Barclays | Leading Questions: Kathleen Britain
Kathleen Britain was raised in California and joined Barclays in 2005, from the wealth management arm of Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo) in New York. Britain was appointed Head of Charities for Barclays in 2016, having previously been Barclays Head of Citizenship for UK and Europe. She has strong personal links to the charity sector, serving as a trustee for the National AIDS Trust, Stop The Traffik, and the Stephenson Academy.
What is your role at Barclays and how did you get here?
I head up the charities division for the Private Bank at Barclays. I came over to that role in the middle of last year, and prior to that I headed up citizenship for the bank across UK and Europe.
What’s it like moving to a new team? How do you cope as a new leader of a team of high-level individuals?
There are probably plenty of different ways of doing it, and in my career I’ve got lots of it right and lots of it not so right.
Coming into this new role, the way I first handled it was by properly getting to know the people I’d be working with. When I came in I didn’t know the team, and they didn’t know me. That can be daunting on both sides. It was important to me, over the first three months, to get to know about them, about their families, what’s going on in their lives, what makes them tick. I think you need to understand the individuals you’re working with, and what really drives them.. That has helped me understand the mechanics of the team.
I worked with a leader who told me that the biggest skill of any leader is resilience. How you handle change will shape you as a leader going forward. You’ve got to have resilience in any role, but particularly leadership, where things change often and people come and go.
You say you’ve got “lots right and lots not so right”. What lessons have you learnt?
The biggest lesson for me in any leadership role is ’slow and steady’. Don’t jump in quickly at the beginning and start making changes. Take some time to think about what you want to achieve with the team, what the direction of travel will be. My tendency is to run before I can walk, but over the years I’ve learnt to shift that balance to ‘walk then run’.
I’ve learned through making some mistakes. I don’t think any leader can say they haven’t made mistakes before they start getting it right. I just hope I get it right more often than I get it wrong.
What advice would you give to an up-and-coming leader?
Be yourself. Whoever hired you into a leadership role has hired you, not somebody they want you to be. Understand your strengths, and what your colleagues’ complementary strengths are. Walk before you run: understand the role you’re taking on before you make lots of changes. A new leader coming into a team is already quite a big change for some people, so take time before moving forward.
I worked with a leader who told me that the biggest skill of any leader is resilience. How you handle change will shape you as a leader going forward. You’ve got to have resilience in any role, but particularly leadership, where things change often and people come and go. When I was younger and more inexperienced as a leader I’m not sure I handled it as well as I hope I do today.
I don’t think you ever stop learning, but when you take on your first leadership role, you’re on a vertical climb. You might have read all the books and have ideas about what you want to achieve, then you have your first major issue to deal with and everything’s blown out of the water
What did you learn about leadership from your early jobs?
The first thing I learned – working in a brokerage firm in San Francisco and New York – was to ask a lot of questions. When you’re starting out, you really have to ask a lot of questions, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
Are you still learning as a leader?
I don’t think you ever stop learning, but when you take on your first leadership role, you’re on a vertical climb. You might have read all the books and have ideas about what you want to achieve, then you have your first major issue to deal with and everything’s blown out of the water. The gradient does eventually get shallower – and maybe I’m getting to that point now.
Are there leaders in the wider world who you admire from a distance?
I am inspired by strong, smart leaders that can juggle things with skill and confidence. It is difficult to name just one person but I am inspired by some of our political and business leaders.
How important is maintaining a work/life balance?
I just call it life balance, because your work is part of your life, and whether you’re a parent or a carer or you have other commitments, you need to find a way to balance everything. It’s not always easy but it’s usually achievable
How do you unwind?
Spending time with my husband and daughter. I enjoy gardening, and going to the gym is a great wind-down. I love to cook, and I’ve got relatively okay at it over the years. I do love to entertain and I find having friends over for a big meal incredibly relaxing.
What was your best day at work?
I’m lucky enough to have had a number of days where I can look back and say: “That was a great day.” That could be finalising a project or winning a result with a client. But one particular day stands out, which was when I was speaking at an event about women in business at the University of Oxford. It was at the weekend and my daughter was there and I saw her sitting up in the balcony, waving, and somebody in the audience asked: “Why do you do these talks?” So I pointed up to the balcony and said: “I do it so that she doesn’t have to, because one day, women will have equal representations in business, and every time I talk, every time I move forward, every time I do something new it is for her. Because when she’s old enough she shouldn’t be having these conversations about how we can get more women in business.” That was a pretty special day.
Are different types of leaders suitable for different types of roles?
Yes I think there are. It depends on what stage that business or team is in and what they need to achieve. You could be there to implement a change, build a new strategy, or grow the business or all of the above but I think it is equally important to recognise when it is time to move on. Once you’ve achieved what you set out to do and it is time to move onto the next stage, a different type of leader may be required.
Which person inspires you the most?
My mother. She was the first entrepreneur I ever met – even if she wouldn’t call herself that. She had three kids under five years of age, and her priority was to ensure we had the best education. In the early years, she started a small business providing secretarial work to local businessmen, and that helped put us through school before continuing on and working full time. I was in awe of my mother and she continues to inspire me today with her support and commitment to her children and grandchildren.