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The making of a female leader: Kathryn Herrick’s story

Reading Time: 5 minutes

At Eton Bridge Partners, we are in the privileged position of being able to speak to many inspiring senior leaders. Continuing on from our Inclusion Matters series of conversations with C-suite role models sharing experiences on their career paths to date, Alison Rotundo, Partner within the Interim CFO & Finance practice, caught up with Kathryn Herrick, whose career to date has taken her from an early academic career in chemical engineering, through to a professional career as CFO and COO. She has industry side stepped often, leading her to COO and CFO positions at several high-performing companies in listed, private and Private Equity owned businesses.

In part one of this two-part article, Kathryn describes her career journey, and the leaps she has taken to get to where she is today. In the second part, Alison asks Kathryn about the challenges she has faced working in roles that are traditionally male-dominated, and Kathryn offers her tips for women looking to create their own careers in leadership.

My academic achievement came later, but I always wanted to do my best.

I believe that how you approach your career is sometimes defined by your childhood, how you’ve been brought up and how you’ve dealt with situations as a child really provides an interesting foundation to your career path.

I don’t think I had a particularly easy or difficult childhood, but one thing that I think stood out about me from an early age was the fact that I always wanted to do the best I could at everything I did. I had reached grade 8 in both clarinet and piano by the age of 15, so I had this whole music career that, for a while at least, looked like it might have been my future.

I worked hard at everything , but my academic achievements didn’t kick in until later. A key turning point for me was me going to a mixed sixth form college for my A-levels. Having spent my school years at an all-girls school until that point, I was suddenly studying very male dominated subjects at the time – double maths, physics, and chemistry – in classes full of boys.

At 17, I was awarded a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. My mum, always my guide and sounding board, recommended that I follow my dream. I loved music, it was my passion, but it wasn’t my dream. I had to find that.

The academic side of my life had really taken over by this point, so I went to Loughborough University where I was lucky enough to have been awarded the ‘Year of Women’ scholarship encouraging women to take on an engineering qualification. I was sponsored by BP Chemicals to complete a BSc in Chemical Engineering. Only 5% of my cohort were female, and the ratio of men/women at my university and halls of residence was about 10/1.

My engineering roots are in everything I do.

I think you can see my roots as an engineer in everything I do in my career now. I often get feedback about how passionate and driven I am, and I think this has come from the music, but the problem solving -that is all engineering. I love to break things up into components, find the problem and then put things back together.

But while I loved engineering, I was very keen to experience London life and so turned down my initial job offer at BP in Scotland, and I moved to London for my first role as manager at accountancy firm company, PwC, where I stayed for 4 years. This was considered a brave and bold move at the time.

Working in finance felt powerful for a woman in her twenties.

When I took a role as Internal Auditor at PepsiCo Inc, it enabled me to experience the travel I had been craving. I had always loved finding out about cultures and now I was getting to experience many new cultures first hand. Having the chance to meet so many different people really helped me build teams – the best teams are made up of people from diverse backgrounds, with different ways of thinking and beliefs.

Pepsi was a great company that really taught me well because it had strong financial disciplines, which meant that it was dominated by controls and processes. Internal Audit was deemed to be a high-profile function in Pepsi – we were an influential department. This was quite empowering for someone in their twenties!

It was a culture shock to find that not all companies are process driven.

My most definitive career move was going from PepsiCo to Grey, an advertising company. This was a culture shock after the neat processes of Pepsi. Grey, a then privately owned company, was just chaotic in nature which I hadn’t expected; I thought the whole world was process driven. I was asked to put order and processes in, and left having refined the way it worked.

When I joined WPP I was 30 and given a huge amount of responsibility and suddenly faced working in a very matrix organisation-at one time I had four line managers. I worked hard and grabbed anything that was given to me. I was lucky that Sir Martin Sorrell and others gave me that opportunity at such an early age. By 35 I was running a global brand within WPP. This was more in my comfort zone, as WPP was more process-driven and organised like Pepsi.

I got married at 30, and by then my career was really moving, so I made the decision to delay having children until I was 40 which of course had pros and cons. I had made a conscious decision to focus on my career, but it could get lonely at times when all my friends seemed to be on maternity leave and I was surrounded by people who weren’t in the same place in life as I was.

After 14 years in the marketing communications industry, I was then headhunted by Celerant, a Global Consultancy company specialising in engineering, and made a big career leap to become Group Finance Director in a different sector as I was concerned that staying in that sector for too long might limit me long term. I have always worked in different industries as I love the challenge of learning something new but still applying my skills

After Celerant I moved to a high-tech, high growth company called Equinix Inc, where I led the integration of an EMEA acquired business into their US public company. This brought different challenges as it was my first experience of working with an introverted boss, with exceptional IQ. He was wonderful to work with as we complimented each other very well, but having worked with so many extroverted and commanding managers, this was a new experience for me. I learnt an incredible amount from him and his style, and he also took the time to teach me about the business.

I always try to take roles that challenge an push me, I don’t like an easy life. Growth and learning is everything to me.

Equinix certainly did that. I had to move the EMEA HQ from London to Amsterdam, which meant moving a lot of functions, and I discovered that not everyone wants to move to Amsterdam! So, I found those that didn’t want to relocate an alternative job in the company –  many of them are still there now and have progressed in senior roles. I’m passionate about trying to make the best of the decision in front of you, to help the people who are involved get through transitions.

After Equinix I got the opportunity to become a CFO of a public company. This was again out of my comfort zone, but I researched it and had a great boss who helped me understand how to deal with analysts and banks. I also had to have lessons on how to present results to the city, media training helped me a lot. One of my biggest challenges was leading a Public to Private exit together with the CEO, and from there, to run a business transformation like a Private company. I really had to think on my feet and take many swift and bold decisions.

Having learnt more about Kathryn’s route to becoming a C-suite leader, encompassing a varied mix of experiences, roles and organisations, join us for part two, in which Kathryn discusses the challenges she has faced as a woman in leadership, often working within very male dominated environments, and offers her tips for women looking to take a similar career path.