Before working at KPMG, Sonika worked in a product control role in a City investment bank. She is currently a consultant in KPMG’s Financial Services Advisory practice.
You recently moved across to professional services after a year and a half working in investment banking. Have you noticed a difference?
The biggest adjustment has been the difference in culture. I found investment banking to be more hierarchical and silo-ed. I was in product control and had constant interaction with front office clients who were using the products I was working on. However, I didn’t have any exposure to senior management and other key decision-makers responsible for the strategic direction of the particular trading desk or the bank more broadly, which was frustrating.
Now, obviously I still have my line manager, but I’m working with colleagues and Partners across the business. This flatter hierarchy means I’m learning every day, as I have a lot more contact with colleagues and clients.
I’m also a consultant, which means a lot of client interaction (external clients rather than internal). In a consulting role, you’re adding real value and having an impact on the bottom line. If you’re an accountant at an investment bank, you’re essentially working in a support role. My work is a lot more front-line now and as a result, it’s more rewarding.
How have you adjusted to this?
Given the size of KPMG, I have exposure to a lot of challenging projects and interesting work for clients. I’ve been able to draw on my knowledge and experience, I’ve had to think on my feet at times. It’s a steep learning curve, but it means I’m constantly growing professionally and adding value to the services we offer clients. It can be a stretch, particularly if you’re used to working in a technical role where everything is black and white.
But, of course, with every challenge comes opportunity and I’ve developed new skills, deepened my knowledge and I get to work with bright, ambitious colleagues. The other big difference at KPMG is that you’re given the chance to steer and shape your career much more. I’m encouraged to network both internally and externally - I’ve found these relationships beneficial, not only personally, but also in terms of business development more broadly.
How did you make the move across to consulting from product control?
I studied Maths at Imperial College London and wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do afterwards. A lot of my friends were going into investment banking or finance, and having done some research, I thought a career in finance would offer the challenges I was looking for. I applied to an accounting graduate scheme and was offered a trainee role.
After getting my ACA, a move across to product control was a fairly natural one. The ACA is a hugely transferable qualification and I didn’t find the switch particularly challenging. Having moved into product control, I quickly realised that I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed in a back-office role. I also found the role to often be fairly monotonous, which is often the case with commoditised work.
I enjoyed the investment banking industry, particularly the complexity and technical elements, so that’s why a consulting role focussed on serving banking clients was the natural next step. At the bank, I got to work with some extremely bright people and made both friendships and professional relationships that I cherish. More than anything else, investment banking taught me how to address client needs and this has helped in the transition to consulting. In my role at KPMG, I believe clients do think of me as their trusted business advisor. With that trust comes a great deal of responsibility though! Fortunately, I’m part of a great team and the UK firm is deeply committed to training and development. It’s challenging, but never overwhelming.
Do you have a better work-live balance now?
The hours in investment banking are tough, but that’s not to say KPMG is an easy ride. When you’re serving clients, you expect the hours and work to be challenging. At KPMG, we’re encouraged to work smartly – if we don’t need to be in the office, we can work remotely, a lot of people (including members of my team) work on a part-time basis and the firm is committed to ensuring that we’re able to balance work and personal life. We call it bringing our whole selves to work.
Last year KPMG introduced ‘Our Deal’, which recognises and rewards you for giving your best at work. For example, you get a day off on your birthday, have access to preferential banking services and ‘One Firm’ profit share. Our team also has breakfast together every Friday – it’s a great opportunity to catch up on projects and life in general (including trash TV!). ‘Our Deal’ also really helps with your career progression.
So, it’s not just about free croissants?
Not at all! There are over 120 People Leaders (directors and senior managers) across KPMG helping colleagues with their career development – it takes up at least 20% of their time, which is a huge commitment. People Leaders undergo extensive training so they are able to give advice and really help you steer and shape your career. KPMG is also big on mobility - offering secondments to other business areas or to other KPMG member firms globally. The appraisal system has also been restructured and ‘in-year’ promotions have been introduced. That means colleagues can be promoted when their performance merits rather than at an arbitrary point in the calendar.
You’ve made it to a relatively senior position. What support have you been given? Any tips for other women?
There are a lot of misconceptions about the financial services industry, particularly investment banking. There certainly are challenges, but you’d find those in any industry. I don’t believe it is the case that women find the industry more challenging than men (many of my male colleagues found the banking environment more challenging than I did). However, I do feel that the perception of the investment banking industry as being aggressive, can be off-putting. The issues are less pronounced in professional services, but there are clearly still things to address. I suppose the difference at KPMG is that the firm is making a genuine effort to address those issues.
We have a very active Women’s Network at KPMG and that helps break down a lot of barriers. You get to meet a lot of women across the business in a relatively informal setting, which is a great way to build your network across the different levels in the firm. We also talk openly about some of the issues affecting women in financial services and by addressing them you can start tackling them. Our Executive Committee and partnership more broadly are very active in creating an inclusive environment. We call it ‘Inclusive Leadership’ – making people accountable for diversity and inclusion as well as challenging behaviours contrary to our values.
So, you’re a big advocate of female role models in financial services?
Yes, both role models and providing female mentors for women looking to progress their careers. Of course, not everyone needs a mentor, but I’ve certainly found mine to be very helpful and I’ve been able to draw on her experience to ensure my career is heading in the right direction. She also helped identify some of the things I could be doing to help myself. For example, many of my male colleagues are more likely to ask for things outright, while I’m a bit more reticent about openly stating what I want and this can affect my career development. My mentor has helped me be more assertive and confident asking for the opportunities I want.