David Hudson talks to chief information officer at Barclays, Anthony Watson, about his career in banking and being openly gay in the world of business
Anthony Watson, the 36-year-old managing director and chief information officer for Barclays' Europe retail and business banking arm, doesn't believe it's for him to advise anyone else whether they should come out or not with regards to their sexuality, yet he gives the most persuasive and matter-of-fact answer when talking of his own experiences.
"I'm far more happy in my personal and professional life out than I ever was in the closet," he said. "The best thing I ever did was come out. I don't think you can be an authentic leader – and I've got about 1,800 people working for me – unless you are open and honest about who you are. The best leaders I know are transparent; they don't hide aspects of themselves. I felt that I was always held back by something: not being able to bring my whole self to work. So, to move my career forward, I came out at work. It was the best thing I ever did."
Anthony is quick to concede that it wasn't an easy decision at the time. Born in London, Watson spent much of his childhood in Ireland. He read theology at Trinity College, Dublin – entertaining the possibility of becoming a minister. At the same time, whilst still a student, he found part-time work providing tech-support for AOL Ireland.
Realising that technology fascinated him, Anthony took a job with First-e (Europe's first internet bank). That was followed by jobs at Microsoft, then Wells Fargo, before joining Barclays three years ago. He's now responsible for the technology side of the business in 22 European countries. Anthony came out to friends and family at the age of 21, before coming out at work, around six years later.
"I find, when people assume one thing about you (i.e. that you're straight), and you tell them something that's the opposite of what they'd assumed people can find it difficult," he says, when I ask him about coming out at work. "I remember being shocked by a colleague using the term 'filthy queer' in a meeting, so much so that I had to pull him aside and say, 'I'm gay, and you don't get to use that language here. If you want to use it at home, that's your call, but in this context, you don't get to use that language.' That's actually why I came out at the time. It's important that people take a stand on these issues."
Although Watson's revelation may have come as a surprise to some of his colleagues, it certainly didn't affect their appreciation of his work. Subsequently, free from having to worry about whether his sexuality might prove a workplace issue, Watson's career has moved forward in leaps and bounds.
To an outsider, it may be surprising that he's working in the banking sector – when a tech company or Internet giant might be the more obvious career destination for the obviously dedicated Watson. However, as he is quick to point out, banking is at the cutting edge of the tech world.
"There's nothing you can do in a bank without technology. Everything we do is driven by technology. That's why it's very exciting, as a technologist, to work in financial services. I think banking is the most technically focused industry there is - far more so than places like Amazon or Facebook, and so on. This is especially true as our society becomes more digitally focused."
Considering the lengths financial institutions most go to eliminate fraud and online hacking – implementing state-of-the-art security measures – you can sense the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of those in the technology leadership roles at financial services firms. With situations such as the high-profile technology breakdown suffered by NatWest earlier this year, jobs like Anthony's carry a responsibility that has both advantages and disadvantages.
"These jobs are certainly not for the faint of heart," says Watson. When I ask him what he enjoys most about his job, and what he finds most challenging, he answers: "Constant change. As a financial organisation, we're constantly evolving our products and services. Because technology moves so quickly, we are constantly delivering change. Everything the business wants to do is enabled by technology.
The great thing about my job is that we're always at the forefront of that change. Of course, at the same time, it's also very challenging and complex. Because there's constant change, you're constantly 'on the go'. I'm on a plane most weeks, so it can get a bit tiring, it also affects your personal life, to a degree. But, for most part, I love doing what I do."
Watson is aware that he's in a fortunate position, and in a business world not renowned for being particularly gay-friendly, he stands apart. He's also quick to try and dispel stereotypes. Openly gay, and a Christian to boot, he's not your typical financial services 'stuffy suit'. He himself has noted how the business world has evolved over the course of his career, waking up to the benefits of a diverse workforce.
In this year's World Pride Power List 2012, published in The Guardian, Watson was voted the 56th most influential gay person in the world, alongside the likes of Tom Cook (CEO Apple), and Lord Browne (former CEO of BP). Barclays was ranked third in Stonewall's 2012 Workplace Equality Index, and it has a large and well-established LGBT Network group, Spectrum.
Watson is a supporter of several charities across Europe that help young people, and in this capacity, has spoken in schools to young people about difference, diversity, LGBT issues and their own career options. Of this work, Watson simply says, "It's very important that those of us who can, should give back to the communities in which we live and work. I've been very fortunate in life and I want to be able, in some small way, to help others".
Still, I wonder if he feels alone at his level – or whether there are other gay people he knows who decided to stay in the closet.
"I know for a fact that there are. Weirdly, someone told me the other day that I'm the only gay chief information officer at a financial service firm in the world. Now, I know a lot of gay technologists working in financial services, so I find that quite interesting, and I'm sad about it, in a lot of ways. Being open about my sexuality hasn't hindered my career, and I would like to think that for other people, it wouldn't hinder their careers either."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that this ex theology student once considered a life in the pulpit, he's quick to caution against anyone deciding on his or her chosen career path too early in life. I ask what advice he would give to a young person who wanted to enter the world of banking.
"The first thing I'd say, before you expressed an interest in any particular industry, is to follow your passions. These are pretty tough jobs. Literally, I'm 'on' 24/7 be it a payments problem in France, an ATM issue Spain or a delivery in India: whatever it happens to be, wherever it happens to be, whenever it happens to be. So, follow your passions and you'll be successful, and, more importantly, happy in what you do. That's advice that I would give to anybody, regardless of what job they want to do or what industry they want to enter."
With regard to his own career, one senses that Watson will continue to follow his passions, wherever they may take him.
"For me, it's not about what role I do, but about having an impact. I want to work in an organisation that allows me to have a demonstrable and positive impact on people's lives, be they customers, employees or shareholders. I want to be able to say, 'I made a difference'. That's really important for me. I want to be able to say, 'I was part of something bigger'. Steve Jobs said he wanted to make a dent in the universe. Well I want to at least attempt to make a dent in the universe in which I live and work."
Anthony Watson has been nominated in this year's Abercrombie & Fitch Diversity Champion of the Year category of the European Diversity Awards , which takes place in London on 20 September.
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