Welcome to Working Lives, where CareerActually shares interesting, inspiring, and sometimes surprising career stories. Working Lives is a series of specially-commissioned career stories, offering our readers insights into the surprising challenges and opportunities which can shape a career. The Working Lives series is written by journalist and CareerActually contributor Emily Brown.
For the first of our series, we shine the spotlight on David Finlay, a British PE teacher turned big shot banker.
Throughout his career, David has sought a balance between his work, and his roles as a husband and father. His story speaks to the value of being proactive, seizing opportunities, and looking at problems in terms of their potential.
David has always been passionate about sports. In his own words, David “didn’t do great” at school, yet he got good enough marks to study Sports Science at a college in Canterbury. He confessed to spending more time on the field than in the classroom during his first degree, and decided to pursue his passion by becoming a Physical Education teacher. He took his postgraduate degree, and completed a probationary year at a school in Sudbury.
At this point, David ran into difficulty: there were no opportunities for promotion at the school. David was recently married and looking for ways to support his new family. Instead of continuing in education, he applied for, and was offered, a management traineeship with Leeds Building Society (LBS). He was surprised at the ease of the transition:
I found that the skills I’d picked up from teaching actually transferred over to my role in the building society very well. In management – as in teaching a bunch of kids – you need to have discipline, and clear and effective communication.”
David spent 18 months with LBS, before he was offered his own branch in Braintree, Essex. It was during this time that David encountered Peter Farr – a regional manager with LBS whose leadership would inspire and inform David’s own approach later on.
Peter gave me the opportunity to take risks and do things I wouldn’t otherwise do. He encouraged me to think about what I was doing, and imagine it was my own business that I was running. He also accepted that everyone makes mistakes, and remained supportive.
David’s career path continued its upward trajectory: he was promoted every couple of years, and moved around the UK to take up new positions. Eventually, two factors made him reconsider the way he was working. The first one was family. David explained how a pivotal moment with his children influenced his decisions about his professional life:
I was taking my son Calum and daughter Madeleine to get a Christmas tree one year. Calum, who was seven at the time, looked up at me and asked whether we would still be in the same place next year. It hit me that he’d had four different homes, and I realised I needed to offer my family a bit of stability.
The second event that prompted David to make a change occured when he was moved up within Halifax – now a part of Lloyds banking group. He was working under a new line manager, who turned out to be obstructive and dissembling.
I remember being in a room with him while he’d held a conversation with another staff member. As soon as they left the room, his attitude to what they had been saying completely changed. I felt he was duplicitous, and dishonest, and I couldn’t work productively with someone as Machiavellian as he was.
Rather than struggle against his boss, David chose to leave the role, and was approached by Barclays to set up their Intermediary Division. This position meant building a whole new division from the ground up, while allowing him to commute from home. He described this time as one of the happiest and most successful in his life: under his leadership, the division became one of the biggest of its kind in the UK, and won numerous awards.
But David also had to cope with significant challenges, not least of which was dealing with the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis. He explained that in times like those, it is necessary to look at problems as opportunities, and take the initiative to put yourself and your team in a stronger position for the future.
I have always tried to make my own decisions, rather than waiting for a tap on the shoulder. Especially in times when financial institutions are trying to cut costs and reinvent themselves, I tried to recognise what needed to be done, and do it before someone told me to. I’ve always thought it was important to be proactive, rather than reactive.
David’s role with Barclays took him all the way to 10 Downing Street, where he worked with the UK regulator – the Financial Conduct Authority – to examine how regulations would affect the market. He described this event as one of the highlights of his career. Yet for David, opportunity continued to call, even after fourteen fulfilling years with Barclays. He explained his decision to step down as Managing Director of the Intermediary Division:
I was at the stage where I was thinking, I’m 52 years old, I’ve realistically got five to seven years left of my working life left, am I going to keep doing what I’m doing? Or take the opportunity to go and do something else?
These days, David is offering his services as a management consultant. He has gone on to oversee a joint venture, and is relishing the opportunity to create something from scratch all over again. His advice to readers – especially those just starting out in their careers – is not to be afraid of the unknown:
Your career path might take you down routes you hadn’t originally thought of. Instead of being afraid of these changes, think of them as opportunities, and consider what they can give you.”
If fluctuations in your career appear ominous and frightening, it’s worth considering David’s reflections. His working life is proof that, with a shift in perspective and a proactive approach, you can turn changes and risk into opportunities and success.