By Sarah Kelsey
The way Suzette Armoogam-Shah, Managing Director, Scotiabank (Barbados) Limited, tells it, fear nearly held her back from taking the role that changed her career trajectory.
“When I talk about the most pivotal part of my journey to date, it was when the position of Director of Regional Banking for Atlantic Region, Canada came up,” Suzette says. “I was the first woman to hold the role, as was my newly appointed Senior Vice President. Early in my career, there wasn’t a lot of diversity in senior roles and when you can’t see yourself represented at different levels it’s hard to imagine yourself succeeding in, or even occupying those roles. I wanted the job but was held back by fear. I also didn’t know the area, my relationships were in Toronto, all of the roles I had had were in the city. I couldn’t bring myself to apply.”
It was an ally within the Bank — her boss at the time — who pushed her to see she was on the precipice of letting her self-doubts derail her dreams. Right before the deadline, Suzette applied. She not only landed the job, she says she thrived being a part of Canada’s East Coast team. That role eventually opened doors she had only dreamed of walking through within the Bank, and it showed her how critically important allyship can be for women — especially women of colour.
“Role modelling is an incredibly important part of my success. I am in the position I am today because of the senior women who were role models to me, and I’m privileged to continue that for others. I know there is some young person in Barbados and she is looking at me thinking, ‘if she can do it, I can do it,’ and I take that role very seriously. I’m representing what can be, what can happen when you take that chance,” Suzette says. “I take that on, and I’m honoured to have the responsibility to foster and support diversity in the workplace and across the organization.”
Suzette’s story starts in Trinidad and Tobago, her birthplace and the country she lived in until she finished university. She then moved to Canada without her family, on a limited budget, and with no real knowledge of the nation’s culture. A childhood friend was working at Scotiabank at the time, and Suzette asked if she would put her resume forward for any available roles. When the Bank offered her a part-time teller position, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I didn’t move to Canada thinking I was going to go into banking,” Suzette says. “I quickly fell in love with the customer experience.”
She continued to expand her skills as a Personal Banking Officer where she says, “it was incredibly rewarding to help someone achieve their dreams financially,” whether that involved buying a new home, getting a first credit card, or planning for retirement. Suzette was so good at her job and treated her clients with such respect, one recently got in touch — 27 years later — to thank her for helping them buy a home.
“I was so fulfilled that I was driven to do more.”
Suzette says it was around this time that she began to map out her career to see how she could take the incremental and strategic steps necessary to become a Branch Manager and then beyond. She says with every promotion, her notion of what was possible expanded.
Suzette progressed to more senior roles in the organization including District Vice President in Toronto and becoming the first female Country Head at Scotiabank St Lucia and today, she leads the Bank’s operations in Barbados. She has seen the organization make incredible strides in terms of women holding leadership positions, especially in the Caribbean where the country-head roles are predominantly held by women.
“Our region is really leading on that front,” Suzette says.
Additionally, through Scotiabank, Suzette has become involved in I Am A Girl Barbados (IAAGB), an initiative that provides mentorship and capacity building sessions aimed at building the self-esteem of young girls from low-income households. Suzette says she sees a lot of herself in the young women — each of them wanting and striving for more.
“Regardless of barriers, [women, especially those with intersectional identities, have to know] they’re capable beyond measure. Don’t let fear win. Just do it. If you allow fear to hold you back you’ll miss out on the biggest opportunity ahead of you,” she says. “Throughout your career, you have a lot of self-talk — one person on your shoulder called fear and another called determination. You think, ‘am I good enough,’ or ‘am I ready?’ Fear doesn’t go away; as you take on greater and larger risks, it pops up. Don’t let it win.”
For everyone else, she says her biggest piece of advice is to realize you can’t just jump from one position to another — you need to train, work hard and expand your knowledge and skill set. Your career trajectory is not necessarily always going to be vertical. Sometimes lateral moves will provide that integral breadth of experience to get you to the next level. You also have to be passionate about learning and cultivating an environment that will motivate yourself, and your team members.
“I once heard a saying: ‘you can’t motivate people — motivation comes from within. All we can do is create an environment to motivate,’” she says. “You foster that kind of environment by leading with empathy, being relatable, staying connected, and being supportive.”
When asked about what’s next for her career, Suzette says, continue breaking barriers” She’s continuing to push herself to learn, grow and to take on new challenges, including helping her colleagues expand their own careers within the Bank.
“I’ve been able to do so many things at Scotiabank. I’ve learned quickly, I’ve been agile, and when I think, ‘am I going to fail now?’ I push forward. I’m honoured to be where I am today. I want to help everyone bring their best selves to work, and to give people opportunities to ensure they thrive and succeed. Fear will never win.”
This article was first published in Women of Influence and is republished with permission.