Mastercard boss Ann Cairns' journey from oil rigs to credit card queen

Ann Cairns: 'You have to manage your own career'
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Story highlights

  • Mastercard boss Ann Cairns was also first female engineer on UK offshore oil rig
  • Also led the European team managing the Lehman Brothers' Bankruptcy

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. This month we're celebrating '"Money Women" with a special series looking at the women who control global finance. We start with an in-depth interview with Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Foundation (IMF).

(CNN)The first female engineer to work on offshore oil and gas rigs in the U.K, knows what it's like to be the only woman in sight for hundreds of kilometers.

In her twenties, mathematician Ann Cairns was quite literally thrown in the deep end, working on British Gas rigs in the remote North Sea in the early 1980s.
    "It started off with designing pipelines, testing them, blowing up the pipes and seeing what pressure they'd burst at," said the mother-of-one, originally from Newcastle in the north of England.
    Decades later, Cairns' office is far more conventional -- though no less demanding. She is now the President of International Markets for credit card giant, Mastercard, overseeing 5,000 employees in over 200 countries.
    Funnily enough, Cairns says working in investment banking in the 1980s, was a more sexist environment than the all-male rigs.
    "I think engineers, as I see it, are really team players," she said.
    "And providing that you have a scale that people can recognize and you add value to, then you're seen not for who you are -- but what you can do."
    Towards the end of the decade Cairns was again plunged in the deep end, this time joining Citigroup in 1987 -- just 19 days before the "Black Monday" market crash.
    "I think if you're in the engineering world you love fixing things," she said of coping under extreme pressure.
    "And I found that I thrived in that environment."
    It's a trait that served Cairns well later in her career -- in 2008 she led the European team managing the Lehman Brothers' Bankruptcy.
    Three years later Cairns joined Mastercard as the head of international business, managing all operations for the company outside of the U.S.
    Does she want to be the ultimate boss one day?
    "I think we have a fantastic CEO in Ajay Banga, but you know I think there's nothing wrong with being ambitious and wanting to have the next job," she said.
    "So that's a 'yes.'"

    Ann Cairns on success:

    "You're only as good as your boss thinks you are. And if your boss doesn't think you're great, go and find another boss!"

    And fulfillment:

    "I hope my daughter has learned that happiness and success are bound together -- you can't separate your business life from your family life."