• Laura Hay, Leadership |

For years, we’ve heard how many professional women feel they must “wear a mask” or “play an uncomfortable role” to satisfy their employer’s or colleagues’ expectations to “fit in”. Sadly, this tiring workplace charade can result in personal unhappiness and, ultimately, hinder career growth.

In contrast, it’s remarkable how an individual can thrive and reap results for their team and company when they bring their true self to work.

My friend Jessie Burrows, Managing Director of Customer Sales, Service and Claims at the UK’s Direct Line Group is a vivid example. Today, Jessie’s warmth, laughter and cheerful quips make a strategy discussion feel like tea-time with scones in an English garden.

However, Jessie confided to me that, in the earlier stages of her career, she maintained a deadly-serious, all-business manner to compensate for the peer pressures she felt as an executive and mother in the male-dominated London markets. “Once I understood that I could only be a great leader if I was myself, that’s when fantastic things started to happen,” explains Jessie, who today balances her finance savvy with her “people-person” fascination with customer service and team management.

Others’ opinions can erode self-confidence:

Looking back, Jessie says that she didn’t face gender challenges when she began her career training as a chartered accountant. “There were lots of jobs to choose from and a good gender balance among the staff, so the world felt like my oyster. But gradually, as one gets more senior, it becomes more difficult when you see your friends leave the workforce and you are the only woman in the room.”

Earlier in her career, she also received startling advice from a female colleague who cautioned her that, “You can’t have it all as a woman. You will have to make a choice between family and career.” Recalls Jessie, “I didn’t see why a woman should have to choose one or the other, but all these little things can erode a woman’s confidence. Many women decide to leave, or, in my case, I tried to overcompensate and prove that I could be perfect at everything.”

For example, Jessie remembers that while working as a director in finance and raising two young children, she felt this pressure to be completely work-focused all the time. “I believed that I couldn’t mention my family to anyone, as most people would have an opinion on what I should or shouldn’t being doing. So, at work, I felt I needed to be ‘all numbers, all the time’.”

And Jessie describes the unintended result of this role-play: “I wasn’t bringing my whole self to work, and the feedback I received was that ‘Jessie’s too serious’. We don’t really know who she is, and she needs to ‘chill out’. On one hand, they said I wasn’t tough enough, and on the other hand, they criticized me for being too hard.”

Being yourself to find your right place

Over time, Jessie increasingly followed her own instincts about how she wanted to act or talk. “I realized that when you are busy trying to second guess what others expect of you – and be something you are not – you can’t be your best, and you can’t be an authentic leader.”

She adds that, “Thankfully, today, more employers understand that it’s important to create an inclusive workplace and encourage people to bring all of themselves to work, and they can share things about their family, their past-times and what makes them tick.”

As proof of this progress, Jessie points to her own career move to Direct Line Group, where the chief operating officer at the time recognized her diverse talents and suggested she apply for a position that would abruptly shift her career path from finance to the claims division: “He told me that ‘I really think you are the right candidate for this role because you possess deep finance and business knowledge along with a very hard-to-find customer and people focus.’”

“It was a big risk moving to a business line because I was absolutely on the track to become a CFO. But this was my chance to contribute more of my skills and add greater value,” concludes Jessie, who has dedicated recent years to helping transform the insurer’s claims function to make it more customer-centric and efficient. “This role allows me to be myself in many ways. And, I absolutely have to be comfortable as myself, since with an enormous workforce, I can’t possibly be an intimidating character that no one can relate to as that’s bad for our business.”

Acknowledging that some women might balk at such a career pivot, Jessie notes that, “Sometimes when you take a chance on a very different role, you can grow so much more. In my case, this was really a 100% change in every way. Fortunately, I had a lot of people supporting me and wanting me to do well, and that really built my confidence.”

Jessie points out that, to find the self-assurance to make such moves – and to attain happiness in both your work and personal lives – you must be your authentic self. “No career is going to be a bed of roses all the time, and you may face periods of stress, but the human mind and body can’t endure prolonged unhappiness. It’s important to be honest with yourself, recognize who you are, and decide what change you need to make.”

Reflecting on Jessie’s story, I’m reminded that it “takes two” to address the workplace pressures professional women face. Employers must create environments where everyone can be themselves and deliver their best work. And women must seize each opportunity to do so. As Jessie sums up, “In general, I find that women share less about themselves at work because they want to be taken seriously. It may feel risky to put yourself out there, but I’ve learned first-hand that I really have to be myself, and it’s made me a much better leader.”

For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.

More about Jessie Burrows:

Jessie is the Managing Director, Customer Sales, Service and Claims at Direct Line Group, the innovative provider of auto, home, business and other protection products to millions of UK customers. Prior to assuming this senior role leading frontline business and strategy in mid-2021, she held the posts of Managing Director, Claims, and Group Financial Controller at Direct Line over the previous five years. Previously, over a 13-year span, Jessie held a variety of leadership positions at a UK-based multinational general insurer, including Financial Planning and Analysis Director, Business Director to the CEO, Chief Accountant and Head of Investor Relations.