at different levels of the talent pipeline. So people are really pushed, and if they do not come up with high potential women, they have to explain and this is reported to the group executive committee (it a bit like the 40% now with Viviane Reding). People feel that they are under pressure, and I think it is a good thing, to really detect women, because we still prefer to be recognized instead of coming forward ourselves.

Does it mean that you have a special training for your directors to detect women?

We organize HR workshops and detecting talent is one of the elements you have to consider as a leader or as manager but we do not have specialized training or workshops on that matter. That’s perhaps an idea worthwhile to look into.

You said there are cases where you had two equal candidates the decision will always be to offer the job to a woman. Do you feel any negative feedback from the male colleagues, or do they buy in, within KBC, to this approach or do you have to handle sometimes a negative feeling?

Never! There is no issue in that respect. I also believe that the main reason is that women which have been appointed within KBC are doing a great job like they are doing in other industries.

One thing we need to keep in mind is that the person must agree, some of them prefer not to get to that level. For women, but also for men in KBC, money is not the key driver and has never been the key driver, not even in the good days. But with the finance crisis, I also must admit that, the appetite of taking on more responsibilities has also decreased. We must be honest in that respect, why would you, nowadays, take on more responsibility in a financial climate which is still very volatile? At the moment, when you do something good, we never get a positive remark from the external the market, but if you do something bad, you are nipped. That is also why we have launched the new culture change because we want to go back to the very proud company that we were some years ago.

Networking is a major help in professional development. Is this a gender issue? Are gender specific networks helpful or do they reinforce stereotypes? What networks have you found most helpful in your career?

Networking is very important to get women out of the cocoon they are working in. So to have external memberships in different networks such as a women organization or a professional one, is important to have exposure outside your own company. You have to take the time to do it. We need to be careful that when we have an event, a women focused event, not to have only women there. I am very much in favor of a mix in that respect.

External networks are important but you need also a good internal network. I worked abroad for several years and when I came back I underestimated that a bit in the beginning. Internal networks are extremely important also in terms of role models, it is important that female managers show their capabilities within the organization taking part in various activities, fun as well as professional. So you have to get out of your own environment to show to the remaining part of KBC that you exist.

I found also when I was abroad that the external networking with the embassy, the chamber of commerce, etc was really interesting. There, as a woman, you are representing KBC abroad and showing that they do have women at top position. Representing your company externally is for me the most important exposure, and of course in my position you are invited to interesting events and I always try to attend. You have to divide your time of course- to accept this extra “work”.

What is your view on the discussion of the difference in management styles for women to achieve at senior level? Are there masculine behaviours that are still required or more helpful for women to succeed?

What would I consider as being typically a male characteristic? Men tend to be more direct and task oriented while women tend to be more relationship oriented and seek harmony, that’s the classic.

When I look to communication styles in KBC for example, we have been evolving to some more balanced leadership. Team work became extremely important. 5 or 10 years ago you would move in the management ladder on an individual basis by being the best and the most pronounced… but this has now completely changed. Now it is how you are able to make the best out of your team and I must say I find this an extremely good evolution which is recognized at the top management level. So when the evaluations are being made it is not only about how have you been doing in terms of your individual performance. It is also how you have performed in terms of team building, both in your own team and beyond. Half of the evaluation is made by colleagues and by people external to your directorate.

One of my KPI is also to what extent have I been creating synergy or have I been working on helping someone else to excel. Helping someone to excel is not in our human nature, certainly not in a hard industry like the finance industry. This is also part of KBC's internal strategy; we want to promote the businesses to make the best decision.

The financial crisis was triggered by quite a small group of individuals, but it has changed the industry and my firm. Individual performances are being looked at in a different way. This could prove beneficial to female bankers.

Do you see in internal or external leadership and management programs any changes coming through to reflect on these kinds of changes?

Yes, also in KBC, the program that we have on leadership is about these issues. It is about how to be a balanced leader by listening to your people, encouraging innovation through collaboration, giving open access to information, also vulnerability.

Returning from abroad I was promoted to senior management level – the first woman in KBC's history at that level. In the new directorate I had to establish, there was a huge task to get it back on the rails. I chose to tackle this task solely with my management team.

Now I would do things differently and also discuss with my peers. I would tell them:  “There is a huge problem on the table. I don’t think I can solve it alone. Can you give me some advice, how would you deal with that etc”. But I will read it completely differently now. I will also discuss it with peers, tell them: “There is a kind of very huge problem on the table. I got this assignment, I am not sure that I will succeed in that, can you give me tips and tricks on how you will read that, how will you deal with that etc”.It is all about showing vulnerability - we have all progressed at lot about this within KBC over the last 10 years.

You mentioned earlier the hard feedback and how important and valuable receiving it has been for you. Do you feel that women generally have more difficulty dealing with hard and negative feedback? Are women not given so much negative feedback as an indication that their work is not taken so seriously (by themselves or others)?

Boys and girls are different and are socialised to be different! Sorry if I sound stereotypical but I do believe women seek more harmony. Try not to take comments personally. Women are never totally satisfied although the product or the service they deliver is often of a very high quality . Personally, it took me some years to get through that and when it is done, you feel better
I feel of course much more comfortable than 5 or 10 years ago presumably because I am a  bit older, but also because I can say: “I also have an opinion, I know that I can do it, the feedback I get is not personal and is not meant to break me down but is meant as a constructive feedback”. Women generally have more difficulty dealing with hard and negative feedback. We do not have what I call an elephant skin, we are more sensitive. But we do not have to give up our emotional side because it is part of us but it should not stop us from progressing.

With the 40% directive for Women on Boards, I would like also to add a question about how KBC wants to implement the quotas.

I am personally convinced that you need to work with quotas. I found that women against quotas are usually the ones who already belong to boards. The fact that companies will have to explain if they fail to comply may help but that would only be at a board level. I found it is a pity that the focus is only about the board of directors as the strategy is done at the executive committee level. At KBC, not only at the executive committee but also at my level, there are certainly not enough women. You can really only make a difference when you represent 30%.

Christine, clearly you made it to the top, do you see yourself as a role model? What will be your advice to a young woman starting her career now?

I think women, but this also applies for men, have to make clear decisions what you want to achieve in life. You can’t get it all; you have to make some sacrifices.
I think I am not a good role model because although I do have a husband. we do not have children. And I admire enormously the women who have children and can combine all. But they also had to make clear choice and presumably decided to have less time for themselves. Personally I wanted to have a career but at the same time also have some time for myself and for my husband.

So making the right choices is important but also young women should not be afraid to express what kind of qualities they have, to be more assertive, and show what they can do. In a word don’t be afraid and be convinced you have all the qualities you need to succeed.

Short Biography
Christine  Van Rijsseghem is the Senior General Manager of Group Finance since 2003 and also CFO KBC Bank NV, 
KBC Verzekeringen NV and KBC Groep NV. Prior to this, Mrs. Van Rijsseghem was the CEO of KBC France and then London, before becoming the Senior General Manager Securities and Derivatives Processing Directorate. 
After receiving her law degree from Ghent University RUG, she then received her MBA Financial Sciences from Vlerick University. Her career has been focused in the Financial Services sector. 
Being a native Belgian Dutch speaker, Mrs Van Rijsseghem is also fluent in French, English and German. Her hobbies are reading, sports, swimming and golf. 

Contact details
Christine Van Rijsseghem   Senior General Manager Financial Group KBC Group
KBC Groep
Havenlaan 2
B - 1080 Brussel

Disclaimer - Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of KBC Group, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.>
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