An unlikely turning point in Paulette Rowe’s journey to become a top payments executive came many years ago, during the summer she spent working with a group of men in the engineering division of a French piston manufacturer, feeling completely out of her depth.
“It was tough, coming to grips with such a complex product and doing it all in a foreign language,” Rowe recalls. “But it also shaped me at a critical time in my life by teaching me to hold my own as a young woman in an almost exclusively all-male environment.”
After her brief stint working with engines, Rowe followed her interests in technology and data to a career in financial services in the U.K., where she’s steadily risen to top roles in banking and retail payments, earning her a spot on the 2017 list of PaymentsSource’s Most Influential Women in Payments.
Rowe’s engineering background continues to power her success in payments in many surprising ways.
“Thinking like an engineer has been invaluable throughout the different stages of my career, showing me how to solve problems deductively and from a multi-disciplinary perspective,” Rowe said. Early on she learned the importance of embracing data, and to always think about the end user in every product design.
Form and function are equally important in engineering, and so it is with payments, Rowe discovered.
“We were always taught that calculating the right gear ratios was not enough; aesthetics and ergonomics were just as important,” she said. These lessons also figure highly in her work with blockchain development as a tool for payments.
“Sometimes I get to show a glimpse of my nerdy engineer side again when I’m leading teams tackling these new and complex payments subjects,” she said.
Rowe has spent most of her career in consumer banking, including seven years at Royal Bank of Scotland and a stint as executive director for U.K. retailer Tesco’s banking division. In 2009, Rowe was recruited as strategy director for the startup bank NBNK, and in 2012 she was plucked again to be managing director of Barclaycard Payment Solutions, where she oversees broad payment product development and strategy.
Despite her own successes, Rowe still sees room for improvement in the way corporations manage talent and diversity.
“I still see too many hiring decisions where the line manager is either looking for a clone or can’t see the virtues of more diverse candidates who may be very talented but whose style or approach to presentation and problem-solving may be outside of corporate norms,” Rowe said.
Barclaycard sets a good example of advocating gender diversity, but Rowe said the payments industry still has a long way to go in promoting more women through the ranks. “Changing years of unconscious bias in corporations is a challenging task,” she noted.
Another concern is the way localism, which once seemed like a positive way to offset the impersonal aspects of globalism, is now morphing into troubling forms of tribalism around the globe.
“As we become more tribal, we seek to separate ourselves, and it’s difficult to predict the harm this may inflict not just on our economies but on society as a whole," Rowe said.
Younger workers entering the payments industry bring vital new ideas, Rowe said.
“This year we accelerated our development of APIs and experimented with machine learning as a direct result of conversations I’ve had with some of my younger colleagues,” she said.
Rowe often feels the weight of responsibility from a high-profile job and also at home, where she’s a single parent, but she finds satisfaction managing it all.
“The pressure of juggling an extremely busy role at work while trying to be a mum and a dad can be immense, but I’ve learned that it’s not only OK but essential to take time out for myself,” she said.
Last year Rowe rolled out a resilience training course called “Thrive” to her business-unit colleagues, emphasizing the importance of looking out for your own “oxygen mask”—a reference to the airline safety practice of putting on one's own mask first during a crisis—when immersed in the challenges of work. More than half of her colleagues have participated. Rowe already sees positive results from those returning to work from maternity leave as well as older “cynics” who initially resisted whole concept.
“As well as the immediate personal benefits of taking better care of ourselves, supporting colleagues to be more resilient is driving greater engagement and it’s becoming a sustainable competitive advantage for our group,” Rowe said.