How to succeed in the asset management industry: a female perspective

>How to succeed in the asset management industry: a female perspective

Ahead of International Women’s Day, three senior female executives at J O Hambro Capital Management talk candidly about the challenges they faced and the personal sacrifices they made to succeed in the asset management industry.

Lale Topcuoglu:

I am thrilled to be joined by Suzy Neubert and Alexandra Altinger today to talk about our experiences about being women in the financial services industry. There have been many papers and podcasts on this topic, and our goal here is to give you a raw picture of what it really took us to get to where we are.


I'm going to play the host today. I'm Lale Topcuoglu. I'm a Senior Fund Manager at J O Hambro Capital Management. I've been in the industry for about 20 years, 17 of which I spent at Goldman Sachs in New York and London. My leadership roles have centered around being an investor and being part of the LGBTQ community.

Alexandra Altinger:

Hi, I'm Alexandra Altinger. I'm CEO of J O Hambro UK, Europe, and Asia. I started out 30 years ago in this industry, although I will say that I've taken about five years off across this time period to be a stay-at-home mom. I took time off either in between roles or off to the birth of my children as extended maternity leaves.

I'm Italian-German. I grew up in six different countries, went to seven different schools, and I was always the kid that was different.

Suzy Neubert:

My name is Suzy Neubert. I'm the Head of Sales at J O Hambro. I joined the firm about 14 years ago. Prior to that as an MD at Merrill Lynch on the equity sales desk and also doing research. I'm half-Irish, half-Ghanaian, born in Britain. I have two children who are grown up now, so I'd like to think that I bring an element of diversity to the party.

Lale Topcuoglu:

Well, let's get going with the first topic, which is broadly how few females we see in our industry. It's quite interesting. I came across a study by Mercer that shows that although 46% of financial services employees are women, at the executive level, it's only 15%, which is a staggering drop. So I'm going to turn the table over to Alexandra now and ask her why is that?

Alexandra Altinger:

So I think it's a good question and I think I'd like to make two points around that. So the first is this idea that to get promoted, you need to be really good at what you're doing. I think women are typically very good. They work hard. You gain analytical skills. But I see that as that first part of your career, from going from joining a company and then becoming a really good technical person almost as a subject matter expert. So whether you're a portfolio manager or head of legal, whether you're a functional expert in your field.

But that in my mind is really the first part of someone's career. The second part is then graduating to taking on people management responsibilities. So being a leader, being a member of the executive team. And I think the skillset there is very different.

I think that people tend to underestimate just how difficult that step is, so going from subject matter expert to a people manager. I think for women in particular, I think they often don't appreciate the fact that you need political capital within the firm to be given the chance to actually make that leap.

But again if I think about women specifically, very often it's at the end of that first phase in their career. They might want to have kids, get married, spend more time. They may need more flexibility. So in a way it's, paradoxically, when they most need the political capital within the firm to make that leap with sponsorship at the top is probably the time in their career when they're actually needing and requiring more flexibility and time away from the firm to perhaps focus on things requiring more work-life balance.

Lale Topcuoglu:

So how do you get the political capital?

Suzy Neubert:

Well, I think you have to be very strategic and perhaps work in a way which women haven't typically thought like that, because I think women aren't political animals. I think they're very authentic about the way they approach their work. My observation is when I've thought about my career, the men have been the better politicians.

So perhaps that's one thing that we're going to try and mentor young women coming through, explain to them that focusing on that aspect of your career is also relevant, is also important, because one is that I go on to say it's part of the way that you get sponsorship as you progress. But also if you aren't doing that, you're making yourself uncompetitive versus perhaps men who are very good at it.

Lale Topcuoglu:

Yeah. I think that's absolutely right. So we're going to talk about sponsorship and mentorship next. But, Alexandra, you mentioned about having kids and about having the desire to have a family, which obviously affects all of us. So I want to talk a little bit about the sacrifices that all of us basically had to make to move forward in our careers.

When my niece graduated from high school and was accepted to a college in the United States, we gave her a book by Dr. Seuss. It's called, Oh The Places You'll Go. It's a phenomenal book actually, even though I think people think of it as a kid's book. But it's such a wonderful read.

There's a section in the book that goes like this. It says, "You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted, but mostly they're dark. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin. Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?"

I think these are the questions you struggle in your career, where you come to a fork and you have to make a decision. Is it my career or is it my personal life? So can we talk a little bit about the sacrifices we each had to make? So, Alexandra, I think it's fascinating, and I admire you for this specifically, you broke the glass ceiling to become a CEO. You have five kids. I can barely manage two. So how, how did you do it?

Alexandra Altinger:

So I always think about the sacrifice more as what professional sacrifices have I made in order to ensure that I still was able to put my family first. So I think it's taken me a lot longer than others perhaps to get to where I am today. I think I've been passed on many, many times for promotions because I was taking extended maternity leaves. I think I wasn't paid fairly through most of my career.

I think those are things that you just, I suppose, accept, that there's phases in your career where you're not going to be in the driver's seat, where you're in the passenger seat, or sometimes instead of the career progressing in a linear fashion, you feel it's flattened out for a little bit longer than it ought to have.

But, in the end, I think it was all worth it because I think it's a marathon, not a sprint. I think, in the end, it's important that you live by your values. One of my really important values when I first had my first child was that the family would always come first. That was just really important for me.

Lale Topcuoglu:

Oh, I mean that's fascinating and incredible. It's interesting, one of the things that I learned through my professional career ups and downs is actually having a really supportive partner is half of the battle. And I was lucky. So in my case, my partner, who's actually an exceptionally successful lawyer, made the sacrifice and she quit her job so we can take this role in London, which really actually propelled my career for the next decade.

I have two kids. My son was born in London just after the financial crisis. So February of 2009. So you can imagine working at Goldman Sachs, you're working around the clock. It's stressful. It's not the best time to be spending at home just basically goofing off with this wonderful creature that has just showed up. It's just an amazing feeling.

But what's really interesting is when my daughter was born, she coincided with the time that I had just left Goldman. When I now look back, my relationship with my daughter is vastly different than my relationship with my son. I think it's really because I nearly took two years off to spend time with her, because basically what happened is my wife went back to work, and, coming from the corporate world, I became the chief operating officer in the house, which is, by the way, a lot of work. Like sometimes coming to work is easier. Don't tell her that.

But it's really fascinating, and sometimes I feel guilty that I never built that relationship with my son. I came across this quote by Arianna Huffington, which I think is really true. It's a quote on working mothers. She says, "When they took the baby out, they put the guilt in." So what do you think, Suzy? How have your experience has been on this?

Suzy Neubert:

Well, your comments resonate with me because there's no doubt about it. If you're a working woman and you are committed to your career, there are personal sacrifices, and even if you try and manage it. Of course, you're putting your family first, you're definitely making sacrifices. I'm not saying that men don't too, but I think that somehow for women it's a much more pertinent sacrifice. And indeed I think the guilt, I think, is very much more intense.

Certainly in my case, I only had two children, but the hours were, particularly when I was working at Merrill, very long and very structured. And so, I didn't see my children during the week because I started too early, I came back too late.

I remember when my younger daughter was asked, which she was five at the time, they went around her class from asking, "What does your mother do for you?" and everyone had their answer. Most children said, "My mother makes me tea," or, "Takes me shopping," or, "Takes me to a play date," et cetera. My daughter said, and she's very precise, she was very precise in how she responds to things, said, "My mom plays with me at the weekend." It was a deliberate answer because that's when she saw me.

I'll always remember it because it made me feel guilty and it made me really understand that by doing both, you are making a sacrifice. Then at different points in your career, you should test yourself to make sure you think the balance is right and you think the sacrifice is worthwhile.

Lale Topcuoglu:

Yeah. Wow! That is a story. I think my son would probably say the same because by the time I would come home, he would be asleep. So try not to get too depressing on this one, but we're going to enter into another, what I call, is a depressing topic, which is the gender pay gap.

Recently actually the World Economic Forum released its 2020 Gender Gap Report, and the results show that none of us, including our children will see gender parity in our lifetimes. The report basically says that gender parity will not be achieved for nearly hundred years, which is absolutely depressing. And when I asked around for feedback telling people that we're going to do this podcast, what would you guys like to hear about, overwhelming majority actually wanted to hear about compensation. How do you renegotiate your compensation? So I think one of the honest questions that I know I would like both of you to answer is, have you ever renegotiated your compensation? In my case, I never had the chance.

Alexandra Altinger:

So I absolutely have. And I think it's really important to start with results. So you need facts and I think you need to approach it unemotionally. And you need facts. You need to really understand what it is that you've achieved and that those results are explicit and accepted.

Coming back to the asset management world, I've always felt that it's easier to work either as an investment manager on the front line, so generating alpha that can be measured at the end of every day in terms of basis points. That is your track record, those are your results and they speak for themselves. Or on the front line in sales and distribution where your results are the business that you bring in and the relationships that you have with your clients.

Where I find it a lot more difficult for a number of people and women is when you're either on the investment side or on the sales side, but somewhere in the middle. And I do think it's more difficult if you can't lean on explicit results to approach the compensation issue, but you need to be bold. You need to be very clear on what your expectations are. I think you do need to know the competitive landscape, what are other people paying. So it's always good to talk to headhunters and have a network and invest in that network.

I don't think we should ever be naive. I think we sometimes have a tendency to be naive and very loyal, which I think loyalty is good, but it shouldn't be ... It shouldn't come with a narrow focus. And I think you just need to understand that there's nothing to lose out of that conversation. Worst case, you don't get it, but you've lost nothing. If you don't ask, you don't get.

Suzy Neubert:

I agree with that entirely. I think that if you have confidence in your ability and also your contribution to the business, and indeed, as Alexandra says, you've done the research around how that should be valued, what that's worth, then you're completely entitled to if you don't think there's a ... it's fair, it's lacking equality, you should challenge that. And indeed, there's absolutely no reason for you to say, "I know what I'm worth. I've understood my contribution." And indeed, if the responsibility lies with you, and although people are always looking after you, the reality of it is that you're in this business and it lends itself to people who are not selfish but quite focused on their own outcomes. So you need to take that personal pitch and put it forward yourself.

Lale Topcuoglu:

Yeah, and I think the saying goes as the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It's a terrible term. But I think that's kind of true. But the other thing I think is there's also you find, and I think perhaps not enough senior women do it than I think, we should all try to do it is that when you see younger women who are doing the same exact job and who are just not getting paid equally, I think it's important for those of us who have experience and seniority to help them move along so then they can pay it forward. Because I think that's the other piece where I think there's very few women who have sort of broken the glass ceiling and made it up there. And I think it's important for them to carry the torch and make it better for everybody else.

Because I think that's the only way we're going to affect change, because otherwise it's just still ... 10 years from now it will still be the handful of women who made it up the ranks and we'll still be talking about the same issues.

So let's talk about diversity, which is one of my favorite topics. I want to move from obviously equality through diversity, they're related, but I want be clear about the differences between the two. And I think it gets mixed in people's minds. To me equality is about ensuring everybody has an equal opportunity and is not treated differently or discriminated against because of their characteristics. Diversity on the other hand is about taking account of the differences between people and groups of people and placing actually a positive value on that attribute.

And I think there's a lot of focus in the industry about diversity, but I really believe some of the efforts are just check the box efforts and there's just not real oomph behind it. And diversity can be defined in so many different ways. I mean, sometimes it's the thought of diversity. I mean, if you're a manager and you subscribe I think people say like the Chicago School of Business and you keep hiring people out of the Chicago School of Business, you're always going to think about the business cycle in the same exact way. And I just don't think that's the right attitude. So let's talk a little bit about diversity. Let's start with Suzy actually this time.

Suzy Neubert:

I think that my perspective on diversity is what we've done well in the financial services industry is focus on diversity in terms of gender. What we're missing, and we still have got a long journey to travel on, is much broader diversity. And to your point, really embracing the fact that I think businesses are better if they reflect society, that they are not homogeneous, that they really are reflecting different perspectives, whether it be socioeconomic range, whether it be racial differences. Any type of what you would call minority should be reflected in the business in order to make it stronger, richer, and just to have a richer, a much more broader debate. There's no expectation to see people of colour in our industry because it's not the norm.

Lale Topcuoglu:

That's absolutely true.

Suzy Neubert:

So what we should all be thinking is when we consider diversity is how should we also try and provoke that debate so that financial services and our industry isn't seen as something that isn't appealing or attractive to a minority. I'm going to talk about my own minority. And so that over time as we think about what we'd like to achieve in maybe 10, 20 years' time, that the idea of a person of colour being in our industry and indeed being senior in our industry becomes a norm rather than a true rarity.

Lale Topcuoglu:

Yeah, absolutely right. Now, Alexandra, I think in your case, I think what's really fascinating is the fact that you're a non Brit but you're leading a British firm. So how is that working out for you?

Alexandra Altinger:

So maybe I should just say, I'm not sure J O Hambro wants to be qualified as a purely British company. We do have businesses that are international and across different markets. But it is very much, I think still a UK institution, the way that it's perceived.

So I agree with things. You made a very good point around the difference between inclusivity and diversity Lale. And Suzy, I liked about what you said in terms of the benefits of diversity and where we need to get to. So I support all of that. I will say that embracing diversity means allowing yourself to be challenged. And I think it takes courage because what you're doing is really proactively inviting people who are different from you, whether it's socioeconomic or people who think differently, who have different opinions and you know that they will challenge you.

And I think it's just, we just need to accept that it's so much easier for leaders today to stay within their comfort zones and surround themselves with people who have that same reference framework. And so to your point, Lale, this is something that was a real hurdle for me. It's an implicit hurdle. It's not something that is seen because I'm white and I'm European. But I think this idea that I grew up in so many different countries, I never really had a natural network. I never went to the same schools as most people go to in this country who then end up on the leadership teams of companies within this country. And I think in finance specifically, I think that network is really critical, is really powerful.

So to me that was one of the hurdles, and I think it's going to take time for us to break that down. It's important that we don't sometimes give ourselves false comfort around, oh, we have this many women in the firm. If all of those women have gone to similar schools or have similar backgrounds and think in similar ways, that's not really diversity. That goes nowhere to really helping you take better decisions. It's just solving the problem at a very superficial level.

Lale Topcuoglu:

Yeah. Absolutely. So when you think about all the things we talked about, obviously to a degree it touches the mentorship, the sponsorship. I think you eloquently put it as earning your political capital. And it's quite interesting because I was at an event a couple months ago and somebody asked me, "Who is your sponsor?" And I really couldn't find an answer, and it actually dawned on me that I had through my career, few but incredible mentors. But I never had a sponsor. And it just, and I think I never necessarily took a step back and thought about the difference.

And the difference is actually quite clear because mentors advise you, sponsors advocate for you. And I do strongly believe, I think my career trajectory could have been vastly different if I actually had a sponsor. So I think, as you try to work towards building political capital, moving up the ladder, here's the question. You can get a mentor, but how do you get a sponsor?

Alexandra Altinger:

So no one gets anything. I think you seek it. I don't think anything is handed to anyone on a silver platter. I've always proactively sought out both mentors and sponsors. And I will say, as much as I agree with the fact that they're different. So you had a very eloquent way of putting it. Sponsors advocate for you. They vouch for you. They will sometimes put their own personal reputation at risk to help you succeed or to give you an opportunity that you wouldn't otherwise achieve, succeed or to give you an opportunity that you wouldn't otherwise achieve. I think it's really important that you seek them out, that you build credibility with them over time and it can sometimes start as a mentorship relationship. So mentors know you as a person. They help you, they advise you, they support you.

Sometimes it's also emotional that takes into account where you are in your life. It's holistic as a relationship. I think you can over time build enough credibility with people who might start off as mentors and transform that relationship into a sponsor relationship where you gain credibility by using them as a sounding board.

They start to understand how you think. They start to trust your judgment and over time that very same individual can become a sponsor and I always seek them out. I always look for a sounding boards. I also make sure that the people I talk to are honest enough and bold enough to be able to give me effective feedback because it's that effective feedback loop that I think is critical.

If you don't have that, you can't progress, you can't get better. Improvement has to go hand in hand with seeking out honest, effective feedback loops.

Lale Topcuoglu:


Suzy Neubert:

Women need to see the opportunities and be proactive and whether that be about how you think about progressing your career and understanding it's not just about being very good. It's also about making sure that others understand and see that you're very good. Making ... finding good people who you connect with to help you progress to the next step.

And it takes you as a woman to be courageous enough to put yourself forward. And as I say, it's an important part of the responsibility you must take on your shoulders. And whether that plays out in a conversation about compensation or about seeking out something to say, can you ... will you see me? Will you guide me? I want to learn from you. And it's very unlikely that someone who spotted you as a good person will decline you.

Lale Topcuoglu:

Yeah. No, excellent. So one of the things, when I think about sort of where we are in our lives, I mean Alexandra you obviously have five kids. I have two, but mine are certainly on the younger age and Suzy, your kids are a little much older and one of the topics that always comes up is the new generations approach to work.

So I want to flip the conversation on its head a bit and talk about it from an employer's perspective of how do we make this industry more attractive for the new generation. But I want to start with you Suzy, because I think some of the feedback I think you get through your kids who are older, I think it's vastly different than perhaps our experience, in my experience with my family was go get a job and work hard and you'll just do fine. But clearly now, the new generation entirely looks at it in a very different way.

Suzy Neubert:

That's absolutely right. And I can really compare myself to my older daughter who's an investment banker and she loves her job. And she's grateful for the opportunity, but she also is going to test very early on if she thinks it's going to suit the whole work life balance vision she has for her future, which I would never have thought like that when I was 23 because I was working in corporate finance at 23.

And I was like you Lale thinking I've got a job, I need to work hard and there's absolutely no way I can challenge this. And her perspective is very much trying to assess that. She looks across the floor she's on do I want to be these senior people and if I don't I'm going to find a way and I'll move on.

And they've got a very different perspective of A, how long you stay in a job and be this whole point of loyalty. They're defining loyalty in a very different way. And she recently was talking to a senior person who she wanted to sort of see as a sponsor in her career, just a person outside her business.

And she was saying to him, well, do you enjoy your job? He actually works in private equity. Yes, he said he did. And she said, well, let me ask you one thing, how often do you laugh every day? And he was taken back by the question, but the point was, it was her barometer of how much he was enjoying it.

And her point is as a millennial was saying, actually that's very relevant to me. If you're saying you enjoy it, it's not just about what you're doing and the outcome of it, but actually the engagement and the camaraderie with your colleagues is very important. And he was laughing because he thought, he said, I've never been asked that question, but it's a rather good question.

And he's our age. And it was, I thought a very good example of how millennials are thinking. And she said to me, mommy, now I've decided that I'll always ask that question and be able to compare people's answers as a way of knowing could it be the type of environment I want to belong to.

Lale Topcuoglu:

She should join the multi-asset team. We laugh all the time. We probably laugh way too much.

Suzy Neubert:

Because you're there.

Lale Topcuoglu:

So, well Alexandra, I think this time you can put your CEO hat full on. And can we talk about it from the employer perspective? So if you're at J O Hambro Capital Management, how do you approach this?

Alexandra Altinger:

So I think the first consideration has got to be for young women aspiring to come into either the firm or the sector isn't a level playing field. Because in my experience, this perception that it might not be is the single most discouraging reason for them not even to consider joining because it hasn't been a level playing field for so long.

So I think that's the first thing we have to get right. We must be seen as a fair and level playing field where getting ahead is not being politically savvy. It's not about whom you know in the networks, but it's about competence and it's about results. And I think that's really important for the young generation.

They have to feel it's fair, particularly young women. I think the second thing is, we need to make clear that our culture values life balance. In my mind, there is nothing heroic about saying you're working 13 hours a day. There's nothing heroic about saying you work so hard, you can't take your holidays. There's nothing to brag about.

And I think if anything, companies that seem to implicitly value that are doing themselves a disservice. So for me, this work life balance has to be at the forefront of how we talk about our culture. And I always say it's a marathon. It is not a sprint. I mean I've run marathons before and it's all about pacing yourself.

It's all about knowing that practicing, get ... being ready and pacing yourself and knowing that, once you finish one phase, you have another phase ahead of you and it goes on, and the next day you have to come into work and you continue. So I think that is really important. And I think finally it's about perhaps being more than just a job so that young people feel they can have a positive impact on the world.

My children are very into sustainability and care very much about the world they live in. So I think we really need to move towards a place where we give capital a stronger voice. Capital has for so long simply been allocated only with financial returns in mind. And I think we're seeing this subtle but powerful pivoting in the world of asset management towards either ESG or impact.

And I think that's something that absolutely resonates with NextGen. So you can implement it in different forms and different flavors, but that's something I think that they will feel drawn towards because it cuts much deeper than simply an interesting job with nice people. It's about having an impact in the world we live in.


Lale Topcuoglu:

Well this was absolutely a blast. We should definitely do it more often. I'll suggest it next time for the management meeting. Alexandra, Suzy, thank you both so much for taking your time and joining us and I think this was wonderful.

Alexandra Altinger:

Thank you so much Lale. Thank you.

Suzy Neubert:

Thank you Lale. Really enjoyed it.

Lale Topcuoglu:

I think the way to close this, again, I'm going to go back to my favorite book to Dr. Seuss and it goes like this:

You'll get mixed up of course, as you already know,
You'll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go,
So be sure when you step, step with care and great tact and remember that life is a great balancing act,
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft and never mix up your right foot with your left,
And will you succeed?
Yes, you will, indeed.

I have faith in the new generation. I have faith in the women and I think we'll ... we're going to get there.

Thank you for listening to this latest episode of Active Intelligence podcast series. For more information, please visit our website, or find us on LinkedIn.


  • How to succeed in the asset management industry: a female perspective

    3 Mar 2020 | 30 mins

  • Alexandra Altinger

    Chief Executive Officer - UK, Europe & Asia

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  • Suzy Neubert

    Sales & Marketing Director

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  • Lale Topcuoglu

    Senior Fund Manager & Head of Credit

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