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Bold and balanced

Interview with Anna-Maria Garcia-Brooks

Q: Can you tell us a little about your corporate background?

My career started in 1980 when I entered Neal & Massy’s Management Training programme as an intern. At the time I wanted to pursue a career in Accountancy.  However, after having been exposed to accounting, information technology and public relations on the programme, I realised that my passion lay in the last area – public relations (PR).

I loved the strategy, the communication, the people interaction, the psychology of change, the building of brands. I loved it all.  After spending six months as an intern in the PR department, I decided to pursue my studies in that area. I later moved on to start up a PR department at an insurance company and later tried my hand at advertising from the client service side of the business, as a director in a small advertising firm. From there, I ventured into freelance communication as a consultant, and finally joined the team at Republic Bank.  I’ve always believed that God puts me where He wants me to be and where I was needed at a point in time, so when I entered those doors of Republic House on Park Street in 1993, I knew that I’d found my home.

From an academic point of view, I completed The University of the West Indies (UWI) Mass Media and Communication Arts programme, receiving the Pro Vice Chancelor’s First Prize for General Proficiency; completed The UWI’s Executive MBA and executive education programmes at Stanford University, Wharton and the University of Michigan Business School, in general management, strategic marketing, transformative leadership and strategic human resources – opportunities which were provided through Republic Bank’s foresight in investing in its team members.

In 2014, I was honoured by The University of the West Indies as its Distinguished Alumni and in 2021 was made a Fellow of the Institute of Banking and Finance for my contribution to the profession and the industry.

I retired from Republic at the end of 2020 and started my new, exciting journey as the Episcopal Delegate for Administration (Commissions & Companies) with the Archdiocese.

Q: What were some of the challenges you experienced as a woman in your position and field? How did you overcome them?

I recognise that business is, in many respects, still a man’s world, though that is changing rapidly by powerful and persistent women, and with the increasing entry and performance of bold, intelligent, and progressive women breaking barriers and taking the helm in companies large and small.

Women bring unique and valuable perspectives to every situation. My husband was one of the first men in my life to admit that and would constantly share situations and plans with me for what he considered my unique perspective. I have had that experience in varying degrees from other executives throughout my career, particularly at Republic.

Have I ever been discriminated against? I have. Discrimination because I’m a woman? Maybe, but I’ve preferred not to allow narrow views to be a barrier to success. So instead of dwelling on the action, I found ways to navigate around it to get to the goal.

As women, we must be bold and let our voices be heard above the noise that surrounds us. That does not always equate to shouting. Shouting aggravates instead of soothes.

Boldness does not equate to pushiness. It is allowing ourselves to be seen and heard. It is sharing an opposing viewpoint when required; it is swallowing our fear and opening our mouths in a management meeting or around the board room table and letting go of the fear of being judged or labeled.

Scripture tells us not to hide our light under a bushel, yet many women do, stepping back in deference to the sometimes louder male voice. Our objective is to make insightful contributions that add value; to elevate rather than pull down anyone, especially other women.

I believe that opportunities often come wrapped up as challenges. The key is to unwrap them and find the gems inside. Every day poses a new challenge, and a new opportunity to do something different and better.

When I felt that I was not being heard or listened to, I revisited my approach and tried a new approach; when I felt that I might not have been given a voice, I recognised that few people would give it to me, so I had to find my voice and use it appropriately.

I kept looking at myself and how I might improve me. When someone gave me feedback, especially when it was not feedback that I wanted to hear, in my quiet time, I would reflect to understand their message and see how I might have done it differently. It was not always an easy process, but I became braver and more confident with each new encounter and circumstance.

While I believe that the quality of our work speaks for itself, I also believe that sometimes we need others to open doors for us and sometimes even to encourage us through them.

That’s the job of the mentor and as women, we need to embrace that important role of mentoring other young women in business or civil society or the Church to move forward on their journeys. We must be bold, resilient, stand for what we believe to be right.

Q: What were the Catholic principles you brought into the corporate space?

My personal life and my career have been inextricably linked and while my corporate life resulted in me having a relatively high public profile, it was because of my job and not my desire.

That having been said, my Catholic faith and values have been my anchor and have underpinned my actions, decisions, and performance in the corporate space. Love for God and His creation is my foundational value, and this translates to service to God’s people.

Honesty and integrity are important values to me. I try to discern right from wrong and try in my actions to do no harm to others. This does not mean that I would be a pushover or not call-out someone if I think their actions are inappropriate, or harmful.

You can make many enemies when you stand up for what you believe to be right. In business, we are sometimes required to make tough decisions that would not be popular but are necessary. We just have to do what is right.

Resilience and persistence are qualities that I have always embraced. I try to be fair and just in my dealings with people and situations.

Many years ago, one of my team commented more than once, “Boss, you are demanding and tough on us, but you are fair”. That meant a lot to me, because being tough and demanding is expected in leadership and are contributors to the growth and development of the people being led, and to their performance at a high level.

We must be demanding to maintain high standards, but fairness and justice are equally important. I believe in leading by example – do it, don’t just say it. We must demonstrate the behaviours that are worthy of emulation.

Q: Is it easy to fall into a divide between professional life and spiritual life? Does corporate life have its own morality to succeed and rise through the ranks?

Politics might have a morality of its own, and the corporate world might also have its own mores that protect it or facilitate faster upward mobility, but I believe that to be truly successful in business (and in life) you must be authentic, and authenticity is not compartmentalised.

Authenticity for me is based on my value system and consistent application of that value system through my daily behaviour and actions. To be otherwise is to be schizophrenic.

In the roles that I’ve had, I’ve been accountable to more than one stakeholder, and in my last role, I was accountable to the entire staff body, as well as the organisation, so I was always acutely aware that pleasing everyone was an impossibility, and that I must focus on what’s in the best interest of the majority, once it was not harming the minority.

Early in my career I attended a personal development workshop and was shocked to hear an attendee from another company declare that her job was to please her boss. Once he was satisfied with her work (and she would focus on the work that he would see), then everything else and everyone else was incidental.

That statement stuck with me. I could never reconcile it, and I’m aware that there are many who are of that view. But to say that such a practice is institutionalised, I would suggest not. It all depends on the persons, the company, and the culture that the company encourages.

There are some companies that perpetuate the practice where the boss’ egos are stroked constantly; where team members are willing carriers of information to earn a place in the inner circle; where leaders would maintain the status quo if there was a risk of offending the government or other power-wielding entity etc.  However, those practices can produce a cadre of ‘Yes men’ and ‘Yes women’ and result in the loss of excellent talent.

Achieving win-win outcomes is not always possible in business or indeed in life. You must also know which battles to choose, as some are just not worth the effort.

I tried throughout my corporate life, and now on my new journey, to be as honest and forthright as possible, without being offensive or disrespectful.  Speaking your truth does not always go down well with some folks. Egos are generally large and get easily bruised. But honesty and vulnerability are components of authenticity, and we need authentic leadership now in our world more than ever before.

Authentic leadership calls for the confidence to be vulnerable and trust that God will give us the courage, foresight, and resilience to persevere and to overcome the attacks and even ridicule. I have had to endure ridicule – it’s difficult, but not impossible, and I overcame it.

With respect to balancing spirituality in the workplace, I have been fortunate to have had a favourable experience. Many large and small companies in Trinidad and Tobago practice religious tolerance and embrace religious practices, understanding that the majority of their employees are spiritual beings, and it is the right of the employee to practice his/her religion – our national anthem promises that, “…every creed and race finds an equal place…”.

At Republic, we celebrated the various religious festivals of our people. There is a company prayer that was written in 1996 that is prayed at the beginning of corporate events and some meetings.

Interfaith services are held annually to thank God for His grace and generosity and seek His continued protection and blessings. The ability to acknowledge the presence of God without restraint was very important to me throughout my corporate life.

Q: You also have a family. How did you strike a balance with work, faith, and family?

I always knew that I wanted a successful career, and I also knew I wanted a loving family that would be anchored in the Catholic faith. A friend once told me that I wanted it all, and I responded, “yes, I do, and yes, I can have it all without compromise”.

It was not easy though. It required a lot of sacrifice, resilience and tremendous support from family and others. Our support systems are real, and necessary, and they contribute immeasurably to our success.

My husband, Gerry Brooks and I were both on an upward career trajectory when we met, fell in love, and decided to get married. We supported each other consistently throughout our careers and our marriage.

Sacrifice, co-operation, forgiveness, patience, tolerance, and lots and lots of love and understanding were required. Our lives comprised long hours of work, bringing work home, staying late at the office, and working well into the night including on weekends; carving out quality time to play with the children and supervise their homework, guide them and listen to them, heal their physical and emotional hurts and provide them with the love, sensitivity and tools to navigate friendships and the world; attend their games and school events; facilitate their dreams and help them build their futures.

It’s a constant juggling act to get a balance that works – nothing is perfect, and sometimes I would feel guilty that I was not a ‘home Mom’ being there when they got home from school.

So as a trade-off, I would take my file of work and sit at the pool during their swimming classes, or in my folding chair during their football games; selling at Dollar Days at their school or having library duty with my son’s Grade 2 and Grade 3 classes – reading to the class in the library brought such immense joy to me that I returned to work with a light heart and ready to take on any challenge.

Looking after and caring for my family has always been very important to me. It’s my first responsibility as a wife and mother, so I got up early in the mornings to prepare breakfast and fix their lunch kits, and have a nutritious dinner on the table, which we could enjoy together in the evenings.

I was fortunate to have had a very good housekeeper (whom the children called Aunty Donna) for 14 years. My mother and mother-in-law were selfless in their support – picking up the children, dropping them off, looking after them when my husband and I were occupied with work; calling them to chat, spontaneously taking them to the mall or the park. We taught the boys the power of prayer and their values are largely driven by their faith. Attending weekend Mass as a family was important.

Q: What advice would you give to women who want to strive in the workplace and have a family as well?

To young women, I would say that it is possible to have it all, but you must be prepared to be bold, do things differently, to make the sacrifices that are required and to dig deeply to find the emotional and spiritual resilience that you would need.

A strong support system is essential. For the sake of your family, you might have to forego or defer a promotion at a particular time; or for the sake of your career, you might have to miss some of your children’s activities.

Sometimes, you might have to set aside your dreams temporarily to allow your spouse to progress and he would have to do the same for you. I believe in putting in the work to achieve the desired results.

I have found that leadership in the corporate world is a little like parenting in the sense that we are preparing the next generation of citizens, leaders, workers, parents, and humans.

What our children and team members become, the successes they achieve and the contributions that they make in the future are partially reflections of our influence, our faith, our parenting, our leadership, our love, our sacrifice, our example.

Put God at the centre of all your objectives, be persistent, be courageous and be resilient. God will take your hand and accompany you on the journey – He is still doing it for me.