Home > Leadership Reimagined > Episode 27: Barbara Novick

Episode 27: Barbara Novick

Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.

We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined, “A Legendary Trailblazer” with Barbara Novick, co-founder and former Vice Chairman of BlackRock, recently transitioned to Senior Advisor. Barbara is a prolific author on the topic of asset management and public policy issues having written numerous articles. She has been named BlackRock’s Most Powerful Woman, as well as one of Barron’s 100 Most Influential Women in U.S. Finance.
Tune in as Barbara discusses her phenomenal career with a great team of leaders, building the world’s leading asset management firm, from its modest “start-up” beginnings to now $8.7 trillion in assets under management. Barbara is not only a game-changer, but a rare trailblazer!

Episode 27: Barbara Novick

“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do.”

Barbara was one of eight co-founders of BlackRock when they began in 1988, with four still at BlackRock. For the first 20 years, she headed the Global Client Group. In 2009, Barbara formed BlackRock’s Global Public Policy Group, and from 2018 to 2020, Barbara took on oversight of the Investment Stewardship team. After 33 years with BlackRock, Barbara transitioned from Vice Chairman to a Senior Adviser role effective February 1st 2021.

It is with great privilege we present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined “A Legendary Trailblazer” with Barbara Novick.

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Show Notes: Barbara Novick

Barbara Novick on her early career

Some people talk about climbing a ladder, and other people describe it as more of a jungle gym. I think I’m probably in the latter category. I began as a technologist at Morgan Stanley, where I learned the nuts and bolts of finance, and I realized along the way that I was much more of a people person and hence moved to First Boston for a different type of job. That’s where I met Larry Fink and Rob Kapito and Ben Golub, who are all co-founders of BlackRock and still active in the business today. BlackRock, of course, was a startup, so all of us wore a lot of different hats. And my primary role for the first 20 years was more on the business development and client service side. A little over 10 years ago, I switched. I decided to step down from that role and ended up starting up a public policy group, and for the last couple of years also ran the stewardship. So I’ve been able to build on the foundation, switching roles over the years and moving from one area to another, mostly within BlackRock, but some elsewhere as well. 

Barbara Novick on BlackRock’s response to COVID-19

We announced I was going to step down in February, and it was literally only a few weeks later that COVID hit and the world changed instantly. I realized in March, during the fateful weeks, that a lot was happening in the markets. And I started immediately engaging with our portfolio managers to understand what was happening and then also engaged with regulators around the world and other market participants just to try and see what could be done, where there were pressure points, things like that. Keep in mind, at that moment, everybody was also pivoting to work-from-home. Once we got through March and things calmed down a lot, what we started to do was look at what had happened and try and document it. So we wrote a series of papers called “Lessons from COVID-19”. And we looked segment by segment, first for an understanding of what happened, and then for recommendations of how to make the system more resilient for the future. 

Keep in mind, in March, every market was affected. So from the very short-end commercial paper, even the treasury market, which is normally the most liquid market in the world and quite dependable in a crisis, there were some gaps. Equities obviously filled dramatically. We saw some clients who have policy guidelines and policy limits rebalancing out of fixed income and into equities because the dislocation was so great. You saw, with clients that had derivatives, significant margin calls from the CCPs and others. So a lot of change, a lot of volatility, a lot of dislocation, a lot of uncertainty. And in those environments, we tend to interact with clients even more than usual. 

Barbara Novick on succeeding in business as a woman

I grew up in a family with a retail business, and I worked alongside my dad. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do. Now, of course, we look back today and we realize that there were trailblazing aspects to my career. And I’ll admit it wasn’t always easy, but I found good partners and I forged a path, and good partners included at home and at work. So my husband was really instrumental in supporting me. But my partners at work were also very important in that support, and Larry in particular. And along the way, I also learned to advocate for myself and to become more assertive. Now, of course, that risks being labeled, quote-unquote, “aggressive,” which we know is a gender issue even today. But I did find that it was important to be an advocate and to express ideas and to really look at opportunities and solutions and things like that, which didn’t initially come naturally, but I learned over time. 

Barbara Novick on how BlackRock managed double digit growth in 2020

My dad taught me the fundamental idea that the customer is always right, and I built that into our approach on the institutional business. From the outset, we always tried to put ourselves in the clients’ shoes, not just meeting their needs, but wherever possible, anticipating their needs, thinking like they think. And one of BlackRock’s key principles is what’s called “One BlackRock,” and we talk about that pretty publicly. It’s all about being a client centric-firm. So knowing that clients had questions and trying to give them information that would be helpful, I think we executed on that really well. Normally, and especially in 2020, it’s about bringing solutions, not just products. And one of our fastest growing areas has been multisector products, so helping people with their asset allocation. We also offer technology, and Aladdin has been a very important source of growth for us. And finally, sustainable investing. This has really caught on. And it’s an area where BlackRock has been a leader. So all of these things kind of come together where people are seeking solutions, they’re seeking excess return. They’re looking to do it in sustainable ways. They want to measure things. All of those things really lead to the results you saw in 2020. 

Barbara Novick on client retention

It all comes back to how you treat your clients. When people talk about stakeholder capitalism, I always use clients as my first example. And I say, what kind of business would it be if you didn’t treat your clients well and respectfully? You know, it’s easy to look at stakeholder capitalism and say, oh, it’s stakeholders versus shareholders. But I use it as an example of why it’s a symbiotic relationship. We were able to evolve over time, stay ahead of our clients’ needs, offer them solutions to their problems. That’s stakeholder capitalism. The result is really long relationships, multiple products with a single client, referrals to their colleagues at other institutions. And the most interesting is that many of our clients are what I call “repeat buyers.” When they change jobs, they turn to BlackRock to help with their new problems. So I do think it’s all about being client-centric and treating your clients well. 


That’s been our history. That’s a hard thing to maintain. But culture is extremely important. And it’s a message that we reiterate constantly, from when people are onboarded, to when they get an employee opinion survey, to when they get their own review at all different levels. We look for feedback on that topic to try and reinforce and keep that culture. 

Barbara Novick on BlackRock’s plan to promote racial equity

We believe in leading by example. We try not to ask people to do things that we wouldn’t do ourselves. For example, we’re reporting EEO data, and we’re one of the first to do that. But we identified three areas for action; let’s think of them as three pillars. The first pillar is the hiring, the talent, the culture. So hiring, onboarding, training opportunities, visibility, promotions, anything that you can think of that would fit in a normal talent agenda, really trying to look for opportunities to give people that increased visibility, which often leads to promotions and other opportunities. 


The second pillar is as a fiduciary, on behalf of clients, we have a unique opportunity. We do a lot of trading, and there are minority- and women-owned businesses where we have been a leader in trading with them all the time, keeping a focus on best execution. And our investment stewardship team engages with companies all over the world and talks about everything from board diversity to the workplace, ethnic, gender diversity, really looking at a company somewhat holistically. So those are areas that as an asset manager and as a Fiduciary, differentiate the firm. 


The third pillar is about policy and social impact in the communities where we operate. So I’ll give an example. Earlier this summer we had an opportunity to back some legislation in the state of Georgia. We endorsed that. We were one of the first companies to endorse that. Likewise, on the social impact side, when you look at what’s happened during COVID, obviously many issues have come out. Some people call social impact philanthropy, but essentially, it’s being able to support initiatives in local communities. We look at these three pillars as a whole. So it’s about how you’re treating your own employees, how you’re using your ability as a fiduciary, and then how you’re dealing with philanthropy and policy issues. And I think the combination is really quite powerful. 

Barbara Novick on creating diversity in leadership

It starts with leadership and communicating a vision, which Larry has already done. You have to start by measuring progress. If you have no benchmark, if you have no starting point, you don’t know how you’re doing. And if you’re not measuring it on an ongoing basis, you don’t know if you’re improving or actually going backwards. So you need to look at the hiring stats, you need to look at the promotion stats, you need to make sure there are diverse candidates on the viewfinder and then you need to provide the training, the mentoring and those opportunities, many of which come from visibility. So that’s the program that we’ve set out, we will be measuring it, we will be reporting on it. And I’m quite optimistic that when it’s measured and it’s a focus, we’ll do quite well. 


First and foremost, boards need qualified board members. And in the past, you often heard, “yes, we want diversity, but there’s no pipeline of diverse candidates.” In today’s world, there are plenty of diverse candidates who are very, very qualified. So you need to be able to look past the question of “have you been the CEO of a public company?” Because if that’s the criterion, there is no pipeline. It’s a very, very tiny subset. But today’s challenges are different, and they require a fresh set of skills. Some boards could use refreshing, which might open some seats. Other boards might want to add one or two new seats. Either way, the point is to get the right expertise in the room. And I’m willing to bet that searches that include diverse candidates will end up translating to more diversity on boards as people meet these excellent candidates. I’ve actually seen it in action, so I know it can be done, and it can be done at scale. 


It’s definitely about opening the aperture and thinking about the issues that are important today. Things like technology, social media, public policy. These are areas that really were not front and center until the last several years. So if you want to get the right candidates, are you looking at a CEO who retired five years ago? These issues wouldn’t have been on their board agenda, never mind in the C-suite. So I do think it’s widening that aperture, thinking about what expertise you want in that boardroom. Things like marketing. Marketing has changed dramatically. There are so many different topics, and I think the candidates may be a level down or head of a specific part of an organization, or just nontraditional from a board member background perspective.


Also, there are a number of companies who have recognized that boardroom experience can also be important to enhancing the career of some of their own leaders who are that next level down. So companies are maybe more willing today to allow someone to take that board seat if it’s offered to them as a currently employed person as opposed to a retired person. 

Barbara Novick on appealing to Millennial and Gen-Z customers

Reputation has always been important, but I would say it’s even more important today. We’re bombarded with news from multiple sources all day long. Social media platforms have become powerful news sources of their own, in business as well as in policy. As a company, you have to have a presence. Things like LinkedIn. People are getting their information, business-wise, from LinkedIn. You also need to think about your customers and how they access information. Think of it as meeting your clients where they are as opposed to them coming to you. I’ll give an example at BlackRock: when you wake up in the morning, you can ask Alexa, “what does BlackRock think about the markets?” And you get a coherent answer. That’s something that we wouldn’t even have thought of ten years ago because Alexa didn’t exist. This is coming back to my earlier point on the boards. Things that we’re using today that are so important to our business, fundamental to our business, were not even on the viewfinder ten years ago. 

Barbara Novick on the business case for ESG investing

I want to step back first and define things a little bit. The term “socially responsible investing” started probably 20 years ago, and it really referred more to excluding certain sectors. So it could have been tobacco or weapons or fossil fuels. And it was recognized in that construct that you might give up return to follow your social values. Today, I think the market has shifted quite a bit. We talk more about sustainable investing and sustainable investing takes those factors of governance, environmental issues, social issues. You’ll notice I started with governance, not with environmental, because governance really is so critical. And these issues today are being viewed more as investment factors that drive long-term value. I couldn’t have picked a better day to talk about this because there was an announcement that the Vale company has made a huge settlement, billions of dollars. And this is related to the mine accent that they had. So there’s an example of value destruction, ignoring environmental issues, taking risks that were inappropriate and then destroying the community. So you can call it environmental, you can call it social, I’d call it a governance failure, in that they really were not paying attention to the risks and managing the risks properly. That’s how we define sustainable investing, looking at the investment factors and the impact on long-term value and keeping in mind that our customers, many of them, are saving for retirement, we’re saving for long term goals. 

Barbara Novick on developing sustainable practices

We’ve expressed over the last several years a strong investment case for addressing the changing environment. And if you just took one piece, the regulatory trajectory and thought about what it means for different companies, both as challenges and in some cases as opportunities, that alone would translate into investment value. So what we’re focusing on is three things. One, measurement and transparency. We’re looking to provide data on the funds that we manage, which of course relies on data on the underlying investments and also data on BlackRock. And as I said earlier, we don’t ask people to do things we won’t do ourselves. 

We’re also looking at these investment factors. How can we incorporate these factors into our own decision making, avoiding a company that maybe has a bad history or a bad future based on measurements and data. And we’re also offering our clients choice. So a client who wants a portfolio that is an exclusionary portfolio can get that. A client who wants a portfolio that is more tilted in a certain direction can get that. 

And then lastly, we’re focusing our stewardship efforts on the transparency of the companies, the issuers themselves, and trying to get to a point where there is more data that is consistent. That’s a key thing: being able to compare Company A and Company B and not just have companies cherry picking what they want to tell you about, but really looking at a common framework and being able to use that data. 

Barbara Novick’s advice for women pursuing leadership careers

There’s a certain amount of working hard and looking for opportunities. One piece of advice I give people is to be willing to get out of your comfort zone. Whether you’re being tapped on the shoulder for an opportunity or you see something and you’re interested, raising your hand. If I look back at my own career, that would explain some of my success – being willing to get out of my comfort zone, as uncomfortable as it might be, and take on new challenges. 

Barbara Novick’s parting words

I do think it’s important who you affiliate with, and that’s true at any point in your life and career. You care about who your kids’ friends are and when you get into the business world, I think it’s the same thing. You want to find people who are ethical, and high integrity really does count. Reputation does count. You want people who have a similar work ethic and who are going to give it their best, but who share values. And I think that that’s probably the most important thing. When people talk about fit, do you feel comfortable that this is a group you want to be affiliated with and have your reputation tied to? And if you can’t say yes to that, you should be looking elsewhere. 

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Janice Reals Ellig

Chief Executive Officer

As the head of the Ellig Group, Janice is dedicated to increasing the placement of women and diverse candidates on corporate boards and in C-suites by 2025. Janice joined the legacy firm in 2000 and became Co-Chief Executive Officer in its transition to Chadick Ellig in 2007; she assumed sole ownership of the company as the Ellig Group in 2017 with a new focus on Reimagining Search. Prior to her career in executive search, Janice spent 20 years in corporate America at Pfizer, Citi and Ambac Financial Group, an IPO from Citibank, where she was responsible for Marketing, Human Resources, and Administration.

Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, inclusion, and diversity. She frequently appears at speaking engagements and as a media guest, and she has penned multiple articles for outlets such as Directors & Boards, Directorship, Corporate Director, The Huffington Post, and Forbes.com. Janice also co-authored two books: Driving The Career Highway and What Every Successful Woman Knows, acknowledged by Bloomberg Businessweek as “the best of its genre.”

A tirelessly active member of the industry and champion of her causes, Janice is Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative and its signature event, Breakfast of Corporate Champions. Since 2011, Janice continues to spearhead this event to honor companies committed to board diversity and to encourage CEOs to sponsor board-ready women for the Women’s Forum database. (LINK: www.womensforumny.org).

Janice is personally committed to several NFP organizations: Board Director of the National YMCA and Past Chair of the YMCA Board of Greater New York; Trustee of the Actors Fund and Committee For Economic Development (CED); Incoming Chair, University of Iowa Foundation; Women’s Forum of New York Past President and Chair of the Corporate Board Initiative; member of the Steering Committee, US 30% Club and The Economic Club of New York.

In recognition for her many philanthropic activities, Janice received the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011 and the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) Eleanor Raynolds Award for Volunteerism in 2008. Named one of the “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews, she was also a recipient of the Channel 21 Award In Excellence for her contribution to “Excellence in the Economic Development for Women.”

“Listening to our clients’ needs, learning their business and understanding their culture is how we present the best talent and provide  a competitive advantage. We place candidates with the character, competencies, commitment, (intellectual) curiosity and courage to make a difference. Our goal is always to go beyond the expected and deliver valuable advice, measurable results and great talent!”

– Janice Reals Ellig

  • Champion of gender parity, diversity, and inclusion
  • Industry expert, speaker, and author
  • Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative
  • Committed board and committee member and philanthropist

T: (212) 688-8671 ext. 226
E: Janice@ElligGroup.com