Author:Maha Khan Phillips
An industry veteran with more than thirty years’ global experience in the investment industry, Virginie Maisonneuve, CFA, is now based in Singapore. She is the Founder and Chief Executive of MGA Consulting, and is a member of CFA Institute’s Future of Finance Council. She talks to Professional Investor about why asset managers need to focus on their purpose, how to build sustainable cultures, and how she found herself entering Beijing for the first time on the back of an army truck.
PI: As a leader in the investment management industry, what are some of the key lessons that you’ve learnt, in the course of your career, that you would pass on to younger people who are just beginning their careers?
Virginie Maisonneuve: Asset management can be a volatile field. Markets are changing all the time and disruptions are constant. The first lesson that I have learned over the years is to stay grounded. In order to navigate this ‘VUCA’ world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous), it is absolutely necessary to have a discipline that keeps you connected to your centred nature. For me yoga, meditation and family time are key. The second lesson is to keep a growth mind-set. Every challenge offers opportunity, even if it is difficult to see where it lies sometimes. Do not waste those opportunities and choose the path for growth. This is also a good way to keep perspective on events. The final lesson is to keep on learning. Curiosity is an incredible gift for asset managers, we never know it all!
PI: How can the asset management industry build more sustainable cultures?
Maisonneuve: Corporate sustainable culture comes from the “right” balance between several key elements: First, there needs to be an alignment around vision, goals and purpose. Second, it requires a human talent pool that feels at its best (this means diverse, inclusive, understood, and with option for learning and mobility). Diversity is clearly gender and ethnicity-related, but also thought-related, socio-economic, religious etc. Thirdly, agility and an appetite for learning is important. The world is changing at an accelerating pace, as is the technology ecosystem we increasingly rely on. Corporate turfs based on fear of change and learning are yesterday’s game.
PI: Given what you’ve said, do you feel that the industry doing enough on Diversity & Inclusion? What more should be done?
Maisonneuve: The industry is not doing enough on D&I. Although we talk more about it than we did ten years ago (and certainly over thirty years ago when I started in the business), the results are just not there yet. The good news is we talk more about it every day! A two-pronged approach to the issue should be adopted, within the asset management firms themselves, and at the ecosystem level. Internally, it is about providing training to employees on unconscious bias and racism, and about advocating for the positive power of diversity. We also have to demonstrate low tolerance for unacceptable behaviour. Additionally, it is about working closely with human resources partners to make sure the hiring process includes diversity criteria along with optimal skills. At promotion time, it is critical to adopt processes that systematically include a D&I dimension and open up mobility options for all.
To support the overall ecosystem, it is important to show support for tangible initiatives, for example, by supporting women and diversity networks. When I was still in the UK, I chaired the CFA Women and Diversity Network, working with great partners such as Sarah Maynard. In Asia, I am one of the founding members of the Women Buy Side Network with Bloomberg. The network has grown a lot and we now have chapters in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and India. Networks who help members be connected or mentored as well as provide great content (for both men and women) are I think most successful. Furthermore, at a time where sustainability is finally at the core of the agenda in the corporate world, given pressure from climate change and Covid 19, it is time for asset management firms to assess and find ways to measure their own sustainability. Stakeholders, including our shareholders, regulators, employees, clients, asset owners and our communities are increasingly demanding tangible proof of ESG and we should be able to address our own sustainability and diversity in the same manner. The need to “rewire” the economy towards a more sustainable path starts with an important step: a coordinated approach across sectors and industries.
PI: Speaking of Covid-19, 2020 brought a lot of change to the way we work. Has home working changed the asset management business for good?
Maisonneuve: Covid has acted as an accelerator of many trends, including the use of digital technology at a large scale, which has allowed efficient “work from home” options. This has added a new dimension of optionality for the make-up of work and the choices people can make. Post Covid, I believe a hybrid work model will stay with us. In this changing ecosystem, I believe there are a few critical points that asset management firms need to keep in mind in order to thrive. First, the importance of alignment around purpose. Purpose is more critical than ever, in order to build a workforce that spends less time face to face. Adaptability to new technology and the ability to harness the innovative tools that will come out of this increased intensity of the “machine-human” interaction is also important. Thirdly, it’s important to embrace the “democratization” trend that “work from home” has enabled and harness its positive aspects.
PI: What trends and themes do you identify as being most important in the industry?
Maisonneuve: From a business perspective, the industry is facing many challenges, including historically abnormally low interest rates, pressure on fees and more efficient markets. This is contributing to declining margins while at the same time asks on spending are growing: data needs, regulatory demands and investment in technology and platforms are all increasing. Those firms which can embrace the changes and transform the asset management offering will win. Disruption from artificial intelligence (AI) and sustainability drivers will be massive but, will also offer potential opportunities to the industry.
PI: What keeps you up at night?
Maisonneuve: Climate change and inequality and how slowly we are acting to anticipate the inevitable impact. Rewiring the economy to enable a sustainable future is necessary. Robert Swan summarizes it very well when he says: "the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it." I am a cautious optimist, and I believe that transformation comes in the face of crises and how we adapt to them, by changing our mind-set and increasing innovation. I believe technology will be a strong ally, but global collaboration is key. Covid has been an example of this.
PI: You’ve achieved so much in your career. Looking back, are there any particular highlights you’d like to share?
Maisonneuve: I remember the first time I went to China in the mid 80’s. In those days, foreigners were watched very carefully but for some reason nobody was there to pick me up at the airport. A glitch in the administrative machine! Since there were no taxis, I ended up talking to the driver of an army truck, begging him to bring me to my destination in Beijing. He was reluctant but decided to help. So the first time I entered Beijing, I was standing at the back of an army truck, in the open air. The streets were small and boarded with threes. Everything was so much slower then. It was a different China. Living in China at that time really shaped my view of the world and my career. For example, several years later I went on to create one of the first China equity funds for institutional investors while I was at Batterymarch in Boston. China has always been part of my global “picture” and during the past 30 years, given its influence on the world, it has been extremely useful.
PI: Tell us about your current role?
Maisonneuve: In my current role as founder and chief executive of MGA Consulting, I help asset management teams pivot towards sustainability and diversity. In my role as a director of Ajiliti Partners in Singapore I focus more on Fintech opportunities.
PI: You are also an advisory council member for CFA Institute’s Future of Finance council. If there is one thing that asset managers should think about, going forwards, about the future, what should it be?
Maisonneuve: I truly enjoy my role on the council working with Roger Urwin, Rebecca Fender and all the other council members. Some of the key topics we are discussing actively and that are critical to asset managers are related to “the future of sustainability in investment management”. This includes discussions around the acceleration of demand for sustainable investing, how investment organizations are adapting and expanding their business and investment models to meet expectations and what the enablers (operating models and people model) of sustainable investing are.