The Francis Crick Institute's CFO, Michelle Shuttleworth CA on advocating for professional women
Michelle Shuttleworth CA’s career has taken her through the worlds of entertainment, fashion and journalism, from Burberry to the BBC. Now, as CFO at the Francis Crick Institute, she’s at the beating heart of British science. Cherry Casey hears why she’s become an advocate for professional women.
As organisational aims go, “understanding the fundamentals of how human life works” is a bold one. But that’s exactly what scientists are doing every day in the laboratories at the Francis Crick Institute, named after one of the British scientists who discovered the molecular structure of DNA. The institute’s CFO, Michelle Shuttleworth CA, explains: “They’re investigating what connections they may be able to find within that understanding, which may have application for other scientific hypotheses, or to go towards future drug developments or therapies.”
On a day-to-day basis, this means Michelle is surrounded by “the most exceptional scientists… you’re constantly blown away by what they’re working on, and that’s very inspiring”. It’s just one of the reasons she took on the permanent role of CFO in August 2022, after a few months doing the job on an interim basis.
But also, she says, she was drawn to the outward-looking leadership team, which was keen to grow the commercial side of operations to help support the charitable funding the institute receives. “All of the not-for-profit work I’ve done, and my corporate work in many ways, is focused on something where I can really get behind the charitable mission, where you feel you are taking what you know and using it to support other people who are doing brilliant things in the best possible way,” she says.
As CFO of “the Crick”, that translates into establishing how to spend that funding – 70% of which comes from six core funders (the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, UCL, King’s College London, and Imperial College London) – “in the best possible way, to deliver the most science we possibly can”. For Michelle, this involves much medium- and long-term planning, considering what the priorities are over the next few years and how the institute can best deliver against its mission of “discovery without boundaries”.
To be a fundamental cog in a machine that pushes the boundaries, whether it’s scientific discovery, charitable endeavour or creativity, has been a recurring theme in Michelle’s career. Prior to the Crick she held roles at a diverse range of not-for-profit organisations as well as corporations, such as Scope, Thomson Reuters and Burberry. In fact, she says, academically she was always drawn to more “artsy” subjects, with A-levels in English language and literature, and psychology. But as the only one of her siblings to go to university, she felt she needed to choose a career that had a strong business case behind it, which would lead her to future financial independence. “And I thought, people always need lawyers and accountants and I prefer numbers to debate,” she says.
So, after graduating from the London School of Economics with a BSc in accounting and finance, Michelle trained at PwC to become a CA. “I always knew I wanted to do my CA at the Big Four because they were going to give me the best training ground, and it was fantastic,” she says. “But once I was going into my audit training I came to the point where I had to decide whether I wanted to eventually progress on to partner or not. And I decided that wasn’t the path for me.”
Two years after qualifying she took a role as Business Analyst at Virgin Entertainment. “That was really eye-opening,” she says, “because you go from an environment where you’re constantly told you’re brilliant into the real world where you have a finance team of individuals who’ve grown up through all sorts of routes.” And while in the early days, Michelle felt her “difference”, as a creative type in an accounting environment, “was a real handicap, now I think it’s a bonus. I think differently, maybe communicate differently, I can see lots of different points of view and subsequently, I’m less rigid than I might otherwise be.”
And this attribute was complemented by the breadth of experience her training afforded her. “I can’t imagine doing what I do now having not had that, if that’s not too bold a statement,” she says. “My ability to go in quickly, assess a situation and then make some recommendations totally comes from my training as a CA.”
This enabled an incredibly varied career path. After Virgin she became Senior Financial Analyst at Burberry, where she “loved being surrounded by creative design and development all the time”, before moving on to become Finance Director at BBC, where she was fundamental in creating the BBC Women’s Network, designed to help support and progress the careers of women in the organisation.
No time for tea
As her roles became more senior, Michelle says, and she had more help with aspects such as managing her time, her capacity to see certain things more clearly also developed. And the impact of being a woman in the male-dominated world of finance was no exception. In the early stages of her career, she says, “I naively didn’t really believe that women were automatically at a disadvantage, and went into it thinking it was all on merit.” Being asked to make the tea in meetings, therefore, was something she assumed came from being the most junior, not the only female in the room. “As I became more senior, I had to make a very concerted effort not to be the person getting the cups of tea because actually that’s not my role,” she says.
As well as the “obvious” barriers to women’s career progression, such as having children, Michelle says one of the most difficult to overcome is that, as the only woman in the room, “you’re different. And so you have the niggling concern that people are going to perceive you in a particular way, or your point isn’t as valid, or you shouldn’t speak up about a particular issue and it works as a sort of confidence ‘grater’, which is quite hard to get over.”
Support from the senior level is crucial, says Michelle, via whatever route feels most authentic and effective, whether it be mentoring, sponsorship or coaching. The BBC Women’s Network aimed to facilitate that, holding events where women across the organisation came together “and there was no hierarchy”.
“If I think about the big step changes in my career, such as when I first became an FD, they’ve happened because I’ve had someone in the organisation who believed that what I was doing was good and they wanted to support me in my next step,” she says. Indeed, she says her current boss – Sam Barrell, Deputy CEO – is “incredibly supportive”, which is what enabled her to progress to a permanent position.
“The reason I was taking interim roles was so I could pick and choose my work, as I have young children (Michelle has four sons) and didn’t want to work full time,” she says. “Sam was really supportive in looking at how they could make this role work for me on a permanent basis.”
She adds: “I champion other women around me to do brilliant things, because the fallacy that ‘for me to win you must lose’ can be really eroding for women.” There is space for everyone, she insists, and she relishes the opportunity to match a talented team member to a project that will give them some exposure, and then to sponsor them through it.
But she also empowers the people around her, she says, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because her role demands it. “I don’t have time to be in the detail on everything,” she says. “I rely on delegating effectively, allowing people to make mistakes and saying, ‘If it goes wrong, I’m accountable because I’ve given that responsibility to you.’” Ultimately, she says, “I hope I’m a human leader, because I place great importance on seeing work as just one part of a person’s broader existence, and try to understand what else is going on to figure out what their motivations may be or how I can best support them.”
In the deep end
Life outside work is crucial to Michelle too, not least as an opportunity to indulge her creative side. Since 2021, for instance, she has been a trustee of the Photographers’ Gallery in Soho, in her home town of London, something she was drawn to through her love of the arts and passion for supporting the capital’s cultural institutions, but also the attraction of a role where you “know enough to bring something to the table, but also don’t know enough so that you feel a bit scared”. Perhaps due to a similar urge, she launched her own children’s clothing line, Boa Wool, in 2018. “It is very humbling to go from being a leader in your day job to doing something like this, and being totally at sea,” she says, “but I really enjoy feeling totally out my depth.”
A thirst for challenge is no doubt the driving force behind Michelle’s incredible CV. But for CAs also looking to forge a career path that is not only successful, but reflects the diversity of their interests, passions and personality, her advice is to prize professional and ethical integrity above all else. “It’s been 22 years since I qualified but that aspect of my training is something I come back to frequently,” she says. “I hold a professional qualification that I’m very proud of, but it does come with a weight of responsibility. Wear it lightly, but take it incredibly seriously.”
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