Focused and creative

Features Posted 11/02/19
Regional bank MD shares the secrets of supporting 170 staff through life’s stresses and strains – at work and at home.

Helping staff to maintain a happy work-life balance is just one of Sarah Bilby’s passions. With 170 bank employees in her care, that’s a lot of juggling.

Sarah’s LinkedIn profile as South East MD for NatWest Business gives a clue as to how she manages and supports not only her own busy life, but those around her, too. It describes her as a “highly organised and focused leader … creative at finding solutions, or thinking of new strategies”. The conversation we have for this feature proves these are not just empty words.

Asked what she considers her management style, Sarah ponders a moment and says: “I am very open and honest. We have set up a number of what we call ‘town hall events’ where I encourage staff to ask me anything they want. I will always answer honestly.”

She quotes examples of how she has encouraged and supported employees with personal issues, including finding the best way to work flexibly around care of children or, increasingly, elderly parents.

Other conversations arise between Sarah and new parents who enjoy their job and want to return to work, but are finding it difficult to negotiate the many barriers of suitable childcare, commuting and sheer exhaustion of parenthood. Sarah tells how she arranged for one member of staff to move office nearer a particular nursery she wanted to get her child into, so the arrangement was more practical.

“I want my people to know I am there to help them work when and how it suits them best and if that means them getting in early, or working late, then that’s what we try to arrange. Flexibility is vital – whether a mum or dad wants to do the school run before work, or take a relative to a hospital appointment. This doesn’t apply exclusively to parents, either – we support staff who would like to work from home one day per week to reduce their stress levels, for example. It’s about finding that balance with the customer-facing roles to ensure we are also always there for our customers when they need us. “It all helps a culture of support and makes for happy employees. This in turn leads to more productive people who deliver better for our customers.”

This enlightened approach to leadership underlies everything Sarah tries to do in her job. Our conversation moves to the male-female balance in managerial roles within banking and immediately I sense her burning ambition to improve matters: “I am incredibly passionate about improving women’s roles as leaders in the industry, as well as fighting to improve the mix of ethnic minorities.”

“The bank’s latest figures show we’re on track to have a fully balanced workforce at all levels of the organisation by 2030, which I’m incredibly proud to be a part of. We also have a target of 14% of the leadership to be from a black, Asian and other non-white minority ethnic (BAME) background by 2025.” The topic was aired during Sarah’s appearance as a speaker at the November Empowering Women in Business conference in Nottingham, where she led a discussion on “developing a leadership culture”. It was, she says, a highlight of her year.

Banking has changed a great deal since Sarah first got a job with Barclay’s as a teenager in 1984, following a suggestion from her mother that it would be a good career to enter. She worked her way up through various roles and has been in leadership now for 21 years. Over that time, she has seen how technology has changed the industry and how it continues to evolve.

“The speed of progress is extraordinary,” she says. “The key focus is how we take advantage of these changes to help our customers run their businesses and the financial aspects of their lives quickly and easily.”

All this sounds like a pretty exhausting regimen and I close the interview asking Sarah the stock question about how she relaxes. With what she describes as “a blended family” – two children from her first marriage and two joining after her second wedding – the house is always busy, but she and her husband enjoy travelling and have a home in Spain as a bolthole for long weekends.

They have also been renovating their 1950s house in the UK since buying it in May and Sarah spends most of her time outside gardening. She finds it an excellent way to escape the responsibilities of the office, although her work is never far from her mind.

“We offer many services to customers, but at the heart of it is good practice and in a digital world the human touch point has never been more important. We must always put the customer first.”

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