Sasha Shillingford may be small in stature but she has been standing tall in the local business world as corporate secretary and general counsel of Republic Bank (Barbados) Limited for the past eight years.
The 41-year-old Dominica-born attorney-at-law assumed this senior management position in January 2007, following the retirement of a male predecessor who was much respected and had served in that capacity for more than three decades.
“I had big shoes to fill,” Shillingford acknowledged in an interview with Barbados TODAY. “That was intimidating.”
“It was a new role for me as well, having left a law firm to come into a banking environment which is very different,” she went on. “Just the role itself was a challenge. The level of seniority was also new to me. My responsibilities were far more than I was used to. Everything really was a huge challenge for me.”
Determined to “Make It Happen” which is the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, Shillingford settled into the position quickly and has been playing her part on the bank’s 10-member senior management team in delivering success for the organisation.
As general counsel, she handles all the bank’s legal matters in collaboration with a team of external lawyers. As corporate secretary, she is responsible for advising the male-dominated board of directors, taking minutes at board meetings, making sure certain decisions are made either by the directors or shareholders, ensuring there is transparency and securing the integrity of the bank.
“It was a lot to learn. I did manage to get through by basically learning a lot on the job,” the Harrison College-educated mother of one recalled. “I didn’t have the benefit of the qualification for corporate secretary, so I had to learn through experience and that was tough.”
As she sees it, the secret to her success was largely through emulating the good qualities from some of her role models, especially her mother who had to work and take care of a family that included two brothers.
She also drew on her experience as a prosecutor in the criminal courts of Jamaica, her initial job after completing her legal training. “That was a great learning ground for me in terms of building confidence and being in an environment that was intimidating and having to still appear strong despite the fact that you may not be feeling your most confident,” Shillingford said.
“I worked with a judge who was a female. She was a very strong individual who controlled her court. She gave me great advice as a young female coming up in the field and, just by observation which is also a very powerful tool, I was able to gain a lot,” she added.
Shillingford, who describes herself as a fun-loving person with a sense of humour, also gained valuable experience and confidence through working in law firms with many female leaders who gave her good advice over the years.
At Republic Bank, the male CEOs with whom she has worked over the past eight years also provided inspiration. “Leadership is leadership, no matter if it is male or female. So you just look for the qualities you would like to emulate. I have had great CEOs. We have gone through three since I joined the organisation and each one has been very different in his style and approach to the work,” said Shillingford.
Besides her qualifications in law, Shillingford holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA) which she pursued in the United Kingdom. After spending many years in the criminal court system in Jamaica and then switching to family law for some time, she eventually ventured into corporate law.
One of the things Shillingford enjoys about her current job is the opportunity it provides to “dabble” in different areas of law.
Overall, her biggest challenge involves striking a balance between obligations to work and family. “The longer you stay in an organisation and the higher up you move, the more responsibility comes with that,” she said.
Noting that women are often the nurturers within the home with children to care for, Shillingford said they were still required to perform just as good or better than male counterparts in the workplace and this can be a mammoth task.
“You can’t expect that anyone is going to give you a break just because you have other responsibilities,” she said.
Shillingford drew attention to differences between men and women and emphasized the importance of understanding these differences, as a senior executive, to make things happen in the workplace.
“When you are dealing with men, you have to know how to have a conversation and keep their interest,” she pointed out. “Dealing with women is a lot more natural because the things that women tend to like and the things that you have in common are very easy. You have to put in a little more effort when it comes to men.”
More than half of the approximately 500 staff members at Republic Bank are women. After attending a Secrets of a Six Figure Woman seminar last November with three of her work colleagues, Shillingford decided to implement an initiative where Republic Bank women can come together once a month and discuss issues of importance to them.
Through these meetings which started this month, the women are hoping to identify areas where the bank can better cater to their needs to help them to become more productive on the job. Shillingford said staff was very anxious to get involved.
Shillingford also told Barbados TODAY that the bank was staging a football competition with a difference at the end of this month. It will feature mixed teams of both males and females which will play six a side matches.
“Often these events are organized and we just assume that the women are not interested . . . and the females tend to get left out once it is a sporting event,” she said.
“It is nice to see the women are signing up in droves to play. We think it is going to be a great team building exercise and it is going to boost staff morale.”