Jayne-Anne Gadhia: From bullied schoolgirl to Virgin Money CEO

REVIEW: The Virgin Banker is not just about being a woman in finance, but how to do business in a better way.

by Sarah Baker
Last Updated: 08 Jun 2017

This book is Jayne-Anne Gadhia's journey from being the tall, awkward bullied schoolgirl in East Anglia, via Norwich Union and RBS, to heading up challenger bank Virgin Money and listing it on the London Stock Exchange.

At the start, Gadhia sets out the three lessons she has learned: never give up; you need true supporters to succeed; and be yourself. I know, we've all heard these phrases a million times. But as the book progresses, Gadhia gives them colour and depth.

'Jayne-Anne the fighter', as she describes herself, has strived to get through the tough times (and never give up). Her genuine enthusiasm for what are occasionally the duller parts of business shines throughout the book. She describes how, at the age of 32, she was given the task of retraining the 1,000 strong Norwich Union direct sales team within a month after it had been shut down for failing to meet regulatory standards. But she did it.

She then meets Sir Richard Branson - after reading about him in Hello! magazine on the train - and joins his team to build Virgin's first financial services business. She only has three months to build a team and gain regulatory approvals. Again, she does it.

But for Gadhia, getting through tough times is not just about business. In the final chapter, she opens up in heart-wrenching detail about her struggle with postnatal depression following the birth of her daughter Amy. She talks about the horror of leaking breast milk during a meeting, her refusal to take medication, and the way she would avoid being in the house 'just to stay sane'. It's the part of Gadhia's story that has, until now, remained untold. As she admits, stress and depression tend not to feature as conversation topics at City dinners.

Gadhia's advice to others is to ignore the detractors and find your supporters. Branson, who writes the foreword for this book, is evidently a huge influence on what Gadhia aims to achieve in business - to help to make everyone better off.

And then, of course, there's Fred Goodwin, under whom Gadhia worked between 2000 and 2007. She describes him as a brilliant man who focused on driving shareholder value and excellent customer service - and how she has 'reflected long and hard on how the exact opposite has been achieved'.

Gadhia readily admits she did not see the financial crisis coming but, with hindsight, she outlines some of the big reasons behind RBS's downfall.

'Imagine a world where banks really had to fight for your business' - Read the MT Interview with Jayne-Anne Gadhia

'It seemed as if the real bankers were cleverer than us and could find ways of doing business that we simply could not understand.' And despite knowing that PPI was a problem, Gadhia quotes a senior RBS executive as arguing that 'we can't be the first bank to stop it. It will damage the share price'.

She also describes the lack of diversity at RBS, with most of the senior team consisting of white Scottish men. 'Joining RBS was the first and only time that I, personally, have experienced what racism must feel like. I was welcomed into the bank and invited to dinners and parties, so I never felt excluded, but I definitely felt English. Sometimes, especially after rugby matches, being English didn't feel great. It was subtle, but real.'

This is a valuable, first-hand account of the financial crisis from someone who lived through it. Straightforward, passionate about diversity and focused on building a values-driven business, Gadhia is rewriting the rulebook on banking.

What made this book for me is that it marks a step change for writing by women in business. So much that is written by successful women is on their work-life balance. How peculiar to believe that the most relevant story a female business leader has to tell is about how she balances her career with her family.

Gadhia is obviously not gender blind - far from it. She talks about how she got her biggest bonus the year she took three months off after the birth of Amy - because wanting to spend as much time with her as possible meant that she prioritised better at work. She also led HM Treasury's Women in Finance Charter, which succeeded in getting organisations to pledge to increase the proportion of women in their workforce.

But Gadhia doesn't focus on how to be a woman in business. She concentrates on how to do business well. And the lessons she has learned throughout her career are as relevant for men as they are for women.

The Virgin Banker: My Life in Finance, by Jayne-Anne Gadhia is published by Virgin Books (£20)

Sarah Baker is head of North American strategic engagement at London Stock Exchange Group and a former MT 35 Women Under 35 star


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