Love for challenges adds up to rewarding career for managing director
Growing up, Kathryn Britten noticed that it was only the fathers of her friends who were chartered accountants, never the mothers. So, she decided that was exactly what she was going to be when she grew up. “I think I’ve always been quite competitive; growing up with two brothers probably contributed to that,” said Britten, a managing director who specializes in financial consulting and litigation matters. “It was partly the challenge that it was something that seemed to me only men did. And I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that.’”
Born in north London to an engineer father and an executive assistant mother, Britten stayed true to her childhood ambition, studying mathematics at university and going straight to work at a top accounting firm in the UK after graduation. A few years later, having qualified as a chartered accountant, she accepted a job offer at a different firm so that she could get broader, more rounded experience of all aspects of business. It was here that Britten met her husband and eventually decided to take a break from full-time employment to raise a family. “I took a total of six years out of full-time work when my children were young, and I consider myself really fortunate to have had a chance to do so,” Britten said.
However, she did not want to lose touch with her professional network during this break, and so, decided to work freelance with the Institute of Chartered Accountants, from home. “I would set questions and mark papers for the ACA exams. This helped me stay up to date and involved with my profession. I also networked quite a lot and joined the local chartered accountants’ group, which I later chaired.”
Britten said these undertakings were incredibly important as she was not only able to maintain and grow her network of people, but it also helped her remain confident in her ability to eventually jump back into day-to-day work. In fact, she met two of her lifelong mentors during this time.
“One of them was a woman who had left the accountancy firm where she had qualified and set up on her own when she knew she wanted to start a family,” Britten said. “It was interesting to me that just a few years before my time, most of the women pretty much moved out and set up on their own at some point or moved into industry. So, it seemed that I was really the first generation of female chartered accountants who had actually stayed at the accountancy firms.” Britten’s other mentor was the examiner who received the questions she proposed for the ACA exams. “He phoned me up one day and said that he really liked the way I thought about things and wanted to talk about my career. I ended up working for him and with him at another large accountancy firm for many years, and he always pushed me forward. It was invaluable having someone who would speak up for me.”
Her position as a pioneering woman in her career – not only staying in the field but going on to be a successful business leader – did not come easy, and Britten says she often wished there were other colleagues in a similar situation she could share her journey with. However, there were some unexpected benefits.
“I was once talking at a young leaders conference along with my daughter, who, having never mentioned this to me ever before, told the story of how knowing that I had a job that I loved, and that I was so successful, was really inspirational to her and made her want to be successful in her career, too,” Britten said. Her daughter is a doctor of educational psychology, while her son is a chartered accountant.
Britten now wants to inspire a younger generation of leaders. “As women in leadership positions, I believe we have a really important role in business as well as in the wider society to share our experiences and to help other people who are following on the same path,” she said. In 2008, Britten received the Women in the City Accountancy award for her contribution to helping other women in the workplace, something that she remains passionate about.
While still years away from retirement, Britten wants to ensure she has developed a crop of leaders who will follow in her footsteps. She encourages her mentees to build and nurture strong relationships, something Britten believes has been the cornerstone of her successful career and that she continues to do daily, both through her personal contacts and her involvement with influential organizations. Britten is currently a member of the governing body of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and a member of the Board of the London Chamber of Arbitration. This commitment has been pivotal in building Britten’s professional stature, and in 2014 she was awarded the Freedom of the City of London by the Lord Mayor of London and became a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.
Another of her secrets to success has been planning ahead and always being prepared. “I have consciously planned all steps of my career. I was also flexible and proactive about the kinds of things I did when I did get back from my career break. I oversaw a lot of in-house technical training and was responsible for building an ISO quality management system within a large professional services firm, which was quite an unusual thing for an accountant to do.”
Engaging in these other aspects of work gave Britten exposure to different people in the organization, including senior executives. Another thing that helped was proactively asking for what she wanted. “It was really important to actually tell people that I wanted to be promoted, to make it clear that I wanted to get to the top and that I was ready to put in the work that was required to get there.”
Going after what seems impossible to others might just be the hallmark of Britten’s career.