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From CFO to CEO – Penny James, Direct Line Group, shares career insights

15 min read

The CFO Practice welcomed Penny James, CEO of Direct Line plc, to speak to 85 senior female finance leaders at the latest series of virtual networking lunches. Attendees were given access to poignant insights from Penny’s outstanding career to date.

Julia van den Bosch Wazen, Consultant in the Odgers Berndtson CFO practice, who spearheads the diversity agenda, opened proceedings by expressing her delight that Penny was willing to discuss the learnings that she had taken across her career. In introducing Penny, Mark Freebairn, the Head of the Board and CFO practices at Odgers Berndtson, described how, through the years they have known each other, Penny has demonstrated not only her ambition, but also her openness to taking career counsel.

As Director of Group Finance at Prudential plc, Penny became a member of the board of Admiral Group plc as a Non-Executive Director and then subsequently joined the board of Prudential plc as Chief Risk Officer. She then moved to Direct Line Group plc as CFO, before being appointed to her current role of CEO within a year.

She described the various decision and inflection points in her career, emphasising the value in having relationships with good headhunters who you trust. This is particularly relevant not just to ensure that you are well-networked for opportunities when they arise, but also to have a sounding board for advice when at a crossroad.

Urging attendees to network was a strong theme throughout. Having mentors whom you trust was another topic Penny addressed, sharing that there have been some people in her career who have known what she is most suited for in the future, more than she knew herself at the time.

Penny explained how some of her most valuable support within the challenges of the last year have been with other CEOs who are in similar situations.

She talked to the appetite in senior leaders to create real movements, and that

if you are willing to put in the energy and approach others with openness, then people are very keen to engage and enable change to happen.

The Q&A brought many questions from the audience that demonstrated the ambition of the CFO community to pursue a similar appetite and replicate Penny’s move to becoming a CEO.

In closing, and of particular relevance to the attendees, Penny observed that her support networks within the CFO community are almost all female, noting that every time someone new is made-up into a main board seat, the last person has to pass the baton on, and reach out to make the connection. 

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