Columbia Threadneedle’s Laura Weatherup on centring inclusion

The road to leadership is different for everyone—for Columbia Threadneedle’s Laura Weatherup, it meant defining her own path, asking the right questions at the right times and taking advantage of voluntold opportunities.

Laura Weatherup: There's a great Ted Talk [from] Amy Cuddy, which is Fake it until you become it. I much prefer [it] to the Fake it until you make it [talk]. It's “fake it until you become it” because you are it already. It is really about building that confidence and tapping into that credibility—and recognising in yourself what other people have recognised.

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Tanya Ott: This is the Press Room from Deloitte Insights. I’m Tanya Ott. Today, we continue our series examining the career journeys of women in financial services. We’ve talked to more than a dozen industry leaders about why gender equity is so challenging—particularly in this space—and how they’ve navigated it in their careers. Today, we’ve got Laura Weatherup teed up.

After almost two decades as cohead of operations for the global asset management firm Columbia Threadneedle Investments, Laura recently moved into a new role—global head of integration and change.

Laura Weatherup: It is challenging and I have absolutely nobody to blame apart from myself because I framed up the world before I asked for it.

Tanya Ott: It’s a recurring theme—putting herself in situations where she learns by doing.

Laura Weatherup: I had no idea when I was younger. I really didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. I knew [that] I wanted to go to university and I knew I wanted to go to Oxford because everybody said Oxford and Cambridge first, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after that. I met Pricewaterhouse[Coopers], at the time, through the university roadshows that they used to do. I saw that getting an accountancy qualification after my degree opened doors rather than closed them and would buy me another three years to really think about what it was that I wanted to do. So, I joined PwC straight from university, initially as an auditor, and then after I qualified, I moved into their advisory practice focusing on large-scale remediations and also outsourcing, which was where I met Threadneedle, my current employer.

Tanya Ott: A lot of the conversations that we're having with women for the series are pretty enlightening, particularly for, I think, listeners that are younger, when they hear about what things were like when some of the leaders in the industry first got into the business. What was that first experience for you like being a woman in financial services?

Laura Weatherup: The initial experience at Pricewaterhouse[Coopers] was really positive because it was almost like a university intake group. There were about 20 of us that joined at the same time, a real mix of women and men and a mix of people from different backgrounds that did have a very, very similar university education background. I think the first place that I felt the gender imbalance of the industry that I'd chosen was when I went out to clients on my own. When I started [out] in the remediation work, it would quite often be me and a group of the men that were leading the various teams or departments that we were working through to get the remediation or get the project done.

I think the bit that I observed and stood out for me and [that] I've worked on a lot with women that have been in various teams of mine throughout the years, is you need to learn how to get heard. You need to learn how to bring your voice to the table without emulating male colleagues. How you remained yourself, how you remained authentic, but [also] how you ensured that you got your opinions across, that you presented your work that you had done. For me, with clients very early on, one of my success criteria was when they would ask me questions directly, as a junior member of the team. It built your credibility, but also [put you] on an even pairing with everybody in the room.

Tanya Ott: I have a daughter who is actually working in the financial services industry. She's a year out of college and she's in a very client-facing position as a junior member of the team. She takes every opportunity she can to say yes. And so, she's been out clay shooting [as] the only woman that was out there clay shooting with a bunch of 50-, 60-year-old men. She has gone to the circus with clients—all kinds of [sort of] random things. And I know [that] for some people, it's the saying yes to the opportunities that really sort of makes the difference.

Laura Weatherup: I think that's right. I think you can be very careful about what you say yes to. You have to be comfortable with what you're saying yes to. But definitely, as I built my career, it was saying yes to opportunities. As I was thinking about [that], did I have a path to my career ... Well, initially, no, because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I joined Threadneedle for three years and I was definitely only staying for three years to get an experience in [the] industry and then moving on to get a taste of asset management in other firms. And I'm still here, 17 and a half years later. The thing that really kept me was getting those opportunities and then saying yes to them. I didn't pitch myself a path through operations. What I did was really be honest with myself about what interested me, honest with myself about what I wanted for my career and then matched those to the opportunities that presented themselves. Some of those opportunities were just simply to get involved with more senior people in what they were doing, whether that was staying late to get pizza, staying late to draft a presentation, going to a golf day when you don't play golf, [or] joining out-of-office events in sports that I didn't really know anything about. It was about making yourself useful, taking a chance on those opportunities and getting people to have your name front of mind when they thought about somebody that they may need to bring along or they may want to teach.

Tanya Ott: Can you point to a time that you felt that you really took a risk or really ventured outside your comfort zone?

Laura Weatherup: Back in 2008, I was asked to take on a derivative oversight team and a couple of other small teams that sat in the front office that they were too small to operate effectively. They didn't really have enough cross-working and they didn't really have enough time for proper time off and holidays. At the time, I took on the derivative team—I could spell derivative, but that was about the beginning, middle and end of my expertise. So that was a real step-change for me relatively early on in my career at Threadneedle. I'd only been there about four years. It was a great experience because you really had to step back and do a couple of things. I had to step back and think about—what did this team need from me? What is it that I can do to bring value to them? And then really think about, right, okay, so now, what should I do more of or do differently? What should I do? What should I stop or what should I do less of? What I registered at that point was what they needed me for was decision-making. What they had was information. What they had was knowledge. What they had was technical. What they needed from me was direction and decision-making. Once you'd worked out where you all added value, that was really good for me because that then focused on managing people and building a team, rather than dealing with the technical expertise.

What it also taught me is asking stupid questions is something that can be of huge value. I don't think people should ever shy away from asking what they're worried [about] or should be questioning. I was running the derivatives team and I had been for a few weeks when Lehman's went bust and the team had come to me and said, we need to pay this collateral amount across to Lehman's to cover the positions that we have in the derivatives. And I said, well, why? They've just gone into administration. Why would we pay the collateral across? I think that sometimes the technical gets a little bit in the way because they were following it, because that's the way that the process had worked. But being able to challenge and ask questions about it, we took a different route and the different route was better for our clients once we had looked through it.

Tanya Ott: Interesting. You know, it strikes me that this might have been one of those situations where you could have felt a little bit of imposter syndrome. It's something that I hear from even women in my industry who have done radio for 30 years and then say, well, I don't think I'm qualified for that podcasting job. And I'm like, It's the same thing you've been doing. It's just got a different name. And imposter syndrome is a real issue.

Laura Weatherup: I think it is. One of the things I've done, each time I've taken a step-change in my career, I've had a short series of coaching sessions and that's to help with a number of things. Some of that is to help with how you build and project the confidence in what you're doing before you have the confidence in what you're doing. I think that's really important. A lot of that is linked to imposter syndrome—to thinking, well, why have I been given this new role? What can I bring to this? Am I going to work it out before I get found out? That can have a huge impact on your own personal well-being, [and] on your anxiety levels.

There's a great Ted Talk [from] Amy Cuddy, which is Fake it until you become it. I much prefer [it] to the Fake it until you make it [talk]. It's “fake it until you become it” because you are it already. It is really about building that confidence and tapping into that credibility—and recognising in yourself what other people have recognised. So, 99% of the time, when you step out of your comfort zone into a challenge that somebody at work has given you, 99% time, they know you can do it. The only person that doesn't know you can do it is you. And so really, really trying to think about “how do I project that confidence until I can get there in my own head” is really important.

I know somebody—it was when I was running the derivatives team actually—she referred to me as a swan. She said, you look very, very calm in all of your interactions with people and with your team and how you're helping them get through the work and decisions they need to make. And she said and then every now and then, I can see how fast you’re scurrying underwater. That I found quite interesting because when you do have that lack of confidence or you're feeling a bit [of] that imposter syndrome, it's really, really hard to see what perception people have of you because you know what's going on in your head and you think you're projecting that. Something that's really helpful when people are struggling with that a bit is to get a bit of feedback. Get a bit of feedback from peers, get a bit of feedback from line managers, to really see how others are perceiving the work that you're doing, but also the way you're doing it.

The most recent role that I've taken [on] has really, really taken me out of my comfort zone. The last 17 years I've been in operations and I've worked in a lot of areas of operations and then I've led larger and larger groups up to [being] the cohead of operations. So that really is my core comfort zone. One of the functions when I took over [as] the cohead of operations was to have a change team. But change life cycle isn't my background. Whereas the role that I [was] positioned for and took [over] in January is a change role. It is about bringing and building a change team. It's about integrating another business. And that all relies on my leadership skills and my navigation skills and my ability to recruit people that are more experienced than me. So, for me, not being able to necessarily jump into all of the doing myself is a huge leap out of my comfort zone.

Tanya Ott: As you look back on your career and where you stand right now, gender equity in the industry is important both to you personally and to the industry as a whole. And I understand that you're involved in your firm's DEI initiative.

Laura Weatherup: I am. So way back in 2013, which [feels] like an awful long time ago now, I set up the Diversity and Inclusion Group, at which point we had a focus on our female employees and [were] really trying to understand why we were losing more women than men through certain stages in the[ir] career, what were the ambitions of our female employees, what were their views on career progression, the development available, the work environment that we were in at Columbia Threadneedle. I spent a lot of time educating myself, but also the leadership team about what is diversity and what is inclusion—and what are the differences between them to get some momentum. We actually got to a point where we included respect as a key measure in our engagement survey. The way we described respect was around inclusivity and we've moved that by 17 points in one year—which was brilliant. It's a voluntary group. It's still running, it's oversubscribed, but we've now broadened out. It covers a number of different areas: it still covers gender and I'm pleased to say it now covers gender in the broader sense, whereas the initial focus nine years ago was on women at work. We have LGBTQ, neurodiversity, ethnicity focus and then socioeconomic, which is the one that I sponsor now as a workstream within our diversity and inclusion group.

Tanya Ott: I understand that you didn't exactly volunteer to be founding the DEI. There's an interesting story there.

Laura Weatherup: Yeah. Well, the work started with our chief investment officer (CIO) at the time, who was a senior female [executive] but due to retire. The CEO at the time asked me if I would set up this as an ongoing group to take the work that she'd done, where she'd started interviewing some of the women within the investment group and turn it into something that we could expand in the firm. At the time, I was a bit reluctant—and I was reluctant really for a couple of reasons. One was it's always nerve-wracking taking on something where you've got no path to follow. But secondly, I didn't feel like I would be a great role model. I'm not married and I don't have children. So, feeling like [I was supposed to be] one of the women that people might look up to, I felt like I might find myself lacking in a number of areas, if that makes sense. But as I got into it, it was a really, really good experience. What I learned with the group that I started investigating this with was focusing on the inclusive element so that you could really tap into the talent that you're bringing on board. I remember reading a PhD [study] at the time when I started out my first little research and it concluded that those groups with greater diversity performed better or worse than those groups with less diversity. And, at the time, that was quite disheartening. I nearly threw the study across the room. But when I did read into it further, the whole point was it's not the diversity that gets you performing better—It's the diversity plus inclusion.

Diversity just means difference. It doesn't mean anything other than a difference from some sort of reference point, whatever that reference point may be. Whereas inclusion at the start means acceptance—but not just acceptance—[or] positive welcoming. And then, as you move inclusion on more, it means positive collaboration. It means positive engagement. And it's about the constructive utilisation of different perspectives and ideas and embracing and seeking out different ways of coming at things. For people that are in your organisation, inclusion has to feel for them that they have that feeling of being part of the group, the firm, whatever you determine that group to be. And they've got a feeling of being included by everybody who identifies as diverse in some sort of area with some sort of characteristic. Otherwise, you just got a group of people with some differences.

Tanya Ott: What is the biggest obstacle that companies face when it comes to moving to that inclusion step?

Laura Weatherup: It's very, very easy to highlight what's not good enough and it's very, very easy to set ambitions or even to set targets, but then how you move the dial is the really hard thing. I think inclusion is easier to embed in your company than diversity because you need to find the diversity of backgrounds or characteristics. And that's not always necessarily in the pipeline. But if you focus on inclusion for a bit, I think there are a number of different areas that really help you move the dial. It's education. It's really understanding what does that mean? What does it mean for that group that identifies as a diverse group, whether it's neurodiversity, ethnicity, whatever it may be? What does it mean for that group? What does it mean for you? What does it mean for your team and what does it mean for the firm? We had a session fairly recently on neurodiversity and a lady with autism came and talked to us and gave [us] some pointers on how she was most productive. It was relatively simple things like having a static desk, not a hot desk, having a quiet space where you could go and do your work quietly without interruption and not being surprised in a meeting where you had to think off the cuff and deliver your answer, it needed to have time to be considered. And I think that, combined with the firm's mindset that that these things are not accommodations for the individual, but these things are the best ways for you to tap into and use the best of the talent and brainpower that's available. Getting to that point really helps people to embed an inclusive-type culture within their firm and that involves dialog and that involves talking about uncomfortable issues or difficult issues and not necessarily uncomfortable because you are averse to something, but uncomfortable because you don't always know how to have a conversation. I think that's really important for open transparency.

Seeking the diversity and growing diversity is incredibly hard because that's about pipeline and that goes back to schools. So that goes back to youngsters having an idea of what's available to them and how they may think about the subjects that they choose to get there, alternatives to university given the significant costs, addressing the socioeconomic differences and expectations so someone from background A should not necessarily expect to be at the same place as someone from background B. They may have the same potential. And we as firms and employers need to think about and recognise that and think about how you can best develop talent that's available and out there. That's got to require cross-industry initiatives. No one firm can do that. That's the long-road journey.

Tanya Ott: One of the things that this makes me think of is the conversation happening here in the United States in some industries around do we really need the degree or the pedigree that we've traditionally required in some fields? And are there are alternatives, certifications, or endorsements that can be gotten that aren't sort of the traditional path into an industry? And I would imagine those conversations happening for you all as well.

Laura Weatherup: Yes, it is. A lot more firms—including ourselves—are thinking along the schemes where it's preuniversity— so university isn't a requisite anymore. The types of subjects have long been more accepted with the breadth of subjects than it has [been with] the level of education that you've got to. And I think that is starting to change, as has the number of years’ experience that you start to ask for, for a role within your industry. It's not just the pipeline of schools through to your industry, but it's also thinking about how do you look outside financial services to find the same transferable skills where you can teach the technical [aspects] to bring competence really quickly … that may allow you or may enable you to attract a more diverse base, both from individuals’ backgrounds but also from the experience that they've had in the workplace, which in and of itself can be extremely beneficial.

Tanya Ott: How does remote work affect this entire conversation around diversity and inclusion?

Laura Weatherup: Remote working increases the catchment area within which you would look for your workers, but also within which potential candidates would seek out an employer, [and] the way that you really embrace that, because it's not just about bringing people on board, it's about then developing them and keeping them within the firm—and keeping that talent there. So that comes back to inclusive management and how you manage inclusively when you have people physically present, but also people that are remote from you. They may be remote workers on their own or [working in] remote offices with different teams that do spend time face-to-face and together. That is all going to feed into itself as we learn, because I don't think any of us, certainly not within financial services, has really learned how to embrace the development [and] onboarding of remote workers yet. We have a lot to learn in that space and will do [so] over the next few years. But if you can bring inclusive principles, if you can really build a team and build strong relationships between managers, colleagues and a combination of remote workers and those that do work closer to your office, you're going to be on the right track to get some momentum. What we found, certainly in our North American call center—where we've started a lot more remote working—is that you get that multiplier effect. People are a little bit nervous [about] it to begin with. They don't understand how it's going to work. But you bring a few on and that works, [then] you bring a few more and that works. People get familiar. People change their working and communication practices as they get more used to it and then it suddenly becomes the norm.

Tanya Ott: What do you hope the conversation about gender equity is going to look like in 10 or 15 years in your industry?

Laura Weatherup: There's a real flippant answer to that, which is I hope the conversation doesn't need to be had anymore. But I don't think social change happens that quickly. What I'm hoping that the conversation will be over a period of time is to be able to better focus on what individuals need for their own personal development and how their mental well-being can be best managed. I hope we're not having the same kind of conversations over specific measures of equality, the potential of ceilings, [and] the lack of promotions. I hope that the conversation has moved on to think about how we can better help peoples’ journeys no matter what their background is.

I tell people what I think is really important in their own career development is not necessarily having the path of how you get from A to B to C, but it's really being honest about what you want and not getting torn up in what I think I should want. You don't necessarily have to want to be a partner. You don't have to necessarily want to continue the route upwards where you started. You can move left and right and then you can look to move upwards in your career. But being really honest about what it is you want and what you don't want [is what] I find very useful in deciding which opportunities are taken and how I've progressed [in] my career. My things were I need to be challenged and stimulated. I'm terrible when I'm bored. I like building, fixing and changing things. I like a fast pace. I like recognition, but I like to be able to have a level of decision and autonomy is more important to me than what the status of my job title is. And, if I'm perfectly honest with myself, I like to have a nice lifestyle that feels secure. Once I could work those things out, then it was much easier for me to evaluate opportunities or options. Going back to really what are your values and what is important to you is a real helpful place to go back to and have a think on.

Tanya Ott: Thank you, Laura, so much. It's been great talking to you.

Laura Weatherup: Fabulous. Thank you for your time. And I look forwards to seeing what you make of my musings.

Tanya Ott: Laura Weatherup is the global head of integration and change at the global asset management firm Columbia Threadneedle Investments. You can find more conversations like this—both podcast and printed—in the Within Reach series at deloitte.com/insights.

The Press Room podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts, online at deloitteinsights.com and on Twitter at @deloitteinsight (no “S”). I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott and we’ll be back here again in two weeks.

This podcast is produced by Deloitte. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte. This podcast provides general information only and is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to Deloitte.com/about.

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