Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Hannah Fitzsimons of Elavon

What attracted you to the payments and financial services industry?

I had no intention of entering a career in financial services – it was purely opportunistic during a work experience placement for NatWest while studying economics and politics at university. I was in their corporate card issuing department and they offered me a job. I said I would only take it if I could join a different department as I didn’t want to start my career being perceived as the work experience girl. It’s unbelievable to think I’m still working in this industry 20 years later!

There were great opportunities from the outset; I got the chance to interact directly with customers and started to build my credibility in financial services. It was also fantastic to have the opportunity to travel the world.

Some senior people left NatWest for Citibank and a few months later asked me to join them. My first role was to set up a new team in Brussels. I was 24 at the time so it felt like a huge   responsibility and quite daunting as it was the first time I had ever lived outside the UK. The role was challenging, and I often felt isolated as everyone talked over me in Flemish. I was relieved when, 1 year later, Citibank relocated back to the UK and took me with them.

This return provided a big career opportunity for me, and one I might have shied away from if my boss and mentor at the time hadn’t encouraged me into heading up a commercial team for the first time. I really doubted myself and he gave me the confidence I needed to do it. Since then I haven’t really looked back and have remained in financial services and payments mainly in customer facing, sales and management roles.

What are the best aspects of working in payments?

The best thing about working in payments is that you never get bored. Our business isn’t complicated, we move money one way and data the other – but the pace of change in the industry is intellectually stimulating, from changing consumer attitudes to shopping, to new technologies driving innovation in payments.

I also really enjoy being customer facing and delivering above and beyond their expectations. With competition in business so fierce it is vital that the payment experience for customers online and offline is seamless, speedy and secure to ensure it doesn’t detract from their enjoyment experience of interacting with the brand.

There are also real opportunities for companies to optimise sales through clever use of payment technologies. For example, in hospitality, the next generation of electronic point of sale (ePOS) systems not only take card payments, but help manage staff, organise table plans, track inventory and take orders, giving time back to managers to run the business they love.

Payments is one of those industries where everyone knows everyone and once you are in it, you’ll never want to leave. A very happy coincidence is that we recently won a contract with a leading hotel chain for their business across Europe. This was one of my first customers at NatWest, so it is great to have come full circle with them and have them back in the fold.

What were the hardest things about reaching a C-level position?

While it is not the most difficult thing, it is vital to make sure that you are constantly growing and developing to ensure that you have the right skills and tactics to compete on a level playing field. Strong negotiation skills, excelling in sales and being a good leader have led me to the position I am in today. It goes without saying that you must be committed to work hard, get the basics right and have confidence in yourself.

A focus on stakeholder engagement, having supporters in the business who are helping and backing you, is also a key ingredient to success – particularly the higher up the ladder you go. Also ensuring you have the right mentors inside and outside your business to guide you on your career path and give an alternative perspective.

I am now 1 year into my role as European General Manager for Elavon and the importance of stakeholder engagement is more vital than ever before as my entire peer group sits in North America, and I need their support and backing for the changes I want to drive through the business.

Do you have the opportunity to work with women in your industry?

Yes, but unfortunately there are still very few operating in C-level positions. I am regularly still the only woman in the room at senior events or director meetings. At Elavon, I had the privilege to work for Pam Joseph, who is one of the most influential women in payments. She was a great role model for me and for the wider payments industry. She was not afraid to challenge the status quo, creating forums for women, influencing and creating opportunities for careers and progression in the industry.

I was recently invited to join the European Women Payments Network, the main objective of which is to bring women together in Cards and Payments through networking events and workshops.  This gives women the opportunity to learn about issues and trends, network with peers and celebrate women’s achievements from across the payments ecosystem. I am really pleased to have been asked to be a mentor for this programme.

What are the challenges for women in your industry?

I personally haven’t experienced barriers in progressing my career because of my gender. I honestly believe that if you prove yourself and deliver for the business the opportunities are there; women need to have more confidence in their ability to take them.

I get very frustrated when I hear women ruling themselves out of the next opportunity before they have even given it a chance. I think it can often be easier for a woman to take a career break or have a baby if they are higher up in an organisation as they are in a better position to delegate and make choices that work for them. My advice is to take every opportunity that comes along when it happens – don’t worry about tomorrow, just have confidence in yourself.

Motherhood has helped my career and given me more confidence. It has forced me to be more goal-focused, delegate and be more efficient. I chose to take 6 months off for each of my children. I made the effort to keep in touch with the business, keep my stakeholders close, and it paid off. Coming back from maternity leave the second time I was greeted with the news that I had been promoted from running the sales team to also managing the client portfolio. I was so shocked that I just took it without hesitation. Later, I realised that I should have negotiated a bigger pay rise.

What does the industry need to do to encourage more women to be attracted to the financial sector?

Flexibility is the key here. Many organisations say that they are flexible, but finding an organisation that truly commits to this is what everyone wants irrespective of gender, so that you can leave early to go to sports day or come in late after a sleepless night.

Essentially, people should be judged on the results that they deliver. Financial services is getting better at this and the upcoming fintechs are helping to change the reputation by employing more women at the top. In this way, the industry is becoming much more appealing to a new generation.

I also think that the more that women are celebrated in the work place enhances confidence and makes other women more aware of the opportunities that are available.  You just have to look at what Elavon did for International Womens’ Day this year to realise that this is a meritocratic organisation where the career opportunities are here for the taking.