Think of a banker.  Who comes to mind?  A high earning, pale male in a dark suit, motivated by greed?  What if I were to show you a banker who is neither pale, male nor driven by greed?  What if she were an African Caribbean grandmother, striving to make a difference, give back, help other women to succeed and do the best for her sons? Would that surprise you?

Heather Melville

The banker I’m referring to is my Page 1 Woman, Heather Melville, multiple award winner, Director of Strategic Partnerships for an international bank, chair of the bank’s global women’s network and Justice of the Peace.  Oh, and at the time of publishing, news came through that she’s been shortlisted for a We Are The City 2016, Rising Star Award! With her origins firmly rooted in a family of high achieving women, her success is hardly surprising.  Notable among these, was her mum, who modelled authenticity, focus, determination and drive, characteristics that Heather Melville has in abundance.

At school, she set her sights on becoming a barrister.  However, there was a big obstacle -the training was unaffordable.  Nevertheless, her ambition remained firm.  When an opportunity arose to do work experience for Midland Bank, her career began. ‘It taught me that sometimes when opportunities come they’re not the ones you’re looking for.  But grab them if they feel right’.

She has experienced the usual challenges to her ambition, such as the ‘I’m not good enough’ that many women feel or the ‘You’re not ready’ from her boss.  But she hasn’t allowed fear to limit her, or prevent her from taking risks, or from spotting opportunities where others have seen threats.   And she admits to having a certain stubbornness, so that when told ‘You can’t’, she goes ahead and proves that she can. It exasperated her parents but it’s been significant for her career.  ‘I had the worst product to sell,’ said Heather. ‘Nobody wanted to sell it. The relationship team said, “You’re not taking that to my clients.” But I saw an opportunity and turned it from something unwanted to something everyone wanted’.

So how did this black woman reach senior level in a profession that conventionally restricted women and black people? Read on and learn from this Page 1 Woman herself.


Describe what you do.

Heather: I’ve been working for a well-known bank in the city for 14 years.  My role is primarily in international sales.  I’ve linked it to supporting women employees and women entrepreneurs.  I love banking. I’ve worked for an international bank, then a blue chip IT company, selling international payments to big global banks. Then I returned to banking, doing international sales, special cash management and working primarily with corporate clients. I’m also an executive coach. 

My mom was very driven which gave me a good grounding. I remember once she was waiting for my dad to lay new carpet and she said, “I’m not waiting anymore.” She laid it herself.  She wanted to set the foundation so we could have opportunities that she didn’t have. It made me who I am. I wanted to do the same for my two sons. So whenever I faced challenges at work, that always kept me focused.


What essential steps did you take to get to where you are now?

Heather:  I didn’t have a plan. When your plans don’t happen they can take you on a different journey and sometimes people react negatively. I got married aged 19.  I planned to get to Canada where I had a job. When my mom died, 6 weeks later, I couldn’t do it.  And having my first son when I was young determined a certain pathway.

The things that really propelled me to where I am today were taking a risk in working outside of banking. Then I went through a tough business school at IBM, where they invested a lot of money in me. My sponsor took a risk.  He said, “There’s something in you that will help build our business. Give us the best of your time and I will put you through the business school.”  I finished as top girl.

My peers had master’s degrees, and were experienced in the organization. I had O levels.  So it was easy to feel I wasn’t good enough. What drove me was passion for doing the best for my children, wanting to make my mom proud, and resolving, ‘I’m not failing’.


What was the most significant thing you did that got you into your current position?

Heather:  Moving to a corporate sales position in a blue chip company when the bank I was working for had said I wasn’t ready.  IBM head hunted me and asked me why I wanted to work for them.  I thought, “Are you crazy? You’ve asked to see me.” So I said, “You need to tell me why I should leave my job and work for you.”  That was the biggest life changer in my career. That job took me completely outside my comfort zone.   However, something inside me said that I could do it. I felt empowered, which made me do more.  And I got recognized with an achievement award from the chief, which drove me further forward.


What was the greatest challenge on your journey, and how did you overcome it?

Heather:  Believing in myself and getting over that overriding thought that I wasn’t good enough. Last year my employers asked me to do a radio interview – without the press office present.  I wondered whether I was being set up to be fired.  But I thought, “What’s the positive here?”  I realized they would never take a risk on something so important if they didn’t think I could do it. I told myself that they were empowering me.  So every time I face challenges at work and in my personal life, I always say, “What will I learn when I do this?”

I also listen to my intuition. For example, I remember sitting in a big business meeting in another organization, the only woman present.  I was asked to take the notes. Automatically, my intuition kicked in and I said, ‘I have highly illegible handwriting, like most intelligent people, and if I take the notes nobody will be able to read them. So I would suggest that everybody take their own notes and we collate them at the end’. This worked.


What was your biggest light bulb moment?

Heather:  Five years ago, I received an award, from the Women of Banking Finance, for being a champion for women.  I remember when they started reading out the citation everybody at my table stood up apart from me. I said, “They’ll be embarrassed when somebody else wins.”  When they said my name, I couldn’t believe it. It felt like the longest walk to the stage and I had a standing ovation. And when I got there, the award presenter said, “I so wanted you to win. Look at the people on their feet.” I realized then, that hard work, determination, authenticity led to ‘I can do it’.


What one key resource has been crucial to your success?

Heather:  There are two things.  Attending the IBM business school put me on the map for lots of other opportunities. People from other organizations, have approached me over the years and have said, “We’re interested in you because you’ve been through that business school.”

And I’ve been blessed to have loyal friends that keep me real and sponsors too.  To get anywhere you need sponsors.  I believe I’ve got these because I’m a go-getter and I’ve set up and led the women’s network, something that’s helped the organization.  So when people are talking about me openly they’re talking about something good that I’m doing.  And someone will say, “Heather might be good to do that.”

If you want a sponsor, you have to work hard, and be known for making something successful.  It’s easier for men because when you’re a working woman running a home, you don’t do a lot of the networking to develop those relationships.


What is your understanding of leadership?

Heather: A leader is somebody who takes risks, is accountable, drives through opportunities, and takes people on a journey with them. A manager and a leader differ – a leader doesn’t ask permission, they offer forgiveness.  And that’s who I’ve always been.  As long as I’m on the right track I think, “This feels right, I’ll do it, and deal with the repercussions afterwards.” And if I need to make a business decision, I get the facts to make that decision. We want leaders that will make decisions.


How has it informed your role as a woman leader?

Heather: Being accountable for the decisions I’ve made. If I make a mistake, holding my hand up and saying, “I made a bad choice, I won’t do it again.” And being open to feedback. As people of colour, we often see feedback as negative. So our defence mechanism goes up.  But feedback could be the best coaching you’ll ever get, if delivered in a constructive and professional way.


What difference has it made being a women leader?

Heather: Being honest and authentic are big things for me. Leaders should be honest. So if somebody’s not performing, you have to deal with that honestly.

The difference between men and women leaders here is that women have higher emotional intelligence and men have higher technical intelligence. A man will say “that person’s not delivering. This is what we’ll do with them”. A woman will say, “Let’s find out why they’re not delivering.” That’s why it’s important to have diverse talents around the table.


What are your top four tips for women wanting to be leaders?

Heather:  Tip 1 – Understand the business you want to lead.  If you want to be a lawyer, spend time with lawyers and with people who have benefited from lawyers so that you understand whether it’s right for you. I know many people who have trained as lawyers and have said, “That’s not what I want to do now.”  Make sure it’s something that motivates you, and that you enjoy and that it fits with who you are. Otherwise you’ll be miserable. Moreover, when things get tough, you’ll walk away.

Tip 2 – Invest in a network and support and give back to it. Without a network, you have no mentees, support, or contacts. And nowadays, it’s about who you know.

Tip 3 – Know your values and be true to yourself.  Take care of yourself; rest and eat properly. You can’t be the most qualified person delivering the most in a business if you’re sick in bed.

Tip 4 – Make time for friends and family. The thing that focuses my mind, after a gruelling week is connecting with my girlfriends or my partner and family.  Yesterday my son sent me a picture that my 2-year-old granddaughter took.  I was having a tough day. Seeing that picture, put things into perspective.


Were you inspired by Heather Melville’s story?  Go on, share it with a friend. You never know who you might help to inspire too.

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