• Laura Hay, Leadership |

If women want a role model to show that they can – and must – develop the confidence to take more risks, Kris Isherwood is a great example. Not only has the CFO of Fidelity International taken bold moves over her career, but she has confidently set out her own terms with each step.

There’s a message there for women who underestimate themselves when they consider a move up the ladder.

During our recent conversation, Kris explained to me that a decade ago, just over a year into her role as Fidelity’s European CFO, she was asked to assume leadership of the group-wide function. Kris recalls that, “This was a really big step for me, but I was absolutely adamant that I could not take the role unless it was on a four day a week basis.” Noting that she had two small children and wanted to be at home on Fridays to care for them, she adds that, “I explained that this was non-negotiable for me personally, and that by working flexibly Fidelity will get the very best of me when I’m on the job.”

Kris also embraced this risk-taking attitude earlier in her career, when, after working for a decade at a management consulting firm, she accepted an offer to become the CFO of a UK-based life insurer. She says, “This was a big jump because I was a well-regarded executive, in an organization with a good gender mix, and I decided to move to a company where all the direct reports were male and older than me.”

Although Kris calls this career decision, “a leap of faith with a sprinkle of naïveté,” in reality, she says she made the move because she knew that the organization believed in her and they gave her full support. “Instead of listening to any self-doubts, you have to adopt a ‘you can do it’ attitude, and be confident in yourself to take these risks.”

This attitude helped her rise to each new challenge, including her first Monday morning meeting at the insurance company when the 30-year-old, new hire faced a room full of men in their 40s and 50s. Kris remembers that, “It was actually quite terrifying but obviously you couldn’t show it. I kept reminding myself that the company had confidence that I could step up and do this role well.”

Recognizing that support from the organization is crucial to women, today Kris instills this tone in her our department. For example, she has tasked her management teams with “building our pipeline of female talent,” by proactively spotting high potential women and ensuring they get coaching and mentoring to become future leaders.

Kris also shook up the way she works with headhunters and search firms to boost diversity in her department. She instructed her search firms to ensure that at least 50 percent of the resumés they provide her for senior positions be female. Kris reports that, “When some agencies told me, ‘We can’t do that,’ I managed to hone in on search firms that can.”

Kris affirms that these actions are not simply about changing gender ratios, but rather to enhance the quality of decision-making. “There is a very different environment when the gender mix is more balanced. When there’s diversity in the room, it’s a more comfortable place to be and the conversation flows more easily – so it’s absolutely the right direction of travel.”

My conversation with Kris really reinforced the messages I’ve heard from other successful women, particularly the need to take risks and be confident in your abilities as you do so. That may mean speaking up and standing up for your needs or being your authentic self – and leading in the style that is comfortable for you rather, than molding yourself in the image of others.

It’s also wonderful to hear how many leaders are now taking concrete actions to help the next generation, by knocking down barriers or sharing their personal experiences. So be confident in yourself, and know that you’ve got champions in your corner, like Kris, who want our best and brightest women to succeed too.

More about Kris Isherwood: Based in the United Kingdom, Kris is the CFO of Fidelity International, a global investment firm with total assets of $420 billion, and 2.4 million clients. Kris is responsible for Finance, Strategy & Planning and Procurement for Fidelity International. Prior to assuming this role in 2010, Kris served as Fidelity’s CFO for Europe. Before entering the asset management sector, Kris held leadership roles as the CFO of a UK-based life insurer and was a consultant in the audit and insurance consulting practices of KPMG in the UK and Australia. Kris is a Chartered Accountant with a degree in Economics.

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