Five minutes with Dame Helena Morrissey

Five minutes with Dame Helena Morrissey

We caught up with Dame Helena Morrissey – the campaigner and investor out to redress the gender imbalance in UK business. Recognised as one of the most influential women in UK finance, Helena founded the 30% Club in 2010 with the goal of achieving a minimum of 30% women on FTSE 100 boards. The number has risen so far from 12.5% to 27%. Currently Head of Personal Investing at Legal & General, Helena tells us how to get men involved in women’s progression, why she wishes she had pushed the reset button at the end of the 30% Club’s first five years and reveals the best piece of business advice she’s ever received. 


  1. Describe your organisation’s purpose

Our purpose is to achieve a better gender company balance, not just on boards but at all levels of an organisation.


  1. How does your organisation prepare for the future world of work?

For us it’s less about fitting in to the existing world of work and more about creating a world of work that suits us all, men and women, in a digital age. “The whole idea of the 30% Club is that women can help change things by being ourselves; we can bring our individual perspectives and different points of view to the table,” including a tendency to collaborate, and a more consensus-building style — so we aren’t just fitting in to the past patriarchal workplace structures but influencing new ways of working.


  1. In what ways does your organisation collaborate with others and why?

Ours is a goal that can only be achieved if we all work together. “We are trying to create a more inclusive environment and culture, one that recognises the value of difference. It’s not just about adding a few more women on boards. We have not tried to reinvent any wheels or ‘own’ the issue – we’re just interested in the results and making sure they are sustainable.”

A key aspect of the 30% Club is that it involves men. It’s as far away from a battle of the sexes as possible. Half of the mentors in our cross-company measuring scheme, now in its fifth year, are men. Collaboration really is key. That scheme involved just eight organisations and 70 people in its first year, to 85 organisations and over 15,000 people involved today.


  1. What is the main thing that attracts talent and retains talent in your organisation?

All the volunteers involved with the 30% Club – whether Chairmen, senior women or mentees – really believe in the goal. They are often frustrated by slow progress towards more diverse organisations and can see from the 30% Club’s approach that joined-up action can be very powerful. In my own career, I’ve seen how change can be very glacial – or non-existent – and then happen all at once. I’ve just celebrated 30 years in a male-dominated industry – and there is much to celebrate – but I think the best years lie ahead, because there is such awareness now that diversity is part of the solution to many problems, not another problem to solve.


  1. In your experience, what is the best way to build diverse teams?

It has to be voluntary, based on the genuine understanding that diversity creates better results. “When organisations just follow initiatives to increase diversity, but lack the genuine desire to do so, it doesn’t work and can actually be counterproductive, causing resentment.” A lot of formal programmes are well-intentioned but anything that’s mandatory is particularly unlikely to improve things.  We can’t change how people think and behave overnight – but we can encourage them to make their own minds up that diversity is good for their business.


  1. What has been the biggest challenge to your growth and how have you tackled it?

Our biggest challenge to growth came in the form of initial resistance to change, particularly from those who were already benefitting from the status quo.

When we first started out, I began writing to all the Chairman of the FTSE 350 companies, explaining what we were trying to achieve. I reached the letter H before I started getting replies from the A’s and B’s. The replies I got back weren’t just dismissive but often hostile. There was a suggestion that I was trying to interfere with the composition of boards, that gender balance was a women’s issue not a business issue.

But as the thinking shifted, as the awareness grew that this was actually trying to help decision making and challenge in the boardroom, many of those same people became very supportive.  It can still be a struggle, just last night I was at a dinner where eight of the ten other attendees were incredibly pessimistic. It’s easy to focus on the unresolved issues rather than celebrate the progress. The challenge is that you have to believe you can achieve the goal, and have the energy and enthusiasm to bring other people with you.


  1. What has been the best decision your organisation has ever made?

Getting the Chairmen to be the supporters and members. I learned that women talking to women about women’s issues made us feel less alone but didn’t really do anything in terms of progress. It was only after asking the powerful men to lead the charge – not just support it – but actually to drive it, that the dynamic shifted and momentum developed.

One slightly amusing – and helpful – thing that I hadn’t foreseen was that these men were actually quite competitive with each other too – they tried to out-do each other in terms of how much progress they could make.


  1. What would you say represents the biggest opportunity for your organisation in the next five years?

In all honestly, to disband and no longer be needed would be the perfect end goal, because that would mean that gender equality had been achieved in the workplace.


  1. What one decision would you go back and change if you could?

With hindsight, it would have been good to ‘press the reset button’ after the first five years, which is when I stood down as Chair, perhaps to broader beyond gender. While it was a collective decision and I was involved with it, it’s a hard thing to keep up the momentum after a solid 5 years of everyone working pretty urgently. Brenda Trenowden, who took over from me, and the rest of the team have continued to work really hard, but results have plateaued. If I could do it again, there would have made a bigger, cleaner break between the goals of the first five years and the second five years. There was a time and a place for having a real strong focus on gender but real progress towards inclusion demands a focus on all dimensions of diversity.

Gender balance is a start rather than a finish.


  1. What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

Be authentic. It’s such a cliché but honestly, having the confidence to be authentic makes all the difference to achieving your aims. When I was younger my mentors taught me to be myself – and not to be afraid to ask for advice.


  1. What does a Vibrant Economy mean to you?

To me a Vibrant Economy is one where we are utilising everybody’s skills to make society the best it can be – we’re not doing enough to make our economy more inclusive on every level. We need more diversity. There are just so many different things that people can offer.