Kate Avery, group executive director of Legal & General, tells Martin Thompson how she navigated her way to the top of her profession

ate Avery was in ebullient mood when we met at the City offices of financial services giant Legal & General, where she runs the Wealth Management Group, with a seat on the main board. Sales were up 18 per cent compared with the same period last year and she was just about to congratulate her newly-formed international sales team, who had got off to a flying start. Her eyes lit up as she talked about their excitement at receiving the first cheques from new customers.

Kate's enthusiasm for getting pioneering ventures off the ground is palpable. This may seem at odds with the fact that her working life has been spent with major corporate players, both before and after gaining her MBA from Cranfield School of Management in the early 90s. She makes a point however, of maintaining a "small business outlook" when it comes to accentuating the paramount importance of customer care (her parents ran a boat building company which she watched grow) while operating within large organisations.

Kate has risen to senior positions in some of the largest, first at Barclays where she spent 18 years ultimately becoming managing director of Barclays Stockbrokers and the bank's Trust Company and then 11 years at Legal & General where she was headhunted to become group marketing director in 1996, gradually adding more and more responsibilities as she progressed up the corporate ladder.

Her path to an MBA was not an orthodox one. Kate didn't go to university. "It wasn't so much of a thing for girls in those days." Instead, she went straight into Barclays from school ("I was initially sorting statements") but was immediately talent spotted and recruited to the fast-track graduate training scheme.

"Seeking more marketing experience, I eventually launched the student Barclaycard, which gave me a lot of exposure to retail marketing and product delivery. I was then invited to go into the section that ran the bank's retail branches."

It was her boss at Barclays who, having acquired a Cranfield MBA himself, encouraged her to follow his example – and Barclays proved keen to sponsor her studies. "The bank thought the MBA would equip me with some valuable tools and broaden my business horizons at the same time."

Lacking a first degree, Kate had to sit additional tests to win a place at Cranfield. This brought out the fighting spirit in her. "I was determined to do well, becoming one of the top three students in my year," she says. One of her biggest challenges was ensuring the group she was assigned to on the MBA succeeded as a whole. "Most of my previous roles had been about gaining recognition for my self-ability," she says. "It was a real leveller. Now when I go into negotiations, I have a far clearer idea of what drives people and how they are thinking."

Being thrown together on the course with quantity surveyors and people from the Army and other backgrounds gave her a fascinating insight into different outlooks. She also found out a lot more about what motivated her. "I discovered that what really turns me on is building businesses. I felt I had some talent for spotting market opportunities and how to exploit them and deliver the results."

She found the elective on women in management particularly valuable and has since put her senior female managers at Legal & General through Cranfield's Women as Leaders workshop. "It helped me define the differences between the male and female approach to business."

As a woman operating at senior level, (Kate is one of two women on the Legal & General board) she had a fascinating insight into the effect she had on others and how to manage that. The Cranfield MBA also gave her the vision she needed to spot the holes in any proposal. After graduating, she says she had no fear of asking obvious questions.

When she left Barclays after 18 years, having the MBA on her CV was a great asset and must have been one of the reasons why Legal & General approached her. They hired her as group marketing director with a brief to bring greater customer focus to the organisation. "Senior management was dominated by actuaries and sales people at the time and I had to counteract the many opposing arguments to a new approach," she says. "Marketing was seen as something fluffy, falling in between those functions. I am anything but a fluffy person but that was how it could have been perceived, coming into that role."

She was eventually asked to build a direct-to-consumer business and also run the sales forces, pulling the distribution together. "Legal & General needed someone forceful to deliver and I am pleased to say that we now have one of the UK's largest direct insurance sales operations."

She says that over the years, the MBA experience has been a tremendous help at work. "Rather than doing something instinctively and then worrying about whether it was the right thing, it provided me with a far greater sense of security in my decision-making. It has also given me the energy and the drive to get things done more quickly. Above all, it has enabled me to think big but not to be frightened by the implications, with the confidence to drive a new project through," she says.

Kate prides herself on managing her workload while leaving time for relaxation. "We keep a sailing boat in Croatia but my husband and I have a pact that I am only allowed to have my Blackberry on until we reach the airport."

So to the $64,000 question: who is skipper when they are sailing their 40-foot yacht across the Med ? "Tony is definitely in charge," she says. (He is the director-general of the Tax Incentivised Savings Association.)

You sense that Kate would be equally equipped to take the helm, but is canny enough to accept that in life, as well as in business, there can never be room for two captains on the same ship.