Helen Rose, COO of TSB: 'The "superwoman" tag is off-putting'

TSB's Helen Rose is one of the most senior women in the UK's retail banking sector. Here's how she's pulling other women up with her.

by Claire Sweeting
Last Updated: 16 Feb 2017

Helen Rose, one of the most powerful women in UK banking, used to feel uncomfortable about being a role model.

Rose (a speaker at MT’s Inspiring Women Edinburgh event on 9th March) has spent her career fighting to get more senior women in business – but only recently realised that ‘the more we share our stories, the more we help each other’.

Now ‘storytelling’ is one of Rose’s watch-words – as TSB’s executive sponsor for gender, she meets with groups of women from across the business to share tips for reaching the top. ‘I tell them the story of when I was offered the COO job at TSB and was given 24 hours to make up my mind,’ she says. ‘You have to just say yes and think later about how to make it work. Often women don’t get as far as saying yes, because they’ve already thought about what would be difficult. Women need to be bolder, because if you’re not, you’ll find that one of your peers – often of the male variety – beats you to the top.’

Rose is well-used to male-dominated environments, having qualified as an accountant, then working as an auditor. ‘I was told early on in my career that it was a good idea for women to move into tax, as it was less confrontational!’ But Rose stuck to her guns: ‘That didn’t resonate with me, as I believe women can be good at resolving confrontations.’

Then she spent 15 years working in senior finance roles in retail – at  Dixons, Safeway and Forte. Retail generally attracts more women but Rose says, ‘Actually, at Forte, I was the only woman out of all the senior finance staff worldwide. There was a lot of locker-room banter. In that situation, it’s hard to bring your whole self to work.’

In contrast, when she joined what was then Lloyds TSB in 2005, two of her three bosses were women. ‘Everyone was very generous and welcoming, but there was still a traditional, paternalistic culture,’ says Rose. ‘One of my direct reports once said to me: "I haven’t offered Jo the promotion because she’s pregnant and I don’t want to put more pressure on her." And I said, "Well, isn’t that Jo’s choice?".’

When TSB separated from Lloyds after the banking crisis, it was an opportunity for new COO Rose and the team to create the kind of company they wanted to work for. ‘Building a bank from scratch was incredibly complex, but it was great to write our own mission statement and think about what we wanted our values to be,’ she says.

‘From the very beginning we built a much more gender-balanced team – 37% of our senior managers were women. Now we’re up to 42% and we’re aiming for 45-55%.’

Because of this, Rose says: ‘You’re much more able to be relaxed, be yourself and bring all of your talents to work.’ For it to be sustainable, however, there needs to be a pipeline of female talent coming up, so TSB created a ‘promotion-ready programme’ to encourage women to put themselves forward for opportunities, as well as an internal mentoring scheme. The company encourages shared parental leave and a degree of flexible working – even senior staff often work from home.

And the times are changing. ‘Research about millennials – both men and women – shows that one of the things they look at is a company’s policies on diversity and inclusion,’ says Rose. ‘We want to attract great talent and to do that you’ve got to make your company appealing to future generations.’

Rose wants to show others that it’s possible to reach the top without being a ‘superwoman’: ‘I personally don’t like that tag, as it puts women off. We all face challenges; we just need to be more honest and open about how we "made it".’

Hear Helen Rose speak at MT's Inspiring Women event in Edinburgh on 9th March. Read more about the conference and book your tickets here.

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