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When Carol Sergeant CBE studied for her MBA “way back in the 70s” at Cass Business School in London, or, as it was then known, the City University Business School, to have a woman on an MBA programme was pretty much a rarity.
“I was the only woman on the finance elective and there were only two women on the marketing and two on the HR courses. I spent a whole year with men,” she says wryly.
However, she concedes that it was very good training for her career in a field that has been traditionally dominated by men.
Ms Sergeant, currently chief risk director for Lloyds TSB, has held several posts at the Financial Services Authority, including director risk division and managing director regulatory processes and risks. But it was at the Bank of England that she first had the idea to study for a full-time MBA.
The Bank paid for one or two employees each year to take a year’s leave of absence to study, she says.
“The Bank was stuffed full of economists. I thought this place needs [someone with] business disciplines around the place and so I thought I would do a business degree, an MBA.”
Cass was the obvious choice. She was able to tailor her degree to give it a financial emphasis and was also able to take advantage of the university’s wide range of specialised masters programmes. The fact that the degree was a one-year, rather than a two-year programme, was also an incentive.
“An MBA is a very worthwhile investment, of both money and time and I think the one-year programme makes it more affordable – both financially and the time you take it. I would have hesitated to take two years out, two years [on a programme] is a long time to be out of the job market and I didn’t want to be out of the job market for more than a year.”
She maintains her links with Cass to this day, sitting on the school’s advisory board and strategy committee.
After graduating from Cass, Ms Sergeant returned to the Bank of England, working first as senior manager, gilt-edged and money markets, before becoming head of department, major UK banks supervision.
“I learned so much at the Bank of England. The intellectual rigour at that place has stood me in good stead. You cannot get away with flabby thinking, it was almost like a second degree.”
She believes that her MBA has been nothing but an asset.
“I think I have leveraged it continuously, in every sense,” she says. For Ms Sergeant the most valuable aspects of the degree have been many: the people she met while studying and the networking that followed from this over the years, and the case studies. During the programme, she explains, several times a week the students would dissect a successful company, discovering what made it tick, an approach she has subsequently frequently relied on in her regulatory roles.
Having been used to working in a field dominated by men, Ms Sergeant applauds the number of senior women appointments at Lloyds TSB. She joined the group in March 2004 and was the first woman on the group executive committee. Since then other female high-flyers have joined and Ms Sergeant’s own last two appointments have been women.
“I think that once you do have a few women [appointments] it makes other women interested in coming on. It is so wonderful to have women colleagues.”
Last year Ms Sergeant was awarded the CBE for service to financial regulation. She is self-effacing about the honour but is clearly deeply committed to her job, working a regular 70-hour week, and has the energy and passion that it demands.
“I have a fairly low boredom threshold, but there is a lot to do here and lots of potential, a fantastic franchise that is not leveraged as much as we can. I am interested only in being the best. She says part of her remit is “to stop bad things happening”. Since taking on her new role she believes she has made people far more risk-aware.
“Risk is a resource that must be leveraged for your customers to get the best returns and best product set. Life is about risk and you have to help your customers understand how much risk they want to take and help them take it in the most effective way.”
Risk is not a bad thing, she adds, but counsels that one must be careful not to become too risk-adverse in case that prevents things from happening altogether.
She feels that she still has much to accomplish. “If you look at successful organisations, it is the people who make an enormous difference.
“The mark of a good organisation is that it is a supplier in the market. When we become a net supplier of talent to the market, that is fantastic. That is what we need to be and what we will be.” She admits that she is not one of those people who has sat down and carefully planned her career. “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” she jokes. “I merely trundle along and take opportunities as they arise.” But she is adamant that not only must she learn new things either from the job or the people around her each day, but it must also be interesting and fun.
She was contacted by headhunters for the Lloyds TSB position, but says she had already decided she wanted to experience the private sector before she was approached.
“I just wanted to see if I could hack it in the private sector.”
To date her achievements include the development and implementation of both new risk governance arrangements and a group-wide consolidated risk report, and improvement to internal controls.
With so many balls in the air she obviously has no time to be bored and her happy disposition would also indicate that she is having fun.