Georgia Paphiti (UBS): The power of daring

An interview by Jerome Bloch

How do you develop a successful career in the financial sector, while raising four children and finding time to write a cookbook? UBS Europe SE's CFO and Regional Financial Controller Georgia Paphiti puts it down to self-belief, seizing opportunities, respect for others, persistence – and especially a willingness to dare.

 

How did your career in the financial industry begin?

 

I got my first job when I was 13 years old. It was at Coopers & Lybrand in Cyprus. I was helping my father, an electrician, with phone installations over the summer holidays and noticed that the Managing Partner's office door was open. I entered and said: “I need a paying job.” He laughed. I told him that I wanted to earn money in order to study to become an architect. After the war of 1974, my parents were refugees in their own country, who had to start from scratch. And to study architecture, one had to travel abroad. He offered me a job and I kept going back every summer for the next four years. After finishing high school, I received a scholarship to study Economics in the UK. After I graduated, I was recruited by Coopers & Lybrand in Cyprus and I became a chartered certified accountant. During the seven years thereafter, I managed a large audit portfolio with mandates in different countries while I also worked on assignments in Poland, Russia and Greece, got married and was expecting my first child when UBS (SBC then), one of my clients, offered me a mandate to launch and lead an office in Cyprus.

 

“Believe in yourself, and do not allow the perception of others define what you do or what you become.”


How did you manage?

 

Everyone thought I was crazy - surely a woman expecting a child would stay at home, or at least remain with her existing employer. I clearly wanted to devote time to my young family but at the same time I did not want to give up my career. The only solution was to ask my potential employer for flexibility even before accepting the job, which was unheard of in Cyprus, probably because no one before me had the courage to ask. I would arrive at the office later or leave earlier, but I made sure that the job was done, even if this sometimes meant working from home during the evening. I was with UBS in Cyprus until 2014 and had responsibilities not only for Cyprus but also for Russia, the Middle East, the Nordic countries and the Netherlands. When I was offered the Chief Financial Officer position of UBS in Luxembourg, my family gladly agreed to move here, and two years later, I took up a regional role, heading the Finance team for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

 

What philosophy and instincts have helped you progress in your career?

 

Over the years, I have developed four strong convictions that have always helped me: “You have to believe in yourself, no matter what other people think”; “You have to pursue opportunities and not be afraid to learn in the process"; “Respecting other people is key”; and “Never give up”. These convictions are not specific to women, but I see that women are often afraid to take opportunities. They feel that they don't have the necessary skills, and it is often the case that when they have a family, they do not pursuit a career out of fear of failing. We often hear that the solution is to hire more women. But I believe the key lies in promoting the ability to dare and the change will come from within. I no longer hear people telling women that they are not going to make it, so clearly things are improving. Half of my team members are female. I am not worried about offering flexibility as long as the job gets done. I trust the people I work with, so I do not need to micro-manage, even with a team of 240 people in 20 countries. I try to get to know every team member personally and find out more about them besides the work they do, because management and leadership is mostly about adapting to each person and their culture. When working with women, I find they are more emotional and aware of the feelings of those around them and you need to respect them for what they are. By contrast, men sometimes lack emotional intelligence. Ultimately each person, male or female, is different and one needs to respect the individuality of each person we interact with.

 

How would you describe Luxembourg compared to the other jurisdictions you visit?

 

It is very comparable to Cyprus, my home country, both in terms of size and the service industry but Luxembourg is more geared and focused towards the financial sector in a very well organised environment. The whole country is united around a common interest: to promote itself internationally. My family is here to stay – my children speak Greek, English, French and German. Our youngest, who is now five years old, speaks Luxembourgish perfectly; I still have a long way to go with all the languages. We all love this international environment – including how clean, structured and safe it is compared to other European cities! I sometimes wish that Luxembourgers were slightly less reserved, but between the school, our neighbourhood, work and university, where I coach a few students, there are plenty of opportunities to make new friends and meet very interesting people.

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