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Marketing & Communications Leader Series ep.3: Noreen Biddle Shah


Welcome back to EMR's Marketing and Communications Leader Series, where we dive deep into the journeys of exceptional senior marketing and communication practitioners. Join us as we take a closer look at how they got started in marketing and the strategies that led them to success in their industries. 

In this episode, EMR's MD Tom Brockton interviews Noreen Biddle Shah, former Head of Marketing & Communications at Numis, who recently joined Carne Group as their CMCO. Find out more about Noreen's path to success, how she balances her work whilst acting as the Non-Exec Director position at Solent University, as well as the founder of Reboot, an organisation supporting ethnic minorities in financial and professional services workplaces. 

Can you tell us about your journey into becoming a marketing and communications leader?

So my journey, I hope doesn't come as a nightmare to anyone, but it was very haphazard. I studied communications at university, so I knew I wanted to have some sort of a role within communications. I was toying around with journalism, at the beginning. But after having some work experience within a PR agency, I thought: "oh, this is fun!", there was this whole lovely mishmash of lots of things to do. So I thought when I leave university, I'm just going to stick to this plan because lots of people come out wondering what they want to do and confused. So that, in a nutshell, is what inspired my communications career. 

But it wasn't very easy in the sense when I did leave university and I was looking for a job, I was out there sending my CV left, right and centre. I thought for whatever 100 jobs I applied for, I might have got one response. So I had to end up working for free for a whole year for PR agencies. So I was working seven days a week, so two days to fund my lifestyle and my travel fees and expenses. But because I was able to get that free work experience, that really helped because I was able to put it into my CV. 

And that's what then allowed me to actually get into my career. And I started off in technology PR agencies, and then I moved in-house and my specialism became trade bodies. So I was at what is now known as TechUK intellect. So it is a trade body for the technology industry. I really loved that because it was very issues-based and you're really helping a whole industry. You're going to the government, you're trying to reform certain policies just to make sure that they're able to survive and the industry prospers. And then I headed off to another similar organisation, which was focused on arbitrators, adjudicators, and I had a broader role, not just PR. So it was a broader communications role, and I really loved that. 

Then I went into financial services and the rest is history. My first financial services role was with the Investment Association. I was their press officer and it was in 2008, so there was something called the financial services crisis. You may or may not have heard of it. I came into it very blind and I remember saying to one of my colleagues: "oh, is it always like this?" And she laughed, saying, "oh, it's been very quiet up until now". So I definitely started at a very interesting time for the asset management industry. It was a very interesting time in terms of how the media started to portray and talk about financial services and the work that as a trade body we had to do in the industry. It was a fantastic eye-opener. Then moving after that, I started to have more commercial jobs. Before it was very trade body, very not-for-profit. Then I moved over to some small houses, so I covered ETFs. 

Then I went over to State Street, which is a giant financial institution. Which does a whole host of things from global markets to asset management to investment servicing. And that was fantastic. I was there for 10 years and I feel like that really set me up for success, because it's a huge global marketing team. There were incredible opportunities across the board for me and I was able to learn from some amazing people. So I got to sit with some award-winning marketing people, campaign managers, heads of thought leadership and it was so inspiring and how integrated we were. They thankfully invested in me so much, they helped me grow my role so what started as comms or PR, very quickly went into more marketing-type roles and you know whether it's content, thought leadership, events, you name it, they forced me to change my role and shock my system. And they continued to invest in me, they continued to promote me, and then my role became actually global towards the end and I was in charge of all of the corporate communications for Europe, but I was also Global Head of the insurance and the alternatives business globally and that was all marketing and communications. And that allowed me to get to Numis. 

Numis is a small investment bank, so very different. As you can see, it's financial services. It's just great because it connects, you see the whole ecosystem of how financial services work, and I ended up doing a rebrand for them. So I had the tools thanks to State Street, because I got to work with some amazing people and I was able to start afresh and help work with the leadership on what the brand should look like. I was part of the Ex-Co, so I really understood what the strategy should be like, but I wanted to work with them on "How do we communicate it? How do we make sure our stakeholders understand what Numis is about? How are we going to get new clients? How do we use the power of PR and communications? How do we bring it all together?" And thanks to that, I'm now going to be a CMCO of another fantastic company. And I just think all the things I've been able to learn over time from all these great jobs have made me who I am today. And I'm able to bring my own USP to the role.

How have you and do you approach decision-making and strategy?

I'm very data-driven and I think many females and certain groups of people may have imposter syndrome more than anyone else. I'm not a very off-the-cuff person, so when I'm making decisions I need to make sure I've done my homework. It's all about finding the right insights, doing the homework, having the right data and using all of that, coming up with an analysis and really thinking about what the recommendations should be. Working with my key stakeholders who will offer a different view, who understand the business and get a view from them. And once I've done all of that, I feel like I'm at a really good point where I can make very informed decisions that I'm very confident to take to the C-Suite. That's always been the basis of how I work. 

What do you feel the most valuable experiences have been, perhaps in your current role or in roles in the past?

I think State Street was a turning point for my career because I had been working in lots of small organisations and the good thing about that is...you roll the proverbial sleeves up and you get to do a bit of everything. Whereas, you go into a more structured company like State Street where, there's it's its’ own business, marketing and communications machine. But that made me more disciplined because it's very process-driven. Reputation is a huge problem for big global organizations and brands, because, if you spend years building up your reputation and it's only one thing that can lose it. That was at the heart of everything we did, there was lots of crisis communications. 

So I do think just having all of these different things around me and just to learn whether it's working with different cultures, different types of people, stakeholders, personalities, different types of communicators and marketeers. That was invaluable and you can't get that from an exercise book or anything. So long-term, I didn't want that. But in terms of where I was in my growth and what I wanted to learn, no regrets there, it was the best thing I could have ever done.

With a busy role, with your non-exec directorship and, of course, the time you spend with Reboot. How do you balance the demands of these roles with your personal life?

I hope I'm allowed to say a swear word on this, but you know it can be a shit show, there's no denying that. But the point is I'm passionate about these things and when you're passionate you don't see it as a chore or a stress you you make it work in your life. So my family will always be my absolute priority. I have two girls and I want to be a role model for them. I make sure I do the school run, so 60% of the week it is me. I want to be as hands-on as I can. Thankfully in a post-COVID environment there's a lot more working from home, a lot more flexibility and that's made a huge difference actually. I do think when you become a mother, you learn to juggle in a way. I definitely became more efficient when I became a mum. You just know, I'll prioritize what I can, but if this is not priority in any way, I take it out. So actually, it's just made me more disciplined. 

And like I said, it's a pleasure to do because I love my job. I love Reboot. I love being a non-exec. Some days, yes, it gets too much, but then I have to go back and try and re-prioritise or just say... “not a superwoman, I can't do it, apologies”. And I, unfortunately, had to do that quite recently with one of my NED board meetings because there was just too much going on. But I had a very honest conversation and, in response, they were fantastic and said how can we make it work for you. So we found a really great compromise and off I go to make it work. So, I think that's the answer. It's not a magic wand, it's hard work, but if you're really passionate about something, you make it work. 

In summary, what advice would you give to any aspiring Heads of Marketing or Directors of Marketing or Comms, or indeed young professionals looking to advance their careers? 

if I could answer from someone that's felt like they were on the outside as a minority, whether that's a female, an ethnic minority or someone from a different background, I think the issue is we never feel good enough. A, could we get into financial services, which is very middle class, very white, very academic, in terms of who's getting the job, in terms of qualification? So you do unfortunately feel like, “am I good enough?”. But I've always kept my head down and I've worked really hard. 

But the advice is, I wish I had the confidence that I never had earlier on. If I could have unlocked that earlier, I would have. I was so lucky because again, it was definitely at State Street, where the leaders there were so supportive of me. They were real allies. So actually getting in there early by having role models, mentors and networking is absolutely crucial, because that helps build your confidence. Because then I have my peers and I can know if I'm at their level, I'm not, what can I learn? So I'm constantly finding ways to grow now. But if I was doing that 10, 15 years ago, I do feel maybe I would have accelerated a bit quicker in my career journey. But I would definitely say, if you can, never feel like the imposter. Everyone has a superpower that they bring to the table. Diversity is amazing, but once you know what your superpower is, you need to own it, you need to harness it, and you need to make sure you've got the right community and network around you - your peers, your allies, your role models. And once you do that, I think you yourself will just flourish over time, but you kind of need that toolkit of parts. And again, that's for that specific audience if they feel like they're lacking in some ways. 

Listen to the full interview above and follow EMR to hear the next episode in this series. 

If you missed the previous episodes, check them out here: episode 1 with Bee Patel, Global Director of Brand & Communications at AlphaSights; and episode 2 with Emma Hill, Group Brand & Marketing Director at Cardano.  

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