Home > Leadership Reimagined > Episode 25: Baroness Helena Morrissey

Episode 25: Baroness Helena Morrissey

Purposeful Power for Gender Parity

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 with Baroness Helena Morrissey, former CEO of an asset management firm, the founder of the 30% Club, a board director, and a member of Parliament.
Helena remarks on the importance of having a sounding board and a network of support, especially during challenging times, something she discovered early in her career and attributes to her success. Whether in the form of an ally, mentor, or sponsor, she adds, “We are not islands, we need each other, we need support, we need encouragement.”

Episode 25: “Purposeful Power for Gender Parity”

Tune in as Baroness Morrissey discusses her novel career, passion for gender parity, and how, as a mother of nine children, not only manages it all, but excels at it all!

Helena was CEO of Newton Investment Management for fifteen years with oversight for nearly 50 billion pounds. Her successful leadership placed her on the Fortune’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in 2015 and the Financial Times’ 2017 ‘Person of the Year’ at its Boldness and Business Awards gala. In 2018, she published her first book, A Good Time to be a Girl, Don’t Lean In, Change the System, described by Forbes as ‘one of the five most empowering books for women’ in 2018. Helena founded the 30% Club in 2010, when women on the FTSE 100 was just 10%. Motivated by achieving parity, the purpose of the 30% Club was to achieve a minimum of 30% female representation

Baroness Helena Morrissey

It is with great privilege we present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined “Purposeful Power for Gender Parity” with Baroness Helena Morrissey.

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Show Notes: Baroness Helena Morrissey

Baroness Helena Morrissey on her early career

I’m actually from a very ordinary family. My parents are both teachers. My sister’s a teacher. I realized that being ordinary, in a way, at least, was also very special. It was a very, very loving family background. My parents gave me a huge amount of time, and I never had the sense there was anything I couldn’t do. My gender certainly didn’t come into play at all. I think my dad would quite like to have had a boy, but he didn’t make me act as the son never had. They were just very genuine about encouraging me, not pushing me, just encouraging me to do whatever I wanted to do and to the best of my ability, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. 

I fell into the financial services world through meeting friends at university who had a much clearer sense of what they wanted to do than I did at the time. I actually studied philosophy at university – I know anybody outside the UK finds this extraordinary, that you can go and do a financial profession after doing philosophy. But anyway, I studied philosophy and actually my friends mostly at the time were men, and that was just one of those things. Many of them were applying for the City [of London], and one day one of them said to me, “you should apply, you’d be really good.” He said, “you like numbers, you like talking, you like writing, and you should give it a go. I really didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, and so I applied. In hindsight, one of the two people at my first interview, which was for Schroeders, which at the time was very much a merchant bank, a British merchant bank, did investment banking as well as investment management. It was a very grand setting. It was at Cambridge University College, and a man and a woman interviewed me. With hindsight, the woman had a very big influence both on how that conversation went and also on the excitement that I then felt when I was offered a role. And we haven’t properly stayed in touch. But I ran into her at a cocktail party when we still had those sorts of things about a year ago. And I told her that she had been my inspiration and that over just a half-hour conversation, she had shown me that it was very interesting work because she seemed to really enjoy what she was doing. And to someone who really wasn’t clear at that stage, I didn’t want to copy her exactly, but I just thought, “okay, this could be for me.” So I’m again very grateful to her, even if she didn’t quite realize what a big influence she had on me at the time. 

Baroness Helena Morrissey on surviving and excelling in the male-dominated financial services industry

I think, to be honest, one of the very important factors was one of the founders of Newton, Stewart Newton, really acting as a mentor to me. It wasn’t a formal program, but as soon after I joined Newton in a very junior capacity, my boss resigned. And Stewart said, “oh, we’ll put a bond guru, a fixed income whiz in her place, don’t worry about it, Helena.” And I plucked up the courage to ask him, “could I look after the portfolios?” And he thought about it, and he generously gave me a chance. But he said there was a condition attached, and that was that I had to go into his office every day and tell him what I’d been thinking, what I was doing, trades I was considering in the portfolios. And at the time, this meant that I was running all of Newton’s fixed income money. I didn’t realize just how much of an opportunity that was, because he was such a terrific mentor and he ended up being a very strong ally. He had my back. People were questioning what was going on in my head when I announced yet another pregnancy. And I remember one guy saying, oh, I can’t believe she’s pregnant again, which, as I say, “fair dues,” I don’t criticize him for that. Stewart leaped to my defense and said – equally obviously, so that I would hear it – “oh, don’t worry, she comes back better each time.” Now, that was certainly true, I promise you. Just imagine how secure that made me feel. 

What was great about Stewart – he was so far ahead of the game –  was that he taught me that diversity of thought, actually having multiple perspectives when you’re trying to consider an investment idea, was the key to coming up with the best answer. This wasn’t about identity or that kind of diversity. This was very much about your experience, your background, what you brought to the table. And he said to me, point blank, “we want you for who you are, and that includes the fact that you’re a working mother, that you have perhaps gone to a different type of school than some of the people.” I went to a state school, and at the time most of the people in the U.K. fund management industry had gone to private school. So that was very advanced thinking of him, but most importantly, it made such a difference in terms of how I was able to thrive and also how I felt confident about bringing my own leadership style to the table. 

Just to give a flavor of how unusual this was at the time, my competition for the type of fund I was running in London was with five guys, not just five men, but five men all called Paul. So there was this slightly comical situation where I was not just the only woman, but I was the only person not called Paul when there was an investment seminar or an awards ceremony or something like that. That wonderful gift that Stewart gave me made me so conscious of how important it is to have allies, to have mentors, to have sponsors, frankly. I know there’s a lot of discussion about which is best and so forth. I think if we are not islands, we need each other, we need support, and we need encouragement, and that doesn’t mean you’re not leading, it doesn’t mean you’re not strong. We all need the sounding board and someone to be behind us at difficult times. 

Baroness Helena Morrissey on why Ron O’Hanley picked her to lead Newton Asset Management

The fact that I wasn’t a conventional choice was probably part of why he picked me. I’m putting words into his mouth there, but I’m guessing because I look back now and although I wouldn’t have described it like this at the time, my style of leadership was relatively empathetic. I would seek to bring in people’s views with me, definitely not command and control. And given the takeover that we had at the time – the acquisition of the firm by Mellon initially, and then it became BNY Mellon – the company was going through quite a lot of upheaval, and it just needed someone who would spend a lot of time bringing people with them and not just say, look, this is a vision and this is what we’re going to do. This was in 2001, so 20 years ago, and I think now, although it has happened very gradually, it’s much more understood that we need different leaders in different circumstances. And frankly, I think the world needs more feminine qualities in leadership. Men can have them too. I know this is a very controversial subject; I’m not saying it’s just women that can do this, but this idea of bringing people with you, of reaching out, of involving others in decision-making, of having true diversity of thought before you make that big decision, I think that’s critical. 

Baroness Helena Morrissey on what led her to co-found the 30% Club

So I had an adverse experience in my first role. I mean, I had a fabulous time in New York working for Schroders. I went there at the start of my career after graduating. When I came back to London, I was the only woman in a team of 16. And soon after I had my first child, I was age 25, and I was at the same time eligible for the first promotion. And when I came back after my maternity leave, I was told I hadn’t gotten the promotion. And when I asked why, what areas of my performance did I need to improve? My boss said, absolutely point blank, “well, there’s no doubt over your performance, but there is some doubt over your commitment with a baby.” Of course, no one would say that now, and I was taken aback. I was not expecting my gender to have anything to do with how far I could progress. But I suppose I’m grateful in a way that I knew where I stood, and that was obviously one of the big reasons why I left and joined Newton. So it worked out in the end, but it did make me want to do something to prevent that happening to other women. And the more I wised up to it, the more I could see. 

For context, my eldest son is 29 now, so this was nearly three decades ago, and at the time, the financial services world in the City, in London and New York, was very macho. There was a lot of sexism, there was a lot of banter if people would quit, and there was borderline harassment. And then it evolved to become more insidious, just less overt. And I really wanted to do something about that. Initially, my efforts were very much within Newton, within BNY Mellon, and with Ron O’Hanley’s support and encouragement, I set up a women’s network within BNY Mellon, and that was the basis of it. I just wanted to help other women get further, faster than I had been able to do. And just also that allyship and mentoring had also obviously been a big experience for me, and I wanted women to know that a lot of the experiences that we have are very common, and you’re not alone. 

Baroness Helena Morrissey on the early days of the 30% Club

I have to admit, as is so often the case with things that turn out to be successful, this was born out of failure, Janice, because the women’s network that I set up at BNY Mellon was very popular. We had great feedback on the events, which were mostly networking events where we would have an inspirational speaker and so forth. But nothing was really changing in terms of the numbers of women in senior roles. And in 2009, towards the end of that year, I was invited to speak at Goldman Sachs as part of their Diversity Week. Afterwards, there was a lunch with a smaller group of us, and we were talking to people from different sectors. It was there that I first met Baroness Goudie, who later helped me launch the 30% Club. Anyway, we all compared notes, and I realized that no one was getting anywhere on promoting women, really. And this wasn’t because there weren’t any women who were promotable. This was, as I thought about it, just because our efforts were off-target. Going into that lunch I had been about to give up on things before, but when I left it, I decided that I would just read about how to make change happen. I would read about how organizations behave. I’d read about dynamics of behavior in teams and groups, and I just read everything I could get my hands on. 

I came across a couple of things. One was an initiative set up by a male CEO of Deutsche Telekom at the time, which was targeting at least 30% women at all levels because he said it was good for business results. I also started realizing that we were doing it wrong. We were focusing on women talking to women about women’s issues. And I realized, as had happened in my personal career when Stewart Newton had sort of shared his power, that actually we needed the men who were very powerful – particularly the chairs of big, listed companies to not just support the idea of having more women on boards but actually to champion this. 

I have to say, sometimes it’s good to be a bit lucky in life. The reason why this was the right moment for that was because in the aftermath of the financial crisis, particularly in the UK, there was a lot of reflection about groupthink, and the Royal Bank of Scotland’s board at the time of its ill-fated acquisition of ABN Amro was very undiverse, and the regulators called this out. So it was this perfect moment to go to the chairs and to say, “look, I can help you,” instead of me berating them, instead of me criticizing them for having few if any women on their boards. At the time, over 150 of the FTSE 350 boards were all male. And instead of criticizing them, I said, “we can help you with this. We can help you find the women, and we can help show the marketplace that you’re serious about this.” 

At first, it was not very popular. Only seven chairs agreed to support us at the beginning. Most were very antagonistic about it. They said, who are you to interfere with our boards? This is a women’s issue, not a business issue. And that took some time, and to be honest, it wasn’t something I could change. This is where the great teamwork of the chairs could help, because they exerted peer pressure. And effectively, the choice was either to look like an outdated dinosaur, or you join the 30% Club and you show your intent. And amazingly, all these chairs ended up joining it and then doing something about their gender imbalances. Perhaps I should have anticipated this, but as it turned out, they were so hyper-competitive that they all then vied with each other to put as many women and best women on their boards. So then they all did it themselves, and continued many years afterwards. So Win Bischoff, who was one of the two founding chairs, he and I both won an award in New York. And he stood on the stage and said, “Helena was very clever here because she just got asked to do the work.” That’s fair enough, I did in a way, because they had to put the women on boards. They couldn’t just sign up for it. But it created a movement, and it’s given me a lot of hope.

I’m not going to overstate it. This was just women, mostly white women, this was just the boardroom, this was not broader diversity and it did not help all women to fulfill their potential. But it was a start, and at the time, the most obvious place to start. So anyway, I’m happy that we are here.

Baroness Helena Morrissey on strategies for reaching gender parity in corporate leadership

I’m not a real fan of legislation. I think that that is very much a last resort. And the reason is really because I think when you are doing something voluntarily, as the chairmen did with the 30% Club, then they felt they owned it and that this was their choice and they became much more invested in it than they would have if someone had just told them what they had to do. I do think every jurisdiction, every country has a somewhat different dynamic and I think we can’t just leave it to chance. 

The other issue is that today I think there’s a sense of diversity fatigue when it comes to gender, and there’s also been a sense that it’s gone down quite a difficult route. I completely empathize with the MeToo movement and Time’s Up, but there’s this tussle now, with people questioning, “is it all about wokeness, or is it all about business results?” And so I actually feel we have to just keep at it and we have to keep particularly having programs that encourage women to believe in themselves, whether that’s through mentoring or sponsorship. That is the thing that I’ve seen work well. To be honest, more than the growing number of women on boards in the U.K., the thing about the 30% Club that I’m most pleased with is that we have a very large – in fact, it’s the largest such scheme in the world – cross-company mentoring scheme, where you have fantastic women, usually in their mid-career, being mentored. Half of the mentors are men. And what’s great about this is that it’s been shown so often that it’s just that little difference of having someone tell them “you can do it” or having someone to discuss a career strategy or just feeling the burden of looking after family. This year has been very difficult for so many people, but particularly women who are juggling childcare with their careers. So just that difference of having someone who will spend time with them, be generous with their time, has made a big impact on women to stay the course and feel confident about playing for their next role. 

The other thing is cultural. The men who are mentors have told me many, many times over that it opened their eyes to the issues that women in their own company were facing but didn’t feel that safe to say anything about. Just developing a better understanding of our different perspectives and being a little bit patient – not just waiting, not being complacent – but just giving that encouragement is really what I see as the most dramatic thing ultimately. It’s just a bit of a slow burn.

Baroness Helena Morrissey on her book, A Good Time to be A Girl

I wanted to write A Good Time to be A Girl as a response to the Lean In narrative. I’m a fan of what Sheryl Sandberg’s done in terms of using her great platform to spark a global discussion about why women weren’t getting to the top as much as they should. So this is not a criticism as such, but I just felt the narrative was too much about trying to fix the women and not about what they were leaning into. I really unlocked my own career when I stopped trying to be like a man in terms of how I presented and how I communicated, how I dressed, and so forth. Even in my first few years, I think I actually wore a pinstripe trouser suit with big shoulders. But I realized that there was this pressure being put on women – just work harder, lean into what was there – whereas actually I felt at the very least we needed a balance of a bit of that, but also that what they were leaning into needed to evolve and be less rigid about the qualities that were considered signs of future success or leadership qualities. 

I felt that so many women I had seen were holding back from giving what was special about them because they felt that would not be successful; they felt that they needed to fit in more than that they needed to be authentic. And I just know myself that the more I was able to be authentic, the better I became at my job, the more opportunity I was given, because I was getting to be a better presenter, I was better with clients. And I just thought, this is not something we’re teaching women to do. We’re telling them to be more assertive. We’re giving them training about how to succeed in a man’s world. So that was why I wrote the book. 

I’m conscious that the word girl can seem – it’s different in different countries, and I know in America, it might be seen as a bit demeaning. But actually, the reason I used it was partly because I don’t think this is finished business, of course, and I do think it’s a good time to be a girl now., I hope the half-life of change is accelerating. I do see that since the financial crisis, I do think even though we wouldn’t have ever wished it upon the world, something like the pandemic that we’ve been living through shakes things up much more dramatically than we’ve been used to. And we’re not seeing incremental change now, we’re seeing leaps forward. Or, we can go backwards, and we have to make that choice. So the point of using “girl” was that I was addressing the women of the future.

Baroness Helena Morrissey on balancing family with work

The worst thing was when both my husband and I arrived separately at a pizza restaurant for lunch, and we realized that we were missing some of the kids, so we had to dash home for that. I have to credit a lot to my husband, because when we both had full-time careers – he was a financial journalist, actually, and one of his last assignments was at Bloomberg. And when we were expecting our fourth child, we said “how are going to make this work?” Because we were struggling with three, just the logistics. At that stage, he wasn’t particularly enjoying the daily grind, and he said he’d like to go freelance and try to do some slightly more interesting work. So he volunteered to do that because he wanted to also spend more time with the family. Then, as we continued to have children, his opportunity for paid work somewhat diminished. I do feel that first of all, he has to take big credit for that. But when we were both working very hard and it was a juggling act all the time, I guess we still did try to prioritize family as a core part of our lives. It wasn’t that we were trying to squeeze the children in around the edges which I think just doesn’t work, and it isn’t fair to anybody. Our personal lives were probably the ones that rightly took a bit of a backseat at that stage, because we didn’t have time for anything else besides running the family and doing our jobs. But I definitely have come to see as I’ve got older that there are very many different ways to make it work, but it does require openness and a proper discussion and honesty about how each person feels about the part they are playing in family life and in their careers. If you don’t talk about it, that is the recipe for disaster, I think. And it shouldn’t be assumed that either partner is happy with the division of labor all the time. I’m sure lots of couples do talk all the time about this, but I have been surprised at just how many say to me “we’ve never really discussed that. It’s just assumed that I would do the lion’s share.”

Baroness Helena Morrissey on the mission of the Diversity Project

The 30% Club is very narrow in terms of being only about women on boards, but its mission is across all sectors and industries. The Diversity Project is just in the investment industry, but it covers all dimensions of diversity. Anyone who’s familiar with that industry globally will know that it is quite traditional, to put it kindly, and has been one of the last to change in terms of advancing inclusion. We have been working on this for about four years now. What’s great is that this year, much more than before there’s a genuine depth and urgency and collaboration about the work. It’s quite complex pulling it off, because obviously we’re looking at ethnicity, we’re looking at LGBT identities, we’re looking at neurodiversity, disability, mental health issues. During the Pandemic, we held a lot of “ask me anything” calls, and we had a strategy day for the end of 2020. We always look into what’s going to happen next year, what are our themes? And everyone says this is the year that finally they’ve finally realized why we need big diversity initiatives and instead of seeing us as a special interest, they see diversity as absolutely critical to being modern and forward looking and reimagining how leaders are. So that’s very exciting. We have 60 members, from the largest, BlackRock and so forth, all the way through to very small firms. And we do a lot of things with partnership organizations. One of the things I learned through the 30% Club was that collaboration is key. We’re not trying to reinvent any wheels. 

Baroness Helena Morrissey’s parting words

I’d love it to be the case that we don’t need these diversity initiatives anymore. I’d love it to be the case that we’ve become gender blind, colorblind, we’ve started evaluating people’s contributions for what they are. I don’t think that’s achievable in five years, but I do think we have an opportunity to rewrite the rulebook and how we work, how we measure performance, how we interact with each other because of what’s happened over the pandemic. So what I’d like to leave listeners with is a bit of a call to action, because what I discovered with the 30% Club was that one person can make a difference. Each of us can make a bigger impact if we join together and march in the same direction and build momentum together. So I’d just like to encourage everybody, particularly if you might feel the inequality widening because of the Pandemic, or you feel very isolated, because that’s the way we’ve been working this year that it is down to us to make sure that we don’t go backwards on the diversity and inclusion front, each of us. We don’t have to solve everything by ourselves, but we can help solve the whole if we metaphorically join hands and just decide we are going to create this different environment where people will be included, bringing their whole selves to whatever it is they’re doing. 

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Myra Biblowit is the President Emeritus of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the nation’s highest-rated breast cancer research organization with a mission focused exclusively on funding the world’s most promising research. Myra took the helm as BCRF President in 2001 and, after 22 years, retired in April 2023. During Myra’s tenure, BCRF funding enabled breakthroughs in breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, metastasis, and survivorship. Myra was widely recognized for leading one of the most impactful, financially efficient, and transparent nonprofits in the United States. Prior, Myra was Vice Dean for External Affairs at NYU Medical Center where she headed the Development, Alumni Relations and Public Relations departments. Previously she led the capital campaign as Senior Vice President of the American Museum of Natural History. Earlier, Myra served as Executive Vice President of the Central Park Conservancy. Myra is a member of the Board of Directors of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, the Housewares Charity Foundation and the Historic House Trust of New York City. She is a member of the New York Women’s Forum, the Yellow for Pink National Council, Extraordinary Women on Boards and serves on the Advisory Board of Project Hope for Ovarian Cancer Research & Education.

Truett Tate is Chairman of a number of Boards, including Reference Point, TLC Lions, Thinkably and the recently retired Chairman of QBE, NA. Truett Tate is also Director of the DEVClever board. Truett has a long and esteemed global executive history including most recently as CEO of ANZ USA, Europe, Japan, Korea and the Middle East. Immediately prior, he was Group Executive (and Board member) at Lloyds Banking Group, responsible for Wholesale & International Banking (Including Global Wealth and International Retail) across the United Kingdom, the Americas and worldwide and prior spending 27 years at Citigroup where he held a variety of senior roles including corporate banking business across each of its regional geographies. Truett’s long board history includes Virgin Group, Ten Group, the BITC, BAB Inc along with many other charitable and academic organizations. A speaker, guest lecturer, philanthropist and professional coach/mentor, Truett has seemingly bottomless energy and passionate interest in a safer, more just, more humane and more sustainable world.

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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