Can you balance it all?
4 MIN READ
Daughter, sister, wife, mother of four, GAA fan, Director of Distribution Channels and President of the Institute of Banking – all in a day’s work for Áine McCleary.
‘Growing up, I didn’t have to look far to find female working role models’, says Áine. ‘My mother and my grandmother were both full time teachers, so I took it for granted that women worked and worked full time’.
Áine, however, did not share her mother and grandmother’s vocation.
At school, the subjects that most appealed to her were accountancy, business and mathematics.
She decided to take a Bachelor of Commerce undergraduate degree at UCD then did a Masters in International Business at the Smurfit Business School.
She left 3rd level education at a time of relatively high unemployment in Ireland and, despite her 1st class Masters qualification, had to adjust her expectations.
‘I had to rethink what I was going to do next,’ she says. ‘I decided to join Ulster Bank’s starter programme and was assigned to their O’Connell Street branch.
I can still remember the sense of excitement and trepidation on my first day. Now when I see colleagues starting off in our branches, I feel I have an affinity with them.’
She decided to apply anyway
A casual glance at the staff noticeboard in O’Connell Street branch one day proved to be a pivotal moment in Áine’s fledgling career.
She was drawn to an advert for trainee dealers to work in the dealing room.
The only problem was that you needed to have been in the bank for two years to apply and she hadn’t been there that long.
‘The role really grabbed my attention and I felt I could not let the opportunity pass me by.’
So Áine decided to apply anyway. She was successful and, after an initial six months as a trainee, was kept on as a dealer.
Building up resilience
‘I was the only female on the FX trading desk,’ she says.
‘There were days when it was just like the movies – fast paced, noisy and people yelling into two phones at the same time. I suppose the culture could be quite aggressive at times – but it wasn’t always like that.’
Looking back, Áine felt that she learned a lot from her six years working as a dealer and values the experience she gained.
‘In that kind of environment, you do build up resilience. You have to be yourself and trust your instincts and not get carried away with what’s going on around you.
I learned to be true to myself and my own integrity, as I believe this is important to thrive in any environment.’
Starting a ‘new career’ and a family
Áine left Ulster Bank and moved to Bank of Ireland Global Markets, in 2000, leading teams who dealt with institutional, corporate and retail customers.
‘When I moved to Bank of Ireland,’ she says, ‘it was almost like starting a new career.
But I settled in quickly and I was encouraged to grow and develop my career and apply for roles when the opportunity arose.
So much so that quite quickly I progressed to Associate Director level’
During her time in Global Markets, as well as moving up into the Senior Management Team, Áine had her four children – twin boys and two girls.
‘I was on maternity leave on three occasions during my time in Global Markets. I can remember being concerned about the impact it might have and can understand how women might feel that their career may not continue on an upward trajectory afterwards.
I felt the same but can honestly say I have never found that gender or maternity leave stood in my way.’
Challenging herself to move out of her comfort zone
In 2012, just before Áine came back from her third maternity leave, she said she took the time to stand back and think.
‘I had the support of some really fantastic colleagues, which was invaluable, but I felt I needed to come back to work with a plan to manage and to progress my career.’
‘Realistically,’ I thought, ‘the first half of my career is behind me so where do I want to spend the second half?
I could have chosen to stay in my comfort zone but I wanted to keep learning and have new and different experiences. So I decided to back myself and took a leap into Retail banking.
It wasn’t an easy choice. I had four young children, so familiarity and certainty would have been welcomed.
Making that brave step was not an easy move and, if I am honest, it was a mix of exciting and terrifying.’
‘Regardless of the path I have chosen, I can fully understand that for some people there are times in their lives when they choose to keep doing what they do really well and maybe not expand for a period of time.
That’s OK too and can be a brave step in itself to balance everything.’
Advice she gives when mentoring others
‘If you were to ask me do I have any regrets about my career I would say very few. Maybe, in hindsight, I might have made certain moves quicker.’
Áine keeps this in mind when asked for advice, and shares some of her own experiences around what she would do differently today.
‘I will always encourage people to take that next step; to make the brave decisions to achieve their own career aspirations and most importantly to have the self-belief to go for it.
I often find when mentoring a colleague that they are the ones putting up internal boundaries around themselves – nobody else, and it only takes a little awareness and self-belief to push beyond.
I think a lack of confidence and self-belief can happen to anyone, both men and women.
Women’s careers can plateau after they have time out of the workplace. For some this is a personal choice, for others it is a lack of confidence and self-belief.
Áine feels that organisations have a responsibility to help people specifically when they come back to work after time off when they may feel they are playing catch up.
Can you balance everything?
Áine’s career has gone from strength to strength. She leads a business of 2,800 colleagues, with an active customer base of two million and a phenomenal 200 million customer interactions per year.
And as if that wasn’t enough, she is President of the Institute of Banking, supporting the further education of around 30,000 banking professionals.
So how does she balance all that with her family life?
‘I don’t know anybody who can balance everything whether they are a parent or not, whether they are male or female.
There’s always a juggling act and often a ball that gets dropped,’ she says.
‘The trick is to focus on all the things that did go well rather than focusing on the one that didn’t. Be prepared for speed bumps – adjust and get back in the saddle!’
Her thoughts on the future
What are her thoughts about her children and the opportunities that might be available to them in the future?
‘Like all parents, myself and my husband Alan have high hopes for all of them. I’d hate to think that any doors would be shut to my boys or girls based on their gender.
My only ambition for them is that they will be happy, healthy and get to do what they enjoy most in life.’
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