Mar 01 2018| Leadership
by Phil Eyre Founder
Belinda Aspinall is Country Head of Northern Trust’s business in the Channel Islands. Belinda began her career in banking with Chase Manhattan in Luxembourg, working in Continental Europe and London before moving to Northern Trust in 2005. Prior to moving to Guernsey, Belinda was based in Stockholm, where she was responsible for all asset servicing and asset management business activity across Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
What would you say are the top qualities for a great leader and, in your experience, where do these traits come from?
For me, essential leadership qualities are autonomy, integrity, energy and humanity, as well as the ability to keep a sense of humour.
In your life experience so far, what leaders had those qualities and have inspired you?
I look back to my headmistress in a small Devon primary school. Ex-WRAF, she was a formidable and very vibrant lady. If you were open to learning, she strongly encouraged and stretched you.
It was a very diverse primary school, and when I was six or seven I remember her asking if I would like to write a story and I thought, ‘Wow, she must think I might be good at it.’ That small act made a strong impression on me.
I remember she focused her attention on a boy who came from a very low-income family. She saw something in him, and mentored him through secondary school. It was memorable that after he got a job, the first thing he did was buy his mother a washing machine; the first the family had owned. That showed the values that had been instilled in him.
She was a truly inspirational lady with a deep level of humanity, she looked for the good in people and how to bring it out.
Servant leadership - can it be learnt or taught?
I believe that humanity and humility embody servant leadership.
The greatest leaders I can think of recognised people as human beings and as individuals and so I think, ‘How can I draw out the positives in them?’
There is great value in working in different cultures; you have to understand what is important to different people.
You need to act with integrity. In the office, that means treating all members of staff as equals, as partners; that sounds a bit cheesy, but it is integral to the notion of servant leadership. Take a look at an organisation, see who comes first in the pecking order - where the staff and clients are at the top of the list, those are the organisations where I have thrived, and I have learnt from that. Businesses that place profit as the number one priority miss the fact that they won’t get there if there are no staff or clients left!
What led you to your career?
I fell into banking purely by accident. I read History, Politics and English at university and thought I might like publishing, so I secured a place at Exeter to do a post-grad in publishing. Before I started I came across an advert looking for people to go to Germany to sell leather-bound encyclopedias and I thought it sounded fun.
Needless to say, I wasn’t very good at it but during that time I met some German people, one of whom had a friend who worked for Chase Manhattan in Luxembourg. I landed a summer intern job and was then offered a permanent position. For me, banking was never a big ‘this is what I want to do’ career move, but it has proved to be a great industry for me.
Who or what have you drawn on during your career?
I have some great friends who have been a strong support, and my family of course. I have had the opportunity to work with some great people who have been supportive concerning my development and in terms of being able to learn from their working practices and styles.
I have also drawn upon my personal strength and have been prepared to stretch myself. I have never been afraid to push it or to take opportutnies to stretch and learn. Some of it has been risked-based judgement, knowing if it went wrong I had a safety net, but to move forward, you need to work with people who will push you.
For example, when I was in Luxembourg, I came to a career crossroads. I could have made a sideways move into another business unit or move back to the UK. The MD asked me to set up the new business team for the group, pulling together multiple growth lines. At the same time we won a major new client, requiring a coordinated approach across various offices, teams and products. I had to bring it all together. I had to think on my feet and think laterally, that really stretched me.
You mentioned authenticity, humanity, integrity as being critical to leadership, how do they develop?
I think when you are dealing with different cultures and people you have to be true to yourself; be yourself, then people will trust you. Being honest and having integrity means that sometimes you need to have the difficult conversations - which is the right thing to do, but not always an easy step to take.
For me, humanity is developed by understanding different cultures and understanding their thinking and their needs. That helps when you have a team where not everyone reports to you, you need to get people to come together.
It’s a case of saying, ‘I am helping you, you are helping me’ and not letting anyone down. You have to bring people along; they don’t have to come with you. When you are fighting the corner for your client, if you can sell why it’s important, then they will probably understand - it’s how you do it.
I am a big believer in speaking to people - I avoid email when I can, I pick up the phone, or speak to people face to face. I walk around the office; I did the same in London, and during my time in the Nordics.
Do you think that artificial intelligence can replace those relationships, for example on boards?
No, I can’t imagine how it would be successful. Yes, if you are looking at pure data, but on a board where there are so many different factors to consider - for example, the reputational implications of a decision - a human, relational approach is critical.
We can run the data, but there will be something subtle in there - tax implications, impact on operations, the regulator's response, the impact on an individual or group of people.
You need that human involvement. You need the friction of a strong team - to ask the question, ‘Have we considered…?’ The transaction itself is just part of the decision; you can’t just look at the deals on paper or just focus on the numbers. Instead, we have to ask, ‘What are the political risks and what other things do we have to consider?’
How do you find those external perspectives?
By being inclusive, getting people to share their thoughts without being told they are wrong and by creating the right environment for people to speak up.
Has that leadership style come naturally to you?
I think most of my business style is natural, for me the training I have received has focused more on the technical aspects of my job, for example, around regulation and technical accounting aspects.
Going back again to the inspirational leaders I have looked up to, they have all been very inclusive and open and encouraged people to share their views, so I have been fortunate to see the positive impact of that style.
Which leadership skill do you think you’ll need to draw on most in the coming year?
When we look at the year ahead, growth and innovation come to mind. The island is facing lots of regulatory and tax changes; we need to adapt. We need to introduce new technology and become more tech savvy because that is the future, so we have an extensive programme of training and upskilling our partners so they continue to have relevance.
That change is not dramatic but is very much ongoing over a three- to five-year period. Managing that change comes back to being open and communicating with people. We have to review what tasks are being undertaken, and how people are doing those tasks. Change can be scary, but I see change as a positive opportunity that should be grasped.
A lot of my personal upward career development has been because of change - internal or external. Through change, you acquire new skills, contacts and insights into how you do business.
For example, through my time in the Nordics, I gained many interesting insights into the diverse cultures and how those are seen in different business behaviours and decision-making styles. When you are working with different clients, you have to adjust your style and understand their behaviours and you can see what is good within each of them.
How would you describe Guernsey’s working style and culture?
Guernsey is very collegiate, welcoming and inclusive. People here like to meet and speak. The Northern Trust blockchain story is a good case study of that culture in action. We had representation from the regulator, government, accounting, legal professionals, all in a room to talk about an idea.
Everyone could contribute from the beginning; we went from zero to going live in under nine months. We have smart people here who can talk to each other - once again, success comes back to relationships, trust and collaboration.
What has been your proudest career and leadership moment so far?
Winning new business makes me proud, and I am always proud when I manage to promote certain individuals. Promotion requires a consensus and understandably it’s not an easy process. In the last my few roles, I have had one or more of my team promoted to the next level - I am proud of them, but also proud to be part of their career success.
Do you have any examples of leadership decisions or challenges that, in hindsight, you might have approached differently?
There have been times when I needed to have more confidence in my conviction and instincts in the hiring process. I have learnt from that and acted differently and successfully because of that experience.
What is the best leadership advice you have been given and by whom?
There have been several influential leaders I have had the privilege to work with who have instilled the importance of relationship building with all stakeholders - internal and external.
Do you have a daily motto or practice that helps you to lead?
I am driven by the sense of something important to do each day. Something I have to do, to prepare for, that makes me get up and go. And a daily practice is to try not to lose your sense of humour. Even in a tricky situation, I try to find something to the lighten the mood. Done well, a good sense of humour can cut through tension, but it is often used to avoid difficult situations which is a poor practice.
It has been said that leadership is lonely; from where do you draw your strongest support?
Yes, sometimes leadership can be because the buck stops with the leader and that can seem lonely; but if you have a strong relationship with the team and the board and you are open to sharing information that will help. I know it is important to engage with the appropriate individuals to create a plan, and I can share that with others in the business - that too helps to lighten the load.
What is your idea of a positive leadership growth experience?
Challenge me - show me something new but allow me to draw from some of my experiences. I would want to work with a leader who can develop me constructively, with practical examples of feedback based on my day-to-day working life.
I’d want practical learning and the chance to put that learning into practice - be stretched, challenged, learn something new, but with someone who is coaching you through it without micromanaging the process.