20/02/2020 Clare Woodman, Head of EMEA and CEO of Morgan Stanley & Co. International Photographed ij her office in Canary Wharf for Women in Business Special Report
Clare Woodman: first woman to lead a top City of London investment bank © Charlie Bibby for the FT

As the first woman to lead a top investment bank in the City of London and a mother of three, Morgan Stanley’s Clare Woodman could easily paint herself as the kind of high-flying superwoman who proves girls can grow up to have it all.

Instead, she is candid about challenges faced, decisions made, and strokes of good fortune that allowed her to progress in the male-dominated world of Wall Street banks and the City.

Role models

Now Morgan Stanley’s chief executive of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, British-born Ms Woodman did not consider finance as a career choice until she was well past 30. At university she was ambitious but “law school was always my planned destination”.

This makes her think about how role models are critical, says the 53-year-old. “In my early career the only [female] role models that I could immediately see were in the law profession — senior female judges.”

At the time, the FTSE 100 had a single female chief executive, Pearson boss Marjorie Scardino, and there were no female bank bosses. Their absence helped lead women of her generation into law and accountancy, she believes. “It might have encouraged me to go into banking out of university if there had been more Alison Roses back then,” she says, pointing to the recent appointment of a woman to the top job at one of the UK’s biggest banks, Royal Bank of Scotland.

20/02/2020 Clare Woodman, Head of EMEA and CEO of Morgan Stanley & Co. International Photographed ij her office in Canary Wharf for Women in Business Special Report
Clare Woodman wants to institutionalise the kind of support she has enjoyed in her career © Charlie Bibby for the FT

From law firm to bank

The switch to an in-house legal role in banking at Morgan Stanley was initially triggered by desire for better work-life balance after the birth of her first son. As a lawyer specialising in banking and capital markets at London law firm Clifford Chance, she was at the beck and call of clients. The problem was not the number of hours, she says, but the need to have more control over them.

She is also grateful for an unusual set-up, whereby her mother lived with the family. “While she wasn’t full time care, it always felt like a third parent for my children,” she says.

Four years ago, when her mother passed away, Ms Woodman had a true “reality check of what life is like when you are totally dependent on your partner and childcare providers. And you just have to be grateful for all the help you can get, not be proud.”

At Morgan Stanley, her career progressed quickly, leading to the move in 2006 out of legal and compliance to become risk officer for Morgan Stanley’s investment bank.

The big switch

Moving to the front office — where risks are taken and money is made — is a key moment for any finance professional who starts out in an operational or support services role. Ms Woodman says it was advising the capital markets business that whetted her appetite for “more of a hands-on role within the business”.

The switch came two months before she was due to go on maternity leave with her third son.

She admits she was apprehensive: “Any transition [that] anyone makes in a career is always a risky point in time . . . You need to make sure these are smooth and seamless. And I was nervous about moving to a new role at that point of time and knowing I would be out for a period.”

She calmed those nerves by developing a support network of colleagues and people outside Morgan Stanley. “It was also about being very self-aware with the team that I had inherited, that they got to know me and there was a good delegation model [for when I was out].”

The final piece of the strategy was to spend some of her maternity leave learning about asset classes that were “not my natural area of expertise” so she would be better prepared on her return four months later.

Inclusive leadership

In her current role as Emea chief executive, Ms Woodman has backed policies that give women and men a choice about how much contact they want to have with their teams while on parental leave, and other work-life balance initiatives the firm has developed. These include back-up child and elder care, six months of maternity/ adoption leave at full pay across the region, new-father and maternity coaching programmes and an initiative called WorkSmart, which is designed to make flexible working accessible, acceptable and visible.

She sees such work on diversity as core to making the bank run well. Taking the top job also made her much more conscious, she says, of her “responsibility to pull women up through the organisation” and to help other under-represented groups.

Milestone dates

1992 Clifford Chance: lawyer specialising in banking and capital markets

2002 Morgan Stanley: legal and compliance department

2006 Risk officer, global capital markets and investment banking

2009 Chief operating officer, Emea

2012 Global chief operating officer, Institutional Securities

2018 Chief executive, Emea

She says she cannot think of a single occasion where she felt as though she “had to hide the fact that I needed to leave for a medical appointment or a child’s medical or a child’s sickness” — which she attributes to her direct managers.

“Not every person working has that kind of experience with their line managers,” she says, outlining Morgan Stanley’s focus on institutionalising the kind of support she enjoyed.

As for advice to other, younger, ambitious women, Ms Woodman says the first move is to “determine priorities professionally and personally”. She also urges women to: always give back, build a “dynamic network” that “creates opportunities and diversifies knowledge and understanding”; and to find mentors but also act as a mentor for others.

Her final advice is more philosophical. She urges women to “act, then think”, invoking the “terrific advice” of Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, who encourages women to “test and learn as you go along”.

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