Perhaps it’s our reduced ability to travel for business or leisure over the past two years, but lately I find myself comparing successful ‘Mind the Gap’ women I meet to the traits of their home countries.
Take Greece, a nation known as a small, serene land of leisure, when, in reality, hard work made it the cradle of western civilization, helped it surmount a sovereign debt crisis, tough austerity measures, and calamitous wildfires. Then, you have Fotini Ioannou, General Manager, Troubled Assets Group, of the National Bank of Greece (NBG). This warm, smiling corporate banker has proven through hard work, that women can succeed in historically-male led settings.
Step up and prove your worth
From the onset of our conversation, Fotini showed how she prefers to ‘do the work’, rather than complain about the status of working women, or her country’s past woes. When detailing her early career in Europe and the US, she points out that, “The challenges I faced weren’t simply because of gender, but rather that I was a young woman, especially in Greece, where older men dominated the banking sector. I had to convince people that they needed to take me seriously, that I knew what I was talking about, and that I could get the job done.”
That’s precisely what Fotini did. “My strategy was just to get the job done, and I didn’t shy away from challenges. If there were difficult projects, I volunteered for them,” she says, alluding to the un-enviable task of managing a large portfolio of non-performing corporate and retail loans. “I believe that pure hard work and determination works in this environment and this country.”
She adds that, “It must be more than words, since you actually have to deliver. As I completed each project, people began to trust me and give me more opportunities. Once you manage to build goodwill in an organization, things get easier.”
Fotini’s hard work got her noticed by a number of male mentors and sponsors who believed in her and granted her opportunities. For example, her diligence as an Associate at a strategy consulting firm impressed a client who, years later, became CEO of a Greek bank and encouraged her to join the corporate banking team.
Women must support women
Fotini also applies her ‘get down to work’ philosophy to the gender parity challenge. Although she proudly notes how gender balance has improved since she joined the Greek banking sector 16 years ago (For example, NBG today boasts a board that is >30 percent women with a ~30 percent composition of women in senior executive positions), she affirms that concerted effort is still required. “I’m a true believer in ‘walking the walk,’ so I try to hire very good professional women as my associates and assistant managers. It’s important to help other women coming up the ladder and make a point of having many women on our teams.”
To aid such efforts, Fotini supports state- or business-mandated targets to help level the terrace: “I believe that some targets, enforced at the beginning, will be beneficial for an organization over the long run. There’s no shortage of talented women in the pipeline, but there’s still a lower career ceiling for women than men. Let’s start with targets and then, once it becomes the norm, maybe we won’t need them.”
However, Fotini also emphasizes that workplace design must evolve in tandem, to ensure women’s advancement is sustainable. “We must be cognisant of the extra family responsibilities that women have taken on and formalize flexible working hours or work-from-home models. During the pandemic, we saw how many women became burnt out from juggling work and home life. We must create truly supportive environments, where anyone can feel safe enough and find ways to balance their obligations.”
On that note, Fotini offers advice to professional women who may struggle to ‘work like a Greek warrior’ and still savor the turquoise Aegean waters: “For younger women, you should not forget that there are other things in life. It’s easy for over-achievers to forget it’s not just about the work. It’s important to find that balance, whatever that is for you.”
To carve out that balance, Fotini sums up that, “You need to persevere, build your knowledge and skills, and know your worth. Instead of allowing yourself to be intimidated, speak up to say, ‘This is what I think , and this is what I can do’. Once you’ve done that a few times, people will treat you better because you get the job done, and earned your place.”
More about Fotini Ioannou: Fotini is the General Manager, Troubled Assets Group, with the National Bank of Greece (NBG), the leading bank in Greece, a universal provider of retail, commercial and investment banking, brokerage and asset management services. Her present role, assumed in 2019, caps an 14-year career with NBG, ascending to senior posts in the corporate bank, strategy and the Office of the CEO. She also served as General Manager, Corporate & Investment Banking, with Piraeus Bank from 2017-2019. Previously, Fotini was an Assistant Manager, Assurance & Business Advisory, with Arthur Andersen in London where she qualified as a chartered accountant, and a Strategy Consultant at McKinsey & Co in Greece and the US. She earned a Bachelor of Economics degree from the University of Cambridge and a Master of Science degree in Operational Research and Management Science from the Warwick Business School, University of Warwick.