‘Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe’

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Vanessa Nicholson LDN Finance

In our latest Women in Finance Interview, Tony Sanchez speaks to Vanessa Nicholson, Sales Director at LDNfinance.

Vanessa joined LDNfinance as the new Sales Director in January 2021 after an impressive 10 years at Alexander Hall .

Her responsibilities at LDNfinance include driving growth for the business as a whole, coordinating the four pillars of the business (high value mortgages, residential mortgages, specialist mortgages and protection solutions) and improving operational effectiveness.

What brought you into financial services?

Like many people in the mortgage world, I kind of fell into it. My brother, an investment banker, encouraged me to pursue an advanced Excel course to help get into banking.

At the time, I was working in an admin role for a Premier League Football Club, feeling a bit despondent about the fact I was working harder than the person next to me, yet getting paid the same.

Sadly, my brother ended up returning to our native country South Africa before I made the leap and I didn’t know anyone else who could open the door for me into investment banking. 

Having decided I wanted to pursue a more financially rewarding career, I set about trying to find a suitable role and came across mortgage broking as a career path.

After some initial research, it felt like something I would really enjoy.

I discussed the new career path with my manager at the time, who knew that this would mean me leaving my current role once I had qualified in mortgage advice and practice.

She was so encouraging and I have always been so grateful to her for this, we are still in touch today. At 25, I spent my limited savings on pursuing my CeMap qualifications and once I had them, I started looking for a role.

I was lucky enough to get a Trainee Mortgage Adviser role at a large firm and from there, the rest is history.

What do you think makes a successful leader? And in particular women leaders?

It’s hard to put it down to just a few characteristics. However, everything often comes down to communication in the end.

Being able to clearly communicate points and explain things in a way that makes sense for everyone, from a high-level executive to a junior administrator, is a success.

I think the most important thing is being able to listen and make people feel heard. To have a strong set of principles that drive you, and to be consistent in your message.

It has been well documented that women are so often great communicators, which is why it’s so surprising there are not more of us in leadership roles.

What are the biggest barriers you have faced in your career in financial services?

I would say what felt the hardest was ‘not being invited to the BBQ or however the saying goes.

Networking is key to building relationships and non-work environments are a great way to overcome barriers and make connections.

When you work in a predominantly male industry, not getting invited to the ‘boys only’ weekend, golf day or football game – although seemingly minor – feels so disappointing when you’re a junior.

So yes, I didn’t get to laugh about the inside jokes or be in the know about certain stories, but it just motivated me to be better in the office and demand the attention I wanted to focus on building my personal brand.

If you could tell your younger self one thing you know about business now, what would it be? 

I would let my younger self know that, in many cases, people who make you feel small are insecure because they’re most likely terrified that you are going places they may never reach.

What’s your own personal mantra?

I grew up with a common saying my mum would often repeat to me whenever I was having a tough time:  love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe.

I have always taken this to mean be kind to everyone, trust only a handful of people with the things that truly matter and always ensure you are self-sufficient – something I’ve always thought of from a more financial aspect.

What do you think is key for finding a successful work-life balance?

Does that truly exist? A partner who likes to cook and a trusted cleaner makes life easier at home, for sure. 

All jokes aside, I would put it down to organisation and trust. I am lucky to have a great team both in the office and at home which gives me confidence to delegate when needed.

I am keen to see how things will change, but I think the odd day of remote working does make a difference in freeing up a couple of extra hours for yourself in the week.

What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?

Don’t react instantly, take a deep breath, write things down and repeat the questions or statements to ensure you fully understand what someone is saying or asking of you.

Do not be afraid to admit fault when the fault lies with you – if you can’t be honest about your mistakes, how can you expect your team to be honest when they make a mistake, too?

What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?

You do not need to act or ‘think like a man’ to be successful. What makes you great is that you have a different point of view and way of thinking, which is just as useful and needed.

To any women aiming for leadership roles, I would say surround yourself with likeminded people and seek out other women who want the same things.

Although you may be pitted against each other (as ambitious women generally are) and made to believe that only one woman can succeed, don’t be fooled.

There’s enough space for us all at the table. The journey to leadership is so much better with a friend and if you do not have other women in your organisation to champion your career, then don’t shy away from finding male allies and even a mentor in your field outside of your organisation, if necessary.

What do you think is holding women back?

Their own self-belief that they can have it all, the question is can we though?

Obviously, it depends on the individual. Within my age group, I find that many women feel as though they have to choose between career progression or income security when it comes to thinking about starting a family in a few years or planning for another child.

They tend to stay stagnant in their careers and then feel less motivated returning to a role they are not passionate about or no longer find stimulating. 

Even with the support of more employers allowing for shared parental leave, the burden of childcare often falls onto women.

In the more rare case that sees a man take up the option of joint maternity, he is considered brave or courageous for doing so, whereas for women there is a lack of acknowledgement because it’s expected and accepted as the norm.

I remember jokingly asking a friend’s partner if he could do the shared maternity cover, to which he replied, “I would, but it’d be career suicide for me” and “my job’s not the kind of job you can take that amount of time off from”.

When this is how people really view maternity leave, how can the playing field be even?

Women who return to work early by choice to enhance their careers are often then judged in doing so for not wanting to spend more time with their child.

So, it’s no wonder women go back and forth on this or only try to restart a career once their children are a little bit older.

There are also women who either do not want or cannot have children and can throw themselves into their careers accordingly, should they wish to do so.

I have heard people refer to a woman without children as being ‘a real career woman’, while referring to her career as ‘her baby’.

Frankly, that’s just ridiculous – you wouldn’t hear this view reflected onto a man’s lifestyle should the roles be reversed. 

Do you think there is still a glass ceiling?

Very much so. Unfortunately, although we are seeing areas of change, I think it will take many years before we can get to a point whereby we can refer to the ‘glass ceiling’ as a historic metaphor.

What are your thoughts on the Women in Finance Charter?  

The Women in Finance Charter was much needed and I think it has helped some organisations take a hard look at themselves and change what they are doing to support and promote women in finance.

I occasionally have to stop myself from wondering if I only got somewhere to help meet a quota, something perhaps a male colleague would not think twice about.

But then I think about something Hannah Duncan said in your previous Women in Finance piece – “there were hurdles so I had to jump higher” – and I know I deserve my place at the table and arguably should have gotten it sooner.

I relish the day when we no longer need the Women in Finance Charter to remind people that we need equal representation at the top.

How do we encourage more women into financial services?  

Education on the broad spectrum of roles within the industry. I remember my mum telling me years before joining the industry that I should join a bank.

I instantly thought she meant being a bank teller in our sleepy village in Yorkshire, which did not spark any joy or excitement.

The real opportunities within the sector are so vast. I’d never met a mortgage broker until I started working for a brokerage and looking back, if I had known there was a job for someone who loves problem solving with good arithmetic, perhaps I would have started my personal journey sooner.

The gender pay gap is only second worst to the construction industry. What can organisations do to address this?

It’s the lack of understanding of the full spectrum of roles within an industry that often prevents people from joining.

Being involved in recruitment myself, I understand that it’s hard at times when you would like the idea of being able to hire another female, but only the men who are applying for the role are suitably qualified.

I feel that running female lead apprenticeships, internships and providing work experience opportunities is a great way of targeting young women so they can see the opportunities available to them and even if they don’t take up the career path themselves, they will be able to relay the information and pass it on.

In turn, if and when they have families of their own, there could be more little girls to try it out.

What is your biggest achievement to date?

Professionally, getting my role as Sales Director within LDNfinance has been amazing and a massive achievement for me.

On a more personal note, I would have to say being able to see the impact you can have on someone’s career, having trained people up from very junior positions.

The sense of pride I feel every time I see them achieve milestones in their own careers is so fulfilling.