How to Make the Most of Having a Mentor
We speak with Alex Foster, Director for insurance, wealth management & financial services at BT, who also heads a number of industry initiatives and is an expert within the organisation’s banking and financial services vertical.
In her current role, Alex works with BT’s customers within the insurance, wealth management and financial services sectors and looks after their technology needs, making sure that these firms are able to support their businesses today and guiding them into what their organisations might need for the future.
With a background of running trading floors in major investment banks, Alex has over 20 years of experience as a woman in finance. Below, she shares with us some of the challenges that she’s been faced with throughout her career and offers her advice on how to make the most of having a mentor.
Can you tell us a bit about your career?
Before joining BT, I worked at a number of investment banks, starting my career as a sales trader. As someone who studied Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science at university, I’ve always been passionate about technology. I saw an opportunity to apply my interest in regulation and technology as the market evolved from being voice-led to electronic-led. I then transitioned into electronic trading and set up several electronic trading desks. The increasing scope of regulation and the rapid evolution of market structure led to an increase in competition and it also created new opportunities that helped facilitate the rise of FinTechs. I was fortunate to work alongside and help set up some of the very first FinTechs, which at that time weren’t even called FinTechs! I’ve participated in setting up Chi-X and Turquoise – two exchanges that were both subsequently bought by rival exchanges.
All of this early work was just an indication of what’s to come in the world of technology in finance with more and more firms coming up with inventive business solutions, working with organisations to respond to their specific needs and finding the best way to help them, whilst also enabling entrepreneurship.
I am proud to have been able to contribute to creating change in investment banking and evolving office culture, adding elements that didn’t exist before.
Have you ever faced any hurdles related to your gender, especially considering your work for major investment banks?
It is worth noting that back then, in the late 90s – early 2000s, there weren’t many women working in investment banking and because of the lack of female employees, there were a few situations that had simply never come up and management had never dealt with before.
I am proud to have been able to contribute to creating change in investment banking and evolving office culture, adding elements that didn’t exist before. Out of the women who worked on the trading floor alongside me, not many used to come back after maternity leave. I was one of the very few who returned to work after my daughter was born and naturally, I wanted to continue breastfeeding. I remember having to ask management if there was a designated place where I could do it because, at that stage, breastfeeding rooms in the workplace were not common. This was a new situation at the time that none of my managers had ever been faced with and I am proud that my experience inspired change.
Nowadays, numerous organisations provide appropriate space and facilities. In addition to this, generous maternity policies are now commonplace, enabling women to return to work after they’ve had children – for example, 87.9% of BT’s female employees return to work post-maternity leave, which is a very impressive rate. It is amazing to see how much has changed.
Furthermore, I was extremely fortunate to have great mentors and sponsors all along the way who really wanted to listen and help me forge my career. During my early days at a leading financial corporation, the organisation didn’t have much sponsorship and mentorship experience, but even then, the board was very determined to identify any issues that employees were struggling with and help find a solution.
All the companies I’ve worked for had carefully considered how they wanted to create and deliver change and thanks to my mentors, any issues and hurdles that I’ve encountered were resolved and dealt with very quickly.
BT is committed to encouraging and supporting more women into technical and leadership positions. Our Tech Women network is one of the company’s initiatives aimed at boosting gender equality.
How is BT driving up its diversity?
BT is committed to encouraging and supporting more women into technical and leadership positions. Our Tech Women network is one of the company’s initiatives aimed at boosting gender equality. A key part of the initiative is creating mentorship, sponsorship and networking opportunities for aspiring and ambitious women from different levels within the company who are looking to advance their careers. We’re very proud of the programme as it supports the acceleration of women’s careers in the organisation and offers something for everyone, helping women progress up the corporate ladder without getting stuck in middle management.
What’s your advice for women in finance in regard to making the most of having a mentor or a sponsor?
I believe that it’s all about working out the type of conversation you want to have. Mentors and sponsors can help with an array of things and it’s best to sit down and think very carefully about the things you need guidance and assistance with and the benefits you can gain from this relationship. Ask yourself the question: How can they help me progress my career? Do I need someone that will challenge me in my thinking or am I interested in skill acquisition? At the end of the day, the relationship between a mentor and a mentee is a two-way street and it is vital to be clear about what your objectives are.
Once you’ve established this, it is also important to remember that although you have a mentor, they are not going to do your job for you – take as much advice as you can, but also remember that in order to succeed, you still need to do all the work yourself. So, schedule your meetings with your mentor, think about the agenda in advance and consider what you want to cover in each meeting, listen to their advice and work on improving yourself straight away so you can track your progress each month. Keep meetings regular and have a clear vision of the things you need help with and the things you want them to help you achieve.