How to make an entrance as a new leader

Q&A: Ann Cairns, executive vce chair, Mastercard, and global chair, 30% Club.

by Adam Gale

You were the first woman qualified to work on a North Sea rig, managing a team of 50 engineers while still in your twenties. How did that come about and what did your early management experiences teach you?

I never felt there were any barriers to success in life. When I came out of college I joined British Gas as a research scientist, doing experiments to predict when pipes would blow up. I realised that the sharp end of the business was getting gas from the North Sea and distributing it across Britain, so I just rang up the guy who ran offshore engineering and said I’d love to be a part of that. 

Throughout your career, people working for you will know much more about their subject than you do because, as a manager, you become a generalist very quickly. Earning respect is very important and you do that by listening to people and making them feel valued. It’s about building morale, building teams and understanding enough to be able to identify when something needs extra attention. Those are invaluable skills to build as young as you possibly can.

You moved to financial services in 1987, joining Citibank just before Black Monday, and you’ve seen numerous crashes and downturns since. What makes good crisis leadership?

In a crisis you have to act quickly and you never have 100% of the data – you’re lucky if you have 50% – so you have to feel comfortable with ambiguity. You need to be very clear and calm in your communications. You also need to be decisive, but you’ve got to be someone whose mind can be changed when the data changes.

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