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Redefining Women in Power

Photograph of Laura Keely smiling and holding a coffee cup

We spoke to former Kaplan student Laura Keeley about her experience as a woman in finance, and how she is now encouraging other women to use their unique perspectives as a superpower to become a new type of leader.

Hi Laura, can you start by telling us how you got into the finance sector?

Well, I fell into it. I didn't want to go to university because I didn't know what I wanted to study and it was a lot of money. So I didn’t want to go for the sake of it, and end up with a lot of debt and no career path.

Although I didn’t want to go to university, I knew that I loved to study. So, I went to the careers advisor in Norwich and explained I wanted to carry on studying but also have a career, and not just a job. They explained that if I wanted to stay in Norwich, the best career options were to go into accountancy or insurance.

My partner was in insurance at the time and I was very good at maths at high school, so decided to go down the accountancy route. That was literally how I came to that decision.

I then went on to join Sexty & Co straight after the sixth form and one of the partners there was a woman who had worked at Kaplan. She introduced me to the AAT qualification and I completed it in around 18 months with a few exemptions.

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“I knew I wanted to study and I wanted a career and I wanted to be the best at something. I just didn't know what that something was.”

What made you go on to study CIMA over ACA or ACCA?

After I moved to another practice firm, I started ACA and I failed all my mocks. I wasn’t used to failing exams so I knew that it wasn’t going well. I was also studying massage, reflexology, and Sports Therapy at the city college so I decided to leave accountancy and go and work on cruise ships as a masseuse, personal trainer and aerobic instructor.

I worked for one season, and then made the decision to go back into accountancy. By this time, a lot of my friends who I had worked with at the practice firms had moved into the industry and said it was completely different and more money. So, I began working at a company called Foolproof and absolutely loved it.

Wanting to progress my career, I made a pitch to the directors and said, “if you fund me to do my CIMA, I will do it on weekends in my own time. It's not going to affect any of the work I do. It's just going to make me better at my job,” and gave them examples of what they will get back. They agreed to it and funded it.

I chose CIMA because I knew it would help the company more and I preferred the prospectus. I found that CIMA is more about strategy and a lot of people become Managing Directors. Whereas, if you study ACA or ACCA, you're usually aiming to become a Financial Director or a CFO.

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“I thought with CIMA not only do I get to understand the accounts and the base, but I also get to understand the strategy. I wanted to understand the story and how it can help a business thrive.”

Could you tell us more about your coaching and how your qualifications have helped you in this new career?

So I now focus on coaching women who are in, or striving for, leadership roles. Because I've got a finance bias, my target demographic is more finance based, but I am open to helping all people looking to step up.

I help with presentations, strategy, different ideas of how to look at their accounts, and how they can present to their directors, for example. But if they want to come in and say that they're having problems at home and feeling like they can't get motivated, I'll help them with that too.

Once these problems are fixed, you can get that balance of success and happiness and then if you're successful and happy at work, your company is also going to thrive.

I've always enjoyed the management side and the mentoring. I think it's such a missing element. You become a qualified accountant and suddenly you're a manager, but you get no management training, it’s like “here's your pay rise and here's your team”, and you just have no idea what this actually entails.

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“It's really important to understand that people need training, not everyone is a born manager.”

Being a qualified accountant gives me that bit of an edge in this space. I’ve done the work, I've presented to the board, I have managed a team and I do understand what it's like. I can put myself in other people’s shoes due to my life experiences, and being a coach to people in the corporate business world, my experiences give insight into what people are struggling with.

I've got the tools in my belt to help people learn how to manage people in this industry and how to get what they want out of a scenario.

How have you found the representation of women in the finance sector?

It was actually quite good, I saw women at all levels from assistant all the way up to partner. Although it still always felt quite male-orientated. Looking back, those women in higher positions had to really fight for their place in a man's world.

It’s a really tough environment, and, a lot of the time, women feel like they need to have more gravitas and strength to get authority behind them and become strong, dominant leaders. From my personal experiences, this has made them sometimes feel less approachable.

However, what I am trying to encourage now is the ‘New Age’ female leaders. Showing women that you can be a leader with vulnerability and emotional intelligence, and how through this you're actually going to influence and nurture the most amazing next generation. Not to say men can’t also have these traits, and be this type of leader, but I want to show women how they can use these attributes that they may have been previously told to suppress, and still just be themselves in a managerial role.

It is about using your vulnerability and being empathetic, sitting down with your team, listening and caring about what they're going through both professionally and in their home life. That's what gets your staff retention rates going through the roof, and respect from your team, because they're not going to want to leave you.

If you have a good leader with vulnerability, you get more people who are happy to come forward with ideas because they don't feel like they're gonna get dismissed. Sure, some ideas might not work but it might bring about a different way of thinking and help create an even better idea.

I once read that a company will earn more revenue if they've got women on their board because they usually have different creative thinking styles. It brings diversity and different conversations to the table leading to staff retention.

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“It's all about getting people to be more creative and more confident in the workplace.”

Find out more about Lightning Coaching

Lightning Coaching helps females who are in or working towards leadership roles.

We are hearing more and more about emotional intelligence and vulnerability. Do your leaders understand the importance of these matters? With Lightning Coaching leaders can learn how to lead from the front with empathy and support.

Having great mentors and leaders is the best way to motivate staff, empower them to be more creative, share ideas and drive your company's mission.

Lightning Coaching also offers a corporate drop-in centre for finance teams to give staff the opportunity to discuss anything from strategy ideas, increase their confidence or any personal struggles they are going through.

For more information please visit Lightning Coaching or email Laura at

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