The Daily Telegraph
At my level, all women need a house-husband
As the City high-flyer becomes the new face of women in business, she gives Eleanor Mills her tips for a successful career and how to do a big job with three children under four
Hanneke Smits is the new face of women in business. Next week, she becomes the global chair of the 30% Club, leading the charge to get more women running the world. The club, which aims to secure 30 per cent representation of women on all major company boards globally, has a pedigree: when it launched in 2010 there were 12 per cent of women on FTSE 100 boards, today there are 40 per cent, in no small degree down to its efforts. And Smits has some pretty high heels to fill. Former super women in the job include Baroness Helena Morrissey who not only founded the 30% Club campaign but was CEO of the same investment bank as Smits and is the mother of nine children. Smits is a newcomer to the spotlight; this is one of her first in-depth interviews. She spent 17 years in the shadowy world of private equity and when we sit down in the corporate beige meeting room at BNY Mellon Investment Management, where she is currently CEO, she opens by saying: “In my former life in private equity, private is private. We spent our whole time trying to stay out of the press…” She fixes me with a kind but firm look – her eyes bright against the turquoise of her silk shirt, large pearls glinting demurely at ears and throat.
So why has she taken up such a high profile campaigning role? “Diversity has always been something I’ve been passionate about. In private equity I was one of only a few senior women, and I kept being asked for career advice by younger women so I set up Level 20 – to raise the number of women in the private equity industry from 5 per cent as it was then to 20 per cent by 2020 (it is still only 15 per cent). In 2015, I met Helena for the first time in this building. She told me about the 30% Club’s cross-company mentoring and how effective it is to pair senior men with junior women, for both parties, to get more women into senior roles, and that informed the programme we set up.”
She adds: “I am passionate that when it comes to gender equality we are nowhere near done. My ultimate goal is to banish the need for the 30% Club entirely. To get half of executive leadership roles to be female it will take a generation, not the three or four years I will do this job, but another 20 years at least.”
But we are already nearly at parity when it comes to women on FTSE boards. She shakes her head. “That is just the beginning, and that is true in the UK but not in many other parts of the world and the 30% Club is a global campaign. And even here, when you look at the executive roles” – where the real levers are – “the key jobs, CEO, CFO, Chair, the numbers of women are far lower. Stuck at about 16 per cent. For the executive committee (including HR, head of legal and marketing) it is 21 per cent.” On the day we speak only eight FTSE 100 CEOS are women, and there are six female FTSE 100 chairs.
What is going wrong? “It’s the recruitment funnel, the pipeline, retention – it is necessary to fix these in order to get women into senior management roles. Maternity is the first squeeze and we are getting better at solving that with better benefits around parental leave. But there is a further squeeze around midlife, teenagers, health issues. I don’t think it is just the menopause. We also lose other senior women, to [take on several jobs] and sit on boards, which takes them out of executive roles inside companies.” She is right. Women in their 50s are haemorrhaging from the workforce but the average age of a female CEO is 56, a female chair, 61. She nods; at 56 herself Smits is of course bang on target.
“There is a lot more to do. We have a Leaders for Race Equity CEO development programme in partnership with Change the Race Ratio and Moving Ahead which also runs our global mentoring scheme to empower women – it has had 16,000 people through it from 700 companies in over 60 countries over the last decade. That is really making a difference.”
But with all these efforts, why is it taking so long to get more women to the top? It has been over a decade since I interviewed her predecessor, Morrissey, about this topic. It is a hundred years since women got the vote, we’ve been entering the professions in equal proportion to men for the past 25 years.
Here Smits veers decidedly off the prepared script. She leans forward, her eyes fierce. “Do enough women want to have leadership roles?” she asks. “I don’t know… Throughout my career in management, over the last few decades with a typical male report you’d often have a career conversation, instigated by them, saying: ‘These are all the things I have done for you in the last three years, what’s next?’ Women don’t do that. Women need to speak up more, not every month, but there is a time and place for it and you have to know your value and you have to ask for it; you can’t just wait for it to happen. I call them corporate ladies in waiting, there is a lot of that.”
I tell her that I call it Cinderella syndrome, too many women beaver away in their bunkers, waiting to be tapped on the shoulder and invited to the boardroom. They don’t hustle enough. She agrees.
But why does this matter – why is the diversity element so important to business? She gives me a withering look. “Well… there have been numerous reports linking diversity of decision-making to better business outcomes – Mckinsey et al…” She reels off a list of copper-bottomed studies.
“I have always run diverse teams myself. I was recruited by a woman into private equity, my team had geographical diversity from Spain, Malaysia, Russia and two American women. That led to many different points of view when it came to investments and some robust and challenging discussions and we saw the results of that in my track record. In my experience it is important to challenge each other.”
It’s a fair point. You don’t get to be CEO of a company with £1.8trillion in assets under management without making the right calls. I wonder which female leaders she admires. She disputes my framing of the question. There is nervous laughter. “I want to eradicate those terms, ‘female’ leaders, ‘female’ CEOS. I’d rather just talk about leaders.”
To her, good leadership means: “Strategy, culture – particularly looking after employees and thinking about all stakeholders, community, not just shareholders. It’s important that leaders show up with a purpose, that one’s personal values align. My motto is ‘Live well into retirement’, and look after the wellbeing of the world in terms of pensions and investments. And it’s important to listen but then to be decisive and bring everyone along with you.”
Are women better at that? “It’s hard to generalise. All leaders have their own style: some women listen, some don’t. I admired Jacinda Ardern being honest, and saying she’s given it her all but she doesn’t have enough in the tank. I wish more leaders would reflect on that.”
So how does she recharge? “I take time out. Last year was a tough one professionally and in the markets. At one point I said to my team: I need a break. I put on my out-of-office and said: ‘You can call me, but it better be a real fire if you do.’” Is she good at switching off? “My husband would say, no.” She admits to reading emails even when the “out-of-office is on, just in case” but says she recharges by doing something physical. “If I’m in London, walking around Barnes late at night. And as a family we take regular trips to a lake in Austria, skiing in winter, walking and golfing in summer with cousins and wider family too.”
It was in Austria that she met her husband. “He is British but he was working as the golf pro at the golf course there.” Soon afterwards they moved back to the UK so he could continue studying for a business and sport degree with a view to moving into hospitality or running a golf club. “But then we had three children in quick succession,” she says. “At one point we had a three-and-a-half year old, a two-year-old and a newborn, so he postponed going back to work.” She takes a swig of water. “We decided we’d rethink when the youngest went to nursery, but now the youngest is 16.
“He has looked after the household ever since. He plans the family holidays, is in charge of the budget, the shopping, the family calendar. He is the family CEO. I think it is crucial as women that we hand over control. As women we can find that really hard. I would buy these really cute outfits and then I’d get home and they wouldn’t be wearing them… but I had to accept that. It’s his rules.”
She tells me about other examples. “At one point he was the Class Rep. He’d been tasked with making cucumber sandwiches for the summer sports day and I was appalled that he’d bought them from a café. I might have bought the bread, and made them myself, but he did it his way.”
She laughs again. “It’s really important that families find a solution that fits them. It was only when my son got to year one at school that he realised that not all families run like ours does. I remember him coming home and saying: “But I thought all mums went to work…”
I tell her that it reminds me of being at Helena Morrissey’s house and one of her sons saying: “When I grow up I want to be like daddy and look after everybody.” In a world where mothers are CEOS it stands to reason that dads have to man the home front. It is the only way to shift the dial.
“My predecessors at the 30% Club had similar arrangements – Helena’s husband we all know about [he is a Buddhist teacher]. Brenda Trenowden’s husband called himself the Chief Household Officer and Ann Cairns’ husband was a teacher and fitted around her work schedule. At Level 20 many of my co-founders had husbands who worked more locally to support them. It is very hard for both of you to be working long hours on the children. You can’t do this kind of job without a supportive husband, I was often travelling over 100 days a year, that is a long time away from home. That is difficult if both partners have huge corporate roles.”
How has her husband found the arrangement? “Sometimes it’s been difficult for him, it took a while at the beginning – people will ask leading questions at dinner parties. But we are well past that now. And him being the lead carer has given me the opportunity to focus on the career, to be there for the important moments. You can’t be micromanaging the lunch boxes from Australia. In fact,
‘If women want a promotion, they need to speak up more, they have to ask for it’
‘I focus on my work. My husband looks after the kids and does the shopping’
sometimes when I am around at home, it can be difficult. So we have a rule that he cooks during the week and I cook at the weekend. You just have to figure it out together and work out what works for you as a family. It’s been good for the family, it’s been good for the kids. But it’s something that emerges, I didn’t look around for a husband who would stay home.”
Beneath Hanneke’s rather prim exterior and blunt Dutch delivery is a warm person with a fire to make the world a better place. Where does the drive come from? She tells me about growing up in Holland, going to university there, and then moving to China in the late 1980s to learn Mandarin “the hardest thing I’ve ever done” (she already spoke Dutch, German and English).
“China was just coming out of the cold, it was exciting. I got myself a job with the Dutch company Philips and was just about to take up a job there in spring 1989 when Tiananmen Square happened.” She realised that “China was not happening” and took a radical decision at the age of 25 to leave Asia and move to London to do an MBA. “Sometimes it’s important to learn what you don’t want to do. I realised I wanted to work in financial services or strategy consulting, not a big engineering corporate like Philips.”
Her businessman father had always impressed upon her the importance of education – and it was he who suggested that she switched from studying classics to business. “He had always been hugely supportive of me and my career. He died in 2015 but he lived to see me successful.”
I wonder about the source of her enormous drive – and she gives an unexpected answer. “My inspiration, always, was my grandmother, Oma. She was always a glass-half-full person despite having been interned in Asia during the war. She and my mother and aunt were in the camps – my granny was always being punished for doing things that weren’t allowed.
She was made to stand for hours in the burning sun while my mother watched. Then in 1946 when the war in the east ended she went back to Holland on a boat with two tiny children, only to discover that her beloved husband – she never remarried – had died of pneumonia, after the war ended, because he had been so weakened by his experience as a prisoner of war. I still have the letter she sent him saying she was heading home with the children. It was sent back to her, marked with a red cross saying: person deceased. But even then she saw the upside: ‘At least I know what happened to my husband, unlike so many other women,’ she said. Granny focussed on education, agency, on how a woman should be able to look after herself. She had such life force right to the end: I remember her breaking her hip aged 88. She was redoubtable: ‘I’m going to be walking again in no time,’ she said. And she lived for another 12 years, till she was a hundred.”
With that kind of experience in her direct inheritance it is not surprising that Smits is on a mission to change the world.