Recently, the Fnality ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) Community of Practice organised a live Q&A session with Meghan Foreman-Purves, Head of Legal, Europe for CIBC (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce). It was a session that all of us at Fnality found insightful and inspiring, so we are delighted to share Meghan's experiences and advice around topics such as leadership, overcoming career obstacles, and parenthood in the workplace with a broader audience in this blog post.
Meghan was, until very recently, a Director of CIBC’s UK regulated subsidiary, and has recently been welcomed to the Fnality Community as CIBC’s Board Observer and Shareholder Representative.
Meghan, you’ve achieved so much in your career to date. Could you tell us a little about your journey to becoming Head of Legal for CIBC Europe, a director of one of CIBC’s group companies, and now a Board Observer at Fnality International?
Of course. I studied in Australia but in my last year I spent a semester on exchange at the University of Leeds. I loved the UK and promised myself when I next got the opportunity, I would move to London. My career started at Mallesons in Australia where I was a structured finance lawyer. After two years, I decided I wanted to do something different and I left Mallesons and moved to Cambodia to do a pro bono internship with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (or the ECCC), which is the international criminal court prosecuting the former members of the Khmer Rouge for crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity. For anyone less familiar with Cambodia’s history, the Khmer Rouge was the Communist regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975-1979 led by Pol Pot which led to the deaths of about 2 million people, which was about 25% of Cambodia’s population. It was a really interesting experience and I was lucky enough to be there during the second trial but when it finished, I felt that I was much better suited to a commercial environment.
I moved to London and joined Herbert Smith Freehills in 2011 in their structured finance team. I had a great 5 years with HSF which included secondments with Lloyds and with Standard Chartered Bank. I reached a pinch point in my career at that stage where I either wanted to pursue partnership at HSF (or elsewhere) or move into a broader internal role and, at that point, a headhunter called me about the more junior role of a two person legal team at CIBC. The Head of Legal at CIBC at that stage was a very experienced woman, another Australian lawyer, who was a fantastic manager. When she decided to leave about 8 months after I joined I was lucky enough to step up to take on her role. Since then, my role has changed a lot. I have expanded the team to add another Capital Markets lawyer and I have taken on responsibility for privacy in Europe & APAC and hired a lawyer to provide that expertise. I took on the role of Director for the UK regulated subsidiary in 2019 and we have since gone through a process of opening a new subsidiary in Luxembourg, transferring all of the business out of our UK subsidiary and winding it down in order to address Brexit. I am now so pleased to have the opportunity to join the Fnality Community.
No doubt there will have been obstacles or challenges for you along the way. Could you talk about what they have been, and how you overcame them?
I think my key external obstacles have been conversations with people who did not share my view of my career development and aspirations. The first was with HSF when I wanted to discuss how to pursue partnership and the timeframe to do that. They felt it was too early to have that conversation and I didn’t agree – I didn’t feel I could stay any longer without a clear path for my own career development. It was a difficult conversation at the time but was ultimately a great outcome for me because I think I am better suited to a commercial environment and it allowed me to redirect my efforts elsewhere. The second was with a recruiter a few years ago who said to me – “You’re Head of Legal and Director on the Board of the subsidiary, you’ve made it. Most people would just sit back and do that job until retirement.” I don’t think I have ever felt so horrified! I thought – but I can do more than this. I have more to learn and more to give.
The key learnings I have taken away from these discussions is that you need to define your own career and own your aspirations. It is important to take advice from other people but they are not necessarily the best placed to set your path.
I have also had challenges for my own development, in particular two aspects. Firstly, confidence – when I look around the Board room, I do not see men in senior positions questioning their own judgment or their own ability in the same way that women do or apologising for their presence or role within a conversation. I have had a number of experiences where I did not agree with another senior person and I think it is important to accept that I may not always agree, and that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wrong.
Secondly, inadvertently allowing other people to take credit for my work. When briefing up, senior leaders listen to the person who is most able to answer their question accurately and succinctly - if you are the person who is best placed to answer, you should be answering it directly and not allowing someone else that you have briefed beforehand to answer for you. It is not about being aggressive, it is about making sure that the value you are adding is visible to the key decision makers. My approach now is to either ensure I do answer the question or I immediately step in to clarify the point.
What obstacles or challenges do you think female colleagues are still facing in the workplace, and what can we do to address it?
I think one of the key challenges for women is learning to advocate for ourselves and ensuring that we prioritise high value work and building our brand rather than volunteering to always do low value work that is less visible.
This is difficult because of course there are parts of everyone’s jobs that we might prefer not to do – we do not always have the luxury of deciding not to do certain tasks but I think it is important that we all consider what we want our brand to be and how we demonstrate the value that we add to a business. This is a generalisation of course but I do not see men volunteering for the type of work that I see women volunteering to take on. I see men volunteering and putting time into work that gets them in front of senior people.
One of the other challenges is finding the right people to support you and act as a sponsor for you. Some people at a senior level are helpful and others are not. It’s important not to feel discouraged by those who are not helpful.
Do you think there is anything else that female leaders and leaders from other traditionally underrepresented groups (e.g. ethnic minorities, religious minorities, non-British, LGBTQ+, etc.) can do to help empower our colleagues?
Absolutely. I think we have two key roles to play.
Firstly, in being visible and being heard – I would hope that speaking at events like this and providing as much transparency about each of our journeys and experiences can help to inspire others and to hopefully allow others to see opportunities for themselves.
Secondly, I think we have a key role to play in sponsoring talent and by that, I don’t mean mentoring, I mean providing opportunities for others to showcase their talent and their work to people at a more senior level. Not only does this help our colleagues build their profiles and get in front of decision makers but it also helps to build trust from senior management in the entire team.
We know you’re about to become a parent again! How have you found, having had children, balancing a high-pressure career in Finance with other responsibilities? Has this affected your career, and to what extent has the pandemic affected the balance between family and work?
I’m so pleased that this question has been raised. I wanted to draw this back to the third question where we discussed challenges for women in the workplace. I think one of the key challenges which still faces women (and men) is that although we are very comfortable talking about trying to promote women and to get women into the Board room, we are much less comfortable talking about men’s parental responsibilities. We do not talk about applying the same level of flexibility to men who are fathers as we do to women who are mothers and my view is this basically means we are signing women up for two jobs and we are not giving men an opportunity to play a different role in families and in the work place.
Because the answer to your question about how being a parent has impacted my career is that I don’t think it has, but it has affected my husband’s career. That is because my husband and I came up with a very clear plan for our family which was that he would take primary responsibility for our children and we would prioritise my career. I didn’t think we were doing anything particularly novel but the more I discuss this and the more I see of how my friends are managing this, the more revolutionary I think this is.
He and I took six months shared parental leave at the same time with my son and we will be doing the same again this year. He is a Detective for the Met in specialist crime and he left a role in counter terrorism policing in order to have a role that allows him to do nursery drop off and pick up every day. He will going back to work part time next year when we both come back to work. I do not feel like I am being a trail blazer here. He is the one who is having difficult conversations with his employer, with his colleagues, and with the medical and childcare industry.
When I came back to work I had people say to me things like “How are you managing being away from your baby?” and when I explained that I was fine and that my husband was still at home with the baby, I had “I bet you’re calling him every five minutes to check he’s doing everything right.” I wasn’t, because he is just as capable as I at looking after our son and we’d done it together so there was no difference.
However, when he went back to work and explained to his colleagues that he had to leave to pick up our son up from nursery his colleagues asked him why his wife wasn’t doing it and he had to explain that I’d already gone back to work and was working a much more demanding full time role.
As I said, it’s not just employers. It is the medical and childcare industry as well. I feel a huge sense of frustration every year when my husband fills out our nursery contact form which only allows the primary contact to be the mother (despite the fact that we keep telling the nursery he should be first on the call list).
I think one of the best changes we could make is paying enhanced company parental leave on a gender neutral basis and actively encouraging men to take shared parental leave and to talk about their parental responsibilities at work. Last year, HMRC reported that only 2 percent of eligible couples had made use of their legal right to shared parental leave. I find that incredibly disappointing.
One of the best outcomes this pandemic has had is that we have stopped talking about flexible working arrangements as though they are for “working mothers”. I hope we are looking towards a future where people are able to have more flexibility in determining what sort of role they have at work and at home and that this results in a more inclusive and diverse workforce, and a happier one.
Ph. Credits: Unsplash