‘Women need to work hard at empowering themselves and other women’

Funke Feyisitan Ladimeji is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of FBN Merchant Bank Group

Funke Feyisitan Ladimeji is the Head, Technology and Operations at FBNQuest Merchant Bank Group, the Investment Banking subsidiary of the FBN Holdings Group and the current Chair of the Association of Professional Women Bankers’ Planning Committee.

Her Banking career has spanned global Corporate Finance and Markets businesses across multiple regions, multiple financial products and multiple functional areas.

Funke has also led business value creation initiatives from a number of M and A transactions. Prior to joining FBN Holdings Group, Funke was an Executive Director at JPMorgan, where she was responsible for several Investment Banking businesses spanning EMEA, America and the Asia Pacific regions.

At the earlier stages of her career, she also worked at other premier investment banks. With a first degree in Economics and Accounting and a Masters in Geography, she is a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, member of the City Women’s’ Network in the UK, member of Amazon Professionals, a network of cross-sector professional women in Nigeria and WIMBIZ (Women in Management and Business) mentoring program where she mentors new entrants and incumbents.

A firm believer that giving back is as important as developing her career, she enjoys mentoring, reading, riding, theatre, and travelling. In this interview, she bares her mind on her journey into the world of investment banking, mentoring as a key factor for growth and getting a seat at the table.

Tell us about your journey into the world of banking?

I would say it started very early on because I discovered I did what I enjoyed. I loved Economics and studied it for my first degree then decided to go into Accounting because I thought it would be nice to become a Chartered Accountant and decided to go into banking.

While I was studying Economics and Accounting in the U.K, there was a huge amount of change going on in the financial sector; there was significant deregulation, there was also a huge amount of change and excitement and I fully understood what was going on.

This was one of the main reasons I went into banking. The traditional way of doing things were changing radically, the mind-set was also changing, the sector was being made attractive to youngsters; this led many of us young people into this world, particularly investment banking.

At that time, most women were not found in investment banking. What made you decide to go for it?

Investment banking in the simplest form can be described as banking for corporates, companies, governments and so on as opposed to serving the needs of every individual, what we call retail.

On why investment banking, I never really thought about it, it was simply the area that I found attractive at the time, and it was recruiting many youngsters. It was a key area of change during those years, and has continued to be.

You have worked with huge global companies all over the world before coming back to the country. Tell us some of your experiences in these firms?

I have worked in a number of the world’s top global banks and they are quite phenomenal institutions, formidable players in their own right, with hundreds of thousands of employees.

Working in these institutions is quite an experience. Getting in is hard work; they are usually highly competitive, highly charged, highly-talented environments where you learn a lot, as there are people from different backgrounds from different countries, working at different levels.

It’s usually an exceptionally diverse environment and you very quickly learn that different people bring different things to the table, you have to quickly raise your game because you have super-talented people all around you and this forces you to raise the bar for yourself.

You learn to respect other people, their views and ideas. You also have to know what you are really good at because this is a key source of your confidence

As COO of a national bank, what does your day-to-day role entail?

A critical part of my role is making sure the right people are doing the right things towards achieving our strategic objectives, this is my focus daily.

I try to put structure to my day; I decide what are the key priorities for that day. I have a whole team of people that work with me across different functions and how my day goes depends on what is happening.

My day starts and ends with lots of meetings and engaging with different people on a myriad of topics.

Ultimately, as COO, my role encompasses anything that impacts the company, anything that will move the company forward or hinder it.

You are a key executive of the Association of Professional Women Bankers Planning Committee, what are some of the things you have done to assist women professionally?

The whole agenda of professional women is an area of great interest to me and I would relate this to my early years in the sector. I was young, excited, energetic, had fleeting ideas, thought the world was my oyster and everything was possible.

So, I went into the banking sector. I found myself with people who were interested in my progress and me.

These people were offering advice, perspectives, direction, instruction, even chastisement, helping to mould me. They took an interest and invested their time. This was very helpful to me and I grew through that.

Moreover, for a large part of my career, I was very involved with graduates or soon to be graduates, who were looking to come into banking.

I attended lots of interviews, meetings, briefings, and various other engagements, trying to look for the best of the best amongst them.

One key observation was that the guys were very motivated, knew where they were going, very ambitious, knew everything about everything, possessed strong opinions about everything and so on.

The women on the other hand were very unsure, concerned about coming into banking and felt life in banking was terrible. They felt uncomfortable about becoming career individuals, lacked confidence and so on.

As a result of this, I started mentoring very early; I shared experiences, knowledge, perspective and got them to see what their journey could look like, through my journey.

There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing a woman who lacked confidence or was unsure about herself and her path, transform to become a professional woman, having confidence about who she is and able to express her views.

Through this, I got more involved with the Females in Banking agenda; including meeting with kids from schools and listening to them, exposing them to the fact that they can dream big, and there are many ways to achieve their dreams, irrespective of their diverse backgrounds.

Happy you mentioned mentoring because there are women that are not in structured environments as you were and desire mentoring. What would you tell these women?

The first thing is to ask yourself if there are any groups or associations membered by people who have done what you are trying to do.

Once you have identified such a body, find out as much as you can about the organisation. You really must be proactive about your career, especially as a woman.

Using the Association of Professional Women Bankers (APWB) as an example, the smart, discerning junior banker would target APWB to meet seasoned women bankers that have successfully travelled the path she wants to tread.

After all, it is more expensive and it takes longer to learn from your own experiences, relative to learning from others’. So, find such organisations and leverage them. Very importantly, you must want to do the hard work.

What is the importance of mentoring for women in particular?

A mentor helps you learn faster and ‘see’ things more clearly. For someone who is inexperienced, you wouldn’t see things an experienced person would.

With good mentors, speed of development is faster. The mentor and the mentee must be willing to learn from each other.

For any woman on a career or entrepreneurial path, I would strongly advise a mentor, and hard work, as one of the strategies to driving quicker and sustainable progress.

How does the APWB help women in the banking sector?

As women, we tend to have some predispositions – for example, relying on your work speaking for you, believing you don’t have to make any ‘noise’ about what you do, people would see and appreciate your hardwork and so on. This is not enough, especially at the most senior levels.

APWB is a platform for networking and leveraging people. It is a body that can assist women who want to be strategic about their career opportunities, as well as women who would like to impart knowledge and experience for the benefit of others. I would encourage women bankers to get connected to this very important platform.

In your opinion, are women shattering the ‘glass ceiling’?

There is progress, yes, but there is still a lot more to do. There has been a lot of research on boards that have more women versus those that don’t: the risk management style and general approach to risk taking has been noted as different.

Research shows that having more women on boards does enrich the discussion and enhances robust decision-making.

Women need to work hard at empowering themselves, and empowering other women.

The more women we have taking up key roles and navigating roadblocks, taking up challenges (because they would come), the more we can challenge the status quo and the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’.

Women complain of discrimination and indeed some are pushing for percentages or quotas. I am more comfortable with a merit-based approach. We don’t have percentages at FBNQuest Merchant Bank, but we have a significant number of women, approximately 40 per cent women to 60 percent men.

We have Quest Women’s Interactive Network (FBNQuest WIN), which also serves as a body to harness the female base, to enable and empower women bankers, a platform to facilitate as they chart their course and to ensure they feel unencumbered in their career decisions.

The mind-set is important, it is critical to be positive, to believe you can be the best and reach any level we aspire to, but be willing and ready to do the hard work.

Apart from mentoring, what other concrete steps are you engaging to uplift women around you?

When I see a need, I step in; I do sponsorships and I support organisations helping women realise their potentials.

What would you tell any woman that wants a seat at the table?

First, whatever it is you choose to do, master it; be the best you can possibly be at it. Secondly, a positive mindset is extremely important.

Furthermore, apart from embracing challenges and learning to navigate them, it is important to understand and accept that your views and perspectives would not always be agreed with or supported.

Just because you have conviction on something doesn’t mean everyone would see it and agree. You must be comfortable in sometimes being an outlier.

It can be lonely to sometimes be the lone voice but you must quickly learn to be comfortable with it otherwise ‘you’ will disappear in the flow.

Has there been any experience so far that made you want to give up?

We all have challenges whether you’re in career or business. You have tough days that make you question everything but these come with the territory.

Which is why a positive mindset is very important. I have strong pillars that support me including my family.

I come from a large family; my husband, my seven siblings, we are all very close and they are happy to share their thoughts and opinions whether positive or negative.

I also have a range of super-smart friends who always provide objective and alternative perspectives, as well as advisers and mentors who are always ready to assist.

Most importantly, my faith in God. These pillars make the difference and help me maintain balance in who I am.

What is your passion, what drives you?

First, I owe it to myself to be the best I can be in what I have chosen to do. I have a responsibility to myself.

Second, I’ve been fortunate to have had assistance in my career and I have a responsibility to do the same for others coming behind me.

Third is the need to positively impact others; for anyone that comes around me, I must leave them with a sense of positivity and value for that engagement.

People ask me where I see myself in the next 10 years and I laugh, I am yet to develop the skill to foretell the future.

I have benefited immensely from my time in the financial sector and I intend to stay engaged with it and continue to impact professionals in this sector.

As a wife and mother, tell us how you achieve work-life balance?

I leverage a lot of people and my husband marvels at the extent to which I leverage people. I determine what people are good at and leverage them for that purpose and value them for it.

Life in this country can be very stressful, how do you disengage and relax?

I plan my ‘me’ time, time that I choose to switch off and take care of myself in every way.

I am also a strong family person, spending lots of time on family-related matters, which I enjoy a lot. I have close friends and we try to spend time together as much as we can.

In terms of balance, Christianity is a key source of balance in my life and this is quite the rock.

I also found out that when I am completely exhausted from work, and do something different, I become highly energised.

I can come back from a long and tiring day, decide to take a two hour walk and at the end of that, my energy levels rocket. It doesn’t have to be walking; it can be anything, reading, yoga exercises and so on.

If you had the power to change something for Nigerian women today, what would that be?

Start a different type of education for very young ones; change the curriculum to inculcate ‘understanding you and your uniqueness’, building confidence because once you know what makes you unique, it allows you to be you. When you feel there’s nothing special in you, it is difficult to value yourself.

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