“You can live the dream without the dream education”
We have met Annika Olsson, CEO of BNP Paribas Personal Finance in the Nordics. She shares with us her rich career path and explains how each work experience contributed to her next career move, and to finally reach her current position.
One of the hallmarks of the late summer season is that thousands of young people are waiting for their future to be clarified. Are they admitted to an education of their own choice or not? What would be your recommendation to them?
If they are not admitted to the education they initially chose, I think that they should not be too unhappy. I hope that more young people see the opportunities in challenging themselves through unknown and different educations, if they do not initially end up with “the perfect choice”.
For many, it can be a character-building challenge if you end up on an unexpected career path. It can ultimately provide the skills needed to reach the very top. At least that is my own experience when I look back today on my path to the director’s chair.
Could you indeed tell us more about your own career path, especially the beginning?
I myself started my career literally many nautical miles from the financial industry. When I was in my twenties, I completed my first training as a “sea cook”. In my first real job, I therefore sailed on the world’s oceans with huge oil tankers and cooked in the galley for ship’s engineers and sailors. I clearly remember how the opportunity to challenge myself and do something different from everyone else attracted me.
I became part of a business, where mainly men worked. It was challenging and different, and I found strength in being able to go my own way and be allowed to experience the world in a completely new way. Although the job itself did not necessarily offer great career opportunities, I made a virtue of carrying out the task at hand to the best of my ability. A work ethic that I have stuck to and today appreciate and notice in employees at all levels.
However, my time as a chef was short-lived. After a few years, family life and the obligations that come with it took over. As it does for so many other young women and men who will have to review their work-life balance when they start a family. In my own case, a consequence of this was that I applied for a job as a customer consultant in a bank instead. It was the starting point for my long career in the financial industry. I committed myself to the job as a customer consultant and I was curious about the new world I had entered.
According to you, what is the right mindset to adopt?
I think that curiosity is important to maintain throughout your career. Even when you sit in the director’s chair, you must never become too posh to pursue new knowledge.
All other things being equal, it shows that with the right will, curiosity and commitment to get to know a profession and a sector, you can work your way up from sitting at the till in a bank to end up as the director.
How about gaining qualifications to climb the ladder?
Of course, you need to have the right qualifications to contest a position, but you can always take up-skilling courses and further education throughout your life. Taking relevant further education can be at least as valuable as taking “the right education” at the beginning of one’s life. Clearly, we must not be blind to the fact that relevant educations are crucial and help a long way in one’s career. But the “right” timing and the “right” solution” do not exist – it can be individual.
Unfortunately, what I would call “education snobbery” is alive and well in many industries. Including the financial industry. I think we need to put that behind us and start applying a more open-minded approach towards candidates with an educational background, which at first sight may not necessarily be tailor-made for the financial industry, as an example.
In which other areas do you think, improvements need to be made?
I would like to contribute to a more diverse financial industry. Where there is a more equal distribution of gender at all levels and where candidates with different educational backgrounds have the courage to apply for a job in the sector and challenge themselves. That’s why I am sharing my own story.
At BNP Paribas Personal Finance in the Nordics, we have a clear target of a more equal distribution of men and women in the organisation in general, in the management and the Board. Specifically, we have set a gender distribution target of at least 40/60. Among all employees, we currently have a distribution of 51% women and 49% men, but at our higher management level we are not on target.
That is why we have increased the focus on gender balance in our various management layers – especially when it comes to recruiting new employees and upskilling existing colleagues. Men and women must have equal opportunities to reach the top in our bank, and I believe that we as a company have a responsibility to support those who have the potential, but perhaps do not dare to jump into it. And to see the opportunities in the special skills that each employee – regardless of educational background – brings.
A final word?
I hope that my story can inspire more people to dare, and to sign up for educations they had not planned. Because with willpower, curiosity and commitment, a rejection of your dream education can be the starting point for a long and exciting career.”