Helena is Head of Legal for Asset & Invoice Finance at RBS. She leads a high-performing legal team which delivers comprehensive, expert and commercial advice to its supported businesses. Since joining RBS, Helena has been an active driver of various diversity & inclusion initiatives and has co-chaired the Bank’s women’s network for the past three years.
Helena Thernstrom
Helena Thernstrom

A passionate advocate of supporting and developing others, Helena mentors both inside and outside of the Bank and has been involved with several youth initiatives including ‘Inspiring the Future’ and the ‘Sprint programme’. She is also an active participant in several pro-bono schemes, including Liberty Helpline and the National Centre for Domestic Violence.

How does it feel to be nominated for our Champion for Women Award?

I feel incredibly honoured to have been recognised for something which I care so deeply about and which for the past 25 years or so, in one guise or another, has played a big part of my life. Like many others involved with championing women and, more broadly, the diversity and inclusion agenda, it is something I do without really thinking of it as ‘work’ or something out of the ordinary so receiving this recognition feels extra special.

Can you tell us about your career path that led you to your current role?

I never thought that I would work in Banking or Finance but originally had my ambitions set on becoming an international Human Rights lawyer. My career path is characterised by pursuing a string of unexpected opportunities, often involving a leap of faith driven by ‘a good feeling’ about people.

I trained and qualified in the public sector as a lawyer for the Probation Service. This was a fantastic opportunity to get real hands-on experience as a junior lawyer and it involved work as varied as prosecuting in magistrates’ courts and advising on large public procurement contracts. Wanting to gain a new experience before settling on an area of expertise, I fell into asset finance on a whim. A friend of a friend sent me a job description and, having put a tick to about 6 out of 10 of the relevant criteria, I sent off an application not even knowing what asset finance really was! It ended up being a wonderful experience. Working with a growing international company provided me with an excellent understanding of relationships, commercial pressures, and the skills needed to succeed as an in-house lawyer. When the opportunity presented itself to work at RBS, a much larger organisation and the biggest asset finance provider in the UK (Lombard), a key reason for joining was the person who recruited me. She was well known and respected in the industry and someone that I knew I could learn a lot from. And this was exactly what I did, picking up knowledge and working experience of invoice finance and bank lending in the process. I now head up the team I joined where I lead a fantastic collective of individuals, learning more and more every day and trying to share experience wherever I can.

Can you tell us more about the development programme you created for the RBS Women Network in London?

The RBS Women’s Development Programme is an initiative which supports and complements the Bank’s commitment and investment in its talent pipeline.

Led entirely by volunteers, and run across a maximum period of 12 weeks, it is a self-nominating programme available to non-managerial colleagues who are keen to take the next step up. Elements include mentoring, personal development workshops, meeting leaders of the Bank, and working on a project in assigned competing teams where the final project presentations are set up as a ‘Dragons’ Den’ style pitch to executives of the Bank.

Since its modest 2015 launch in London, the programme has gone from strength to strength and the team projects keep producing tangible results. These include the establishment of a male allies network which now has just shy of 3,000 members, and the creation of a job share portal which connects employees across functions and divisions. Building on the successes of London, the programme was launched globally last year and from well over a thousand applications, 120 successful candidates took part in the 2018 cohort.

Whilst over the past years, the programme has touched thousands of colleagues and contributed to a significant increase in awareness and advocacy around the gender agenda, and whilst the tangible outcomes of the projects are successes that we are incredibly proud to celebrate, I think that it is important to also recognise that a key success of the Programme is that it has directly helped, inspired and connected individuals. We constantly receive feedback from our alumni that the most important thing they got out of the programme was to get to know colleagues from other parts of the Bank and to learn about opportunities that they did not previously know existed. This has in turn resulted in numerous job moves, promotions and lasting friendships. And having now surpassed 150 candidates, our alumni network is ever expanding. I am very excited to see how this will grow in years to come.

What is your favourite part of your job and why?

It is probably a terrible cliché but it would have to be the people. I am incredibly lucky to work with some outstanding colleagues in an environment which actively supports its people.

In the team that I manage, each individual surprises and impresses me on a daily basis and collectively, they are probably my greatest source of inspiration and personal growth. In the wider Legal function, my colleagues role model collaboration and support, and in the asset and invoice finance businesses, I have the privilege of working with a wide range of exceptionally committed and knowledgeable individuals –having a lot of fun in the process!

Finally, in the RBS Women’s Network and other employee-led networks that I engage with, I work with an array of individuals whose drive, talent and passion inspire and energise me no end. As the networks span all operations and activities of the Bank, it has been a brilliant way of learning about the full range of initiatives that RBS drives. I am very proud to work for an organisation which actively promotes gender equality both internally and externally, a recent example of the latter being the Rose Review into female entrepreneurship.

Who has been the most influential person in your career and why?

Throughout my career, I have had many role models who have inspired me to do more and to be better. However, my first manager is undoubtedly the person who set me on the path which led to meeting them.

When I finished law school, I did not have a training contract. Anyone familiar with the legal profession will know that this is usually the biggest hurdle to overcome and unfortunately, most people do not in fact manage to secure one.

My gateway into a career in law therefore started as a PA to the Head of Legal for the London Probation Service where, within the space of three years, my manager supported me to move from managing diaries to qualifying as a lawyer. Funnily enough, I was told many years later that he had had some reservations about hiring me in the first place as he thought that I was overqualified for PA work but that his wife (also a lawyer) had suggested he take a chance. His willingness to take a leap of faith is something which has driven many of the career choices I have made since. Moreover, his unyielding support, generosity with time, and kindness towards others continue to inspire me to pay the same forward in the office and beyond.

Do you prefer to cook or be cooked for and what is your favourite cuisine?

Both! I love all aspects of food and genuinely believe that I was born to eat! My partner actually does most of the cooking but it is a genuine treat if we can find time to prepare a meal together (it usually requires a well-choreographed dance in our small London kitchen).

It would be absolutely impossible to choose a favourite cuisine. One of the things I love most about London is its diverse food scene and I am constantly on the hunt for non-mainstream restaurants. Beyond London, I also have a passion for travelling and specific restaurants or cuisines have often formed the basis for a holiday. Travelling ‘to eat’ is something which ties in with my interest in anthropology as a society’s relationship with food is often very revealing about its history, people and culture. Not only do I find this fascinating to learn about but it is also knowledge which enriches my understanding of diversity.