‘True innovation can only come from greater diversity’

16 May 2018

Áine McCleary. Image: Bank of Ireland

Ahead of her appearance at Inspirefest 2018, Áine McCleary talks to us about leadership at Bank of Ireland and the importance of diversity in STEM.

Áine McCleary is the director of distribution channels at Bank of Ireland, leading a team of banking professionals engaging with customers via phone, digital channels and across the bank’s branch network.

McCleary has led senior teams across retail, corporate and institutional customer segments. She spent the early part of her career in the treasury and global markets divisions of Ulster Bank and Bank of Ireland, starting as a foreign exchange dealer.

Future Human

A business graduate of University College Dublin, she holds a master’s degree in business studies from the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. She is a certified bank director and a fellow of the Institute of Banking, where she is the first woman president of the organisation.

Last month, McCleary spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about gender equality in finance and role models for women in the industry. This evening (16 May), she will speak at the official Inspirefest launch at Bank of Ireland Workbench in Grand Canal Square ahead of her appearance at the sci-tech event of the summer next month.

‘The relationship between a bank and a customer goes deeper than a financial transaction. Fundamentally, it is a relationship based on trust’

Describe your role and what you do.

My role as director of distribution channels is to lead a team of 2,700 banking professionals across our two contact centres, 250 branches and our digital banking channels.

Bank of Ireland’s purpose is to enable our customers, colleagues and communities to thrive. To achieve this, we are transforming the bank, responding to our customers’ ever-changing needs and striving to build a truly customer-focused organisation that positively impacts the communities we serve.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I spend as much time as I possibly can out and about engaging with customers and colleagues. Our people are our greatest asset. They are the face and the voice of Bank of Ireland; the first point of contact for thousands of customers every day.

As a parent of four, it’s also important for me to organise and balance my work commitments with family life. Striking that balance and being there for the important moments takes prioritising. If it means some late nights/early mornings to catch up on work, then that’s what I’ll do to ensure I am present for those important family moments.

Overall, I aim to always strike a balance, knowing there will be bumps in the road – then I adjust and get back on track!

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Our sector is an important one – whether it is helping people buy a home, supporting businesses, stimulating the economy and helping employment grow, or attracting investment into Ireland from overseas.

But, while we provide our customers with a range of financial services in all of these circumstances, the relationship between a bank and a customer goes deeper than a financial transaction.

Fundamentally, it is a relationship based on trust. And that relationship of trust has been shaken in recent times. That’s not a good thing for us, for our customers or for the economy as a whole. This is something we need to tackle.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

The pace of the adoption of digital in Ireland has surpassed expectations. Ireland is now a standout digital economy. Technology will evolve further across financial services and will present opportunities to partner with fintechs to provide customers with a tailored banking experience. Bank of Ireland is investing significantly in its core banking platform to enable and capitalise on the opportunities.

‘As the fintech sector becomes more prominent within financial services, the need for fintech-literate talent is increasing’

That said, while the trend is for the majority of customers to ‘self-serve’ their day-to-day banking, customers will still have more complex financial needs – like buying a home, taking out a pension or getting life insurance. And, at these times, I think customers will still be more comfortable seeking the support of a specialist qualified adviser.

So, looking out over the next five years, I think banks will continue to need to adapt services to meet customer change and to invest in new technology to meet new demand, but will also need to ensure some of the more complex needs of customers are met via face-to-face interactions.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

My career to date has been in banking across a variety of roles. I started in Ulster Bank as a foreign exchange dealer before moving to Bank of Ireland Global Markets in 2000. Over the following 12 years, I led sales and service teams engaging with retail, corporate and institutional customers.

After my last maternity leave in 2012, I decided it was time for a change, and I moved to the retail banking division of Bank of Ireland. Since then, I have held a number of leadership roles across strategy and planning, mortgages, and direct channels. Earlier this year, I was delighted to be appointed to the role of director of distribution channels.

As you can see, I have moved from technical to more general management roles, expanding my network and building experience with each role. My ethos is to take all opportunities to learn and grow.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Having left the global markets environment after 16 years, the move to a more strategic retail banking role expanded my thought process and external view of the financial landscape. It prepared me for future roles and changes in retail banking.

Looking back now, I realise that I had to take the step outside my comfort zone to progress my career, and perhaps could have had the self-confidence to make that move sooner.

How do you get the best out of your team?

The most enjoyable part of my job is getting out and meeting with colleagues and customers across the country. And, as I said earlier, I spend as much time as I possibly can doing just that. Listening to people, being open and honest, and ensuring that everyone understands our purpose and the part that they play brings the best out in everybody.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

As the fintech sector becomes more prominent within financial services, the need for fintech-literate talent is increasing. This is a huge opportunity to develop diversity and inclusion as these companies form and grow and STEM becomes paramount to their creation. True innovation can only come from greater diversity.

‘The female leaders that inspire me display common characteristics and qualities. They are optimistic, with a strong sense of purpose. They display authenticity and have resilience and persistence that drives them to deliver’

The underrepresentation of women in STEM has been the subject of much recent debate. There is no easy answer, no silver bullet. Industry, academia and Government agencies must work together to understand the underlying causes, the real or perceived barriers, and address the imbalance. Organisations such as Women in Technology and Science, Science Foundation Ireland and Teagasc are leading the way with initiatives to improve the awareness, participation and retention of women in STEM.

Bank of Ireland also has been the lead sponsor in Inspirefest for the last three years. Inspirefest is the premier event in Ireland to promote diversity in STEM and has inclusion at the heart of the festival. Bank of Ireland has also supported the Trinity Walton Club, which promotes inclusivity and diversity at second level in STEM.

Who is your role model and why?

Rather than single out one role model, I tend to focus on the traits of leaders in general, and female leaders in particular. The female leaders that inspire me display common characteristics and qualities. They are optimistic, with a strong sense of purpose. They display authenticity and have resilience and persistence that drives them to deliver. They ask others for their views and support, which builds a connectedness and a humanity that motivates others to follow.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I don’t get the time to read many books so when I do, it has to really grab me. I got a present of a book from one of the customers I visited recently: Good to Great by Jim Collins. The author talks a lot of common sense. One quote that really resonated with me is: “Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Forward planning and preparation are vital in my role. Balancing my role as director of distribution channels with the presidency of the Institute of Banking and my family life requires me to always be thinking ahead. At the start of this week, I’m thinking ahead to next week and what I need to do, review and prepare. I have a small central team around me in distribution channels and a very supportive family, without whom I couldn’t do what I do.

Áine McCleary will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Get your tickets now to join us in Dublin on 21 and 22 June 2018.

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