Career Mobility Q&A with Caroline Wayman, Chief Executive and Chief Ombudsman at the Financial Ombudsman Service

In the final instalment of a series of interviews showcasing the potential for lawyers beyond the‘traditional role’, Syed Nasser speaks to Caroline Wayman, the outgoing Chief Executive and Chief Ombudsman. As a high profile female leader she offers a real insight into the challenges many organisations face around D&I as well as the challenges in leading a public service organisation.

1. Please tell us a bit about who you are, your background and current role?

I’m Caroline Wayman, chief executive and chief ombudsman at the Financial Ombudsman Service – an independent public body set up by Parliament to sort out complaints between financial businesses and their customers in a fair and impartial way. After studying law at Nottingham Law School (NTU) I was called to the bar and spent my early career working in the insurance industry, before joining the Insurance Ombudsman Bureau in 1999. I joined the Financial Ombudsman Service in 2000 and was appointed to the executive team, in 2011 as principal ombudsman and legal director. In 2014 I became chief executive and chief ombudsman. Outside the ombudsman service, I also sit on the board of the Crown Prosecution Service, am its Senior Independent Director and chair its Nominations and Governance Committee. I am also on the Board of Governors at Nottingham Trent University and sit on their audit and risk management committee.

After nearly 7 years as chief ombudsman & chief executive and after 22 at the ombudsman service, I have decided that the time is right for me to step down from the role and will leave in April. The ombudsman service has reached a pivotal point in its history and as nations, organisations and individuals, we are contemplating a landscape shaped and forever changed by a global pandemic. It’s against this backdrop, that the service is embarking on the next phase of its journey and it’s time for me to do the same. I am very excited about the next chapter in my career and what the future may hold.

2. You studied law and were called to the Bar but didn’t practice. Have you remained close to the law in some way?

When I finished my studies, I decided to take a year out and planned to come back and practice the law at some stage, but my career ended up taking a different path. One of the interesting things about working for an ombudsman service is that it has a lot of similarities to a court – an ombudsman needs to weigh up the evidence from both sides to reach an independent view about what has happened and decide what needs to happen to help put things right when they have gone wrong. Under the rules of the Financial Ombudsman Service an ombudsman has to take into account relevant law and regulations; regulators’ rules, guidance and standards; codes of practice; and (where appropriate) what the ombudsman considers to have been good industry practice at the relevant time. But a complaint must ultimately be determined by reference to what the ombudsman considers to be fair and reasonable in all the circumstances of the case. If an ombudsman makes a decision that departs from the law, they have to clearly explain the reason why. As principal ombudsman and legal director I had to work through sometimes very complex areas of law to understand how that might relate to the casework we saw, and the everyday problems people might encounter. I helped establish the ombudsman service’s approach to payment protection insurance (PPI) and later helped successfully defend a judicial review against that approach. Now more than £33billion has already been paid back to people who complained about the sale of PPI with the financial industry applying the ombudsman service’s well established approach to determine if someone is owed compensation. As chief ombudsman I am responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of the service’s casework policies and approaches –for example our approach to fraud and scams cases and more recently complaints caused by or affected by Covid-19.

3. What led you to the Financial Ombudsman Service?

One of the things that drew me to working for an ombudsman service was that remit of ‘fair and reasonable’. Fairness is something that I have always been passionate about and I have always ensured that was front and central in any career decisions I took. I will continue to look for opportunities that align with my passion for fairness and doing the right thing – values I worked hard to embed in the ombudsman service and which I will carry with me when I go.

4. What have been the biggest challenges you have faced as chief ombudsman and chief executive?

I’m sure this must be the answer everyone would give at the moment, but leading the organisation through the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of my biggest challenges. We had to transform to a fully remote organisation overnight and maintain a good level of service to our customers whilst also needing to maintain a strong focus on our people’s health and wellbeing. Demand for the service substantially increased as a result of the pandemic and we needed to ensure we continued to respond to vulnerability and complexity in the complaints we were seeing – providing additional support to those who needed it. Our people’s strength and resilience was tested in ways it never has been before and it was important the service provided as much support and flexibility as possible to help people adapt to the huge changes in their personal and professional lives. I’m extremely proud of everything our people managed to achieve despite all those disruptions and I think is real testimony to what can be achieved when you lean into a challenge and work together to overcome it. Aside from the challenges the global pandemic brought, over the years there have also been times when we have faced periods of extended external scrutiny. As a public service organisation, it is absolutely right that the ombudsman service is subject to external scrutiny and challenge but that can of course be very difficult at times too. I’ve found that being as transparent and as open as possible on the work and challenges we face as a demand led organisation helps ensure we can help set the wider context and give appropriate account of the work we do.

5. What unique challenges, if any, do you feel you have faced courtesy of being a woman in a high profile leadership position?

There have been plenty of times in my career where I have been the only woman in the room and sadly, I have experienced explicit sexism in my career – although gladly never from someone from within the ombudsman service or other organisations I have worked for. On a more positive note though I have found that in general there is an extremely supportive wider community of senior women who have always been incredibly generous with their time, advice and support. I have always tried to mirror that approach and give back as much as I can – whether that be through mentoring programmes, at networking events or more informally over a cup of coffee and a chat. As a senior leader I have a responsibility to challenge where I see inequalities or discrimination of any kind and to ensure there is a constructive narrative to help move conversations and attitudes forward.

6. What has been the biggest change you have noticed during you career?

Definitely how much more open employers have become to recognising the value of and encouraging diversity of backgrounds when they are hiring or promoting to roles. Also, people’s careers can take much less linear pathways than in the past which I think also really adds to the richness of backgrounds and experience that we’ve started to see come through in recent years.

7. Diversity and Inclusion is a hot topic of course, but what do you feel are the benefits beyond simply being the right thing?

I have always tried to make sure I lead a workplace where people can join knowing they can be themselves – and in doing so I believe they will provide the best possible service to customers. The ombudsman service is one that is available to everyone in the UK and I don’t think we’d be able to understand our customers and the society we serve if we weren’t a diverse and inclusive organisation. Of course, Covid-19 wasn’t the only significant event of 2020. The issue of racial injustice was also brought into sharp focus – something which, sadly, has impacted many of our people. We made sure that we gave our people a platform to share their experiences of racism and helped us understand where we can do more. As an organisation and society more widely, keeping up the momentum on these conversations, continuing to ask ourselves tough questions, and exploring the areas where we aren’t as good as we want to be, remain extremely important.

8. What advice would you give yourself in your early 20’s?

Part of what I really enjoy about leading an organisation is having the opportunity to hear a wide range of views and perspectives in my day to day role. When you first go into any type of leadership role it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all the responsibility for ideas and solutions fall on your shoulders. I think I would definitely give my 20 year old self the advice that actually it’s the diversity of thoughts and perspectives and working collaboratively that will bring out the best in your own leadership style and will ultimately help you to create an environment where people see the success of an organisation as a shared responsibility and something everyone can take ownership of. Also, try to learn the importance of not being too hard on yourself when you don’t get everything right first time. When you learn an important lesson – celebrate it – as it means you are continuing to learn and grow – something that we should never stop doing.

By Syed Nasser, Head of Technology Transactions

& Venture Capital

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