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Monday, June 21, 2021

Three CEOs Talk DE&I and WFH

Reported by Andrew Lusk

According to a few top C-suite executives in the asset management and retirement industry, diversity initiatives are something worth putting a lot more energy into as the working world leans into hybrid home-office models.

Kristi Lynn Mitchem
BMO Global Asset Management
"I've been in this business for more than thirty years, and have had many experiences of being the first or the only," said Lisa Jones, president and CEO of Amundi U.S., at the first annual Nicsa Fearless Leadership Symposium, a virtual conference dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion. "I look at the world through a gender lens, and as the whole subject of diversity, equity, and inclusion has become a major priority for all of us, it's that background and experience that brings my awareness to this very important subject matter."

"To be in this position," Jones added, "I do own the responsibility of trying to further develop our organization to be more diverse, more inclusive, and with a focus on equity for all."

Jun Li, co-leader for the Americas in the wealth and asset management sector at Ernst and Young and moderator of the panel, said, "I have been personally involved with our own efforts on anti-Asian violence, and this takes a lot of commitment, but is a topic I'm very passionate about."

Jones added that the past year has raised an acute awareness of racial injustice throughout the U.S., including widespread acknowledgement that COVID-19 devastated communities of color and poorer Americans significantly more than their wealthier, white counterparts. "We have a great opportunity as an industry to do more, and to do the right thing."

"We have a really strong intention and we're changing behaviors," said Janus Henderson Group CEO Dick Weil. "In life, you don't want to waste a good crisis. This past year has been a really ugly crisis in a lot of ways, but it has also created an opportunity to focus on social issues, and we want to make the most of that."

Li then asked what these execs think DE&I might look like in a long-term hybrid in-person and remote work environment.

"When we all went into lockdown," responded Jones, "we had a real glimpse into the challenges that our working families were facing, with schools and support systems being closed. Historically, when you were in the office and you needed to escape in the afternoon to bring your child to a doctor's appointment, a little league game, or a ballet recital, you did so quietly."

She continued, "With life on Zoom, we saw families homeschooling and heard all of the noises and stress in the background. I believe that was a terrific opportunity for all of us to get very comfortable with the fact that we try real hard to balance our work and family situations."

"This isn't just something that women have to experience," she said. "This is family, and it's balancing our personal and professional lives. This [pandemic] demystified that, and took the wizard out from behind the curtain regarding the fact that people have a lot going on."

"Now we have a much deeper appreciation for the struggles and the balances, and as we maintain some form of a flexible work environment, this will allow families to balance their many demands," Jones noted.

Amundi will launch a permanent hybrid work framework in September. Jones said, "I believe that will be beneficial for our efforts around diversity, because ... this will allow more women to remain in the workforce [even as family demands come into play]."

"We see real, expanded possibilities with remote working," noted Kristi Mitchem, CEO of BMO Asset Management. "One of the beneficial things about COVID is that it forces us to stretch our imaginations around the art of the possible. How much can be done virtually? How successful can virtual work be?"

"There will be a lot of challenges also associated with hybrid and remote work," she said. "With all of our COVID practices ... we have a guiding principle [centered around] equality. We recognize that there are many beneficial aspects to a remote working environment, but that it could also create two classes of citizens that may, in fact, be gendered."

She adds, "The crisis of COVID fell disproportionately on many families, especially women ... A CNBC poll found that 65 percent of women think the pandemic has made things worse for them at work, and the number of 'very ambitious' women has dropped 12 percent in the past year, from 54 percent to 42 percent."

"Less than a third of women are currently satisfied with their opportunities for career growth," she continues, "and perhaps most importantly, 53 percent say their mental health suffers to the point of burnout."

"There is a very special set of issues that, I think, as managers, we need to be very attuned to," Mitchem said. "I focused here specifically on women, but...the aperture needs to be very wide as it relates to diversity."

At BMO, Mitchem says the team is working to implement a dual tracking system, marrying operational aspects to a diversity task force which "looks at these issues from many different, diverse perspectives."

Weil concludes, "I'll throw my vote in the optimistic camp. I think it's hugely positive what we've learned about our ability to be flexible and remote."

"I wasn't on a ton of Zoom calls prior to the crisis, and was a bit more skeptical about relying on everyone remotely," he said. "But it opens the door to more creative work-life arrangements that, if done well, will help the entire firm." 

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