But, BT financial controller and chartered management accountant, Claire Ighodaro, learnt to balance more than just books at the beginning of her career back in the late 1970s.
As the 47-year-old senior director looks back, she says she discovered a deep reserve of determination and ambition as a newly married mother striving to find the time to build a career in management accountancy.
‘I used to study in the middle of the night as I rocked the baby to sleep’, she says.
A new baby, evening study and a daytime job as a trainee management accountant tested her to the limit.
‘People told me I had taken on too much, but I found the challenge of gaining my professional qualification very exciting,’ she says. ‘I was determined to show people what I could achieve.’
An Anglo-Nigerian with a first degree in business and accounting, working mother, Ighodaro took her first job graduate job as an accounts assistant with Otis Elevators in South London and chose to become a management accountant.
‘I had thought about chartered accountancy, but realised that I didn’t want to work in audit’, she explains. ‘Instead, I wanted to be at the sharp end, working in industry.’
Two years of hard study with CIMA while bringing up a child instilled a discipline about work and study that stood her in good stead ever since.
‘The CIMA training was far more analytical, made far for more use of my maths and involved far more interaction with people than the other accountancy qualification.’
Ighodaro qualified in 1979, and her bosses at Otis began to recognise her determination with a promotion from assistant to management controller.
‘I had to work with engineers in the field and that taught me some useful lessons about how to get on with other people,’ she said. ‘I began to understand the importance of seeing problems from the other person’s viewpoint – and I have built on that ever since.’
A move in 1985 to BT gave the ambitious management accountant the chance to test her skills in an industry undergoing the massive upheaval of privatisation.
‘There was an excitement when BT went private because everything was new and had to be set up from scratch’, she says. ‘We had no previous procedure to operate by – we invented them all.’
As a management and development accountant in South London she introduced automated handsets for BT field engineers that cut out the need to employ clerks to transcribe their written notes.
Hot on the heels of the projects success, she was promoted to senior project manager and overseeing the timesaving measure across the UK.
Ighodaro went on to work as head of group quality in London, where she helped BT win an European award, before moving to Munich as a director building a network for German subsidiary Viag Interkom, which is now third in the German market.
‘It was a difficult role because we were trying to introduce the best of BT without being in any way colonial about it,’ she explains.
Ighodaro moved back to London last year and took up a senior boardroom role as financial controller of BTUK markets, which includes responsibility for the company’s e-commerce strategy.
Breaking through barriers
Ighodaro says although she was one of the first black women in the profession when she began her career, things have changed considerably 25 years on.
‘CIMA is now very popular with woman, because of its flexibility’, she says. ‘Women make up half of the initial intake, but like other careers they tend to get drawn into other areas or have to put their career on hold.’
She adds that in many of her jobs she was the first black woman accountant.
‘In the early days it was almost like an experiment and I was proving what was possible’, she says. ‘But, I was doing it for myself and not because I was trying to represent anybody else.’
She also believes that positive discrimination can be counterproductive.’Informal and personal networks are fine’, she says. ‘But once you formalise them the risk is that they become confrontational – and that just sets-up barriers to progress rather than helping to break them down.’
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