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#WomenInFinance Take Risks – An Interview with Cary Grace of Aon

State Street

February 26,2019

#WomenInFinance celebrates strong women in all corners of the financial services industry who are using their talent and power to change the game.

According to the New York Times,1 2018 was the “Year of the Woman”. If you ask Cary Grace, it’s a start. As chief executive officer for global Retirement & Investment solutions at Aon, a global professional services firm providing risk, reinsurance, retirement and health solutions, Cary has advocated tirelessly for inclusion in financial services. On the business strategy side, she recently led Aon through a period of intense change. We spoke with Cary about thinking ahead, keeping cool in challenging situations and advocating for change in our industry and beyond.

In December, you celebrated your third anniversary as CEO of Aon’s Global Retirement & Investment (R&I) Solutions group. What accomplishment from the past three years are you most proud of?

We underwent the biggest transformation in our group’s history: global restructuring, selling half of our business, two acquisitions. During that time, the thing I am most proud of is that our colleagues were able to prove the strategic and financial thesis of how and why we did what we did. We are here because we’re a partner to our clients and focused on meeting their needs for the long term. I’m proud of our colleagues who have achieved the highest level of client engagement while we’ve undergone transformation.

Aon’s R&I Solutions is one of the largest providers of retirement and investment advice and solutions in the world. What are some of the biggest drivers of change in that space right now?

There’s more change in the asset management industry today than what I’ve seen in 25 years. Scale is being redefined, and there’s a tremendous amount of consolidation. As an industry, how do we continue to find sources of alpha for our clients? How do we make our services as cost-effective as possible for the investor?

As we see more responsibility for retirement savings shifting onto the individual, providers and regulators are focused on retirement security. Discussions around consistent fiduciary standards and a focus on education, accessible advice and best in class solutions are helping ensure the industry is catering to increased levels of individual responsibility.

Speaking of change, do you have a strategy for leading a company through tumultuous times?

Yes, 100%. I love Aon’s framework around change that I think about often: “IQ, EQ, and MQ.” When we consider IQ, we want to make sure our leaders, colleagues and clients understand and align with the ‘what’ as we go through change … the direction and metrics in our journey. Do they have an intellectual understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it? On the EQ front, have we connected with them emotionally? Obviously, if you look at change from merely an IQ standpoint, that offers a pretty straightforward path. The EQ mentality challenges that path —how are we going to talk about what we intend to do? How does it make people feel and interact with each other? Lastly, I consider MQ. What is our mission and reasoning for this?

How does it feel to be named to American Banker’s Most Powerful Women in Finance list? Do you feel any responsibility to “pay it forward?”

It’s a tremendous honor to be included in such an esteemed group of women, the majority of whom I’ve had the opportunity to get to know personally. Ultimately though, I believe this is recognition of the wonderful colleagues I work with at Aon. They work tirelessly every day to drive great outcomes for our clients.

I have felt the responsibility to pay it forward from very early on in my career. The level of sponsorship I’ve had from both women and men in this industry is remarkable. As I’ve furthered my career, I have worked to change the level of inclusion in the workforce, helping other women navigate the business and continue to move up. I also feel the responsibility to pay it forward in an impactful way by focusing on related programs within the industry and greater Chicago community. I’m part of The Chicago Network, an organization of senior women from many major Chicago companies. We’re focused on how to substantively change the ecosystem to help women in the future achieve what they really want to achieve.

Very few women make it to the C-suite in any capacity; even fewer are named CEO. What can the financial services industry do to ensure that more women make it to the top?

There are three areas I spend a disproportionate amount of time on. First, accelerating diversity and inclusion as a business imperative, not just a social imperative. Young women are coming out of college at growing rates.2 They will increasingly be our future leaders. As a business leader, you’re constantly asking yourself the question: How is our business going to succeed? The answer is by having the best talent, regardless of gender or any other demographic. Diversity is the next big growth strategy. If a business can’t figure out the benefits of inclusion, they are at a disadvantage, period. Goldman Sachs did a study3 where they looked at companies that had a higher percentage of female employees versus companies that did not. Guess which companies performed better?

Second, women increasingly control spending and investing decisions. From a consumer spending standpoint, women dominate the market. In the United States alone, women control billions of dollars of spend annually.4 The level of investable assets women control is consistently increasing globally.  These are big business opportunities.  

Lastly, we need to evolve from a mentorship mentality to a sponsorship mentality. Women have been over-mentored and under-sponsored. Mentorship is great and necessary, but it’s passive. Sponsorship is active.

On the topic of people, what qualities/skills do you look for when hiring/promoting individuals (and especially women) into senior leadership roles?

When promoting employees, I look at both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. What type of experience do they have, what assignments have they been on, and what were the outcomes? If I’m looking to fill a particular position, how do the candidate’s experiences add up to what we are looking for? How do they work in teams? When I interview women versus men, women in general tend to downplay their role in accomplishments. I try to pull out some of their achievements —what they’ve done simply doesn’t come as naturally.

My job as a leader is about how I help the 50,000 colleagues we have globally across Aon. I see my success in the lens of their success and take a huge amount of responsibility for that. When it comes to promotions, it’s important for my employees to have career growth and see opportunities for their professional success.

What is one piece of advice a former mentor/sponsor gave you that you still carry with you today?

The best advice I ever got was when I was in my thirties. I was in asset management for the vast majority of my career and I was constantly trying to fit in and be the same as everyone else. One of my partners said to me — and it’s stuck with me since — “Cary, you need to understand that you’re here because of your uniqueness, not because of your sameness.” Now, part of my ability to optimize my contributions is to always try to offer my unique perspective. This advice has influenced how I approach conversations about some really tough issues. How do you bring in the diversity of point of views?

Is there anything you wish you could tell your younger self about how your career would unfold? Any advice you would give yourself at key moments?

First, take calculated risks. As a woman in asset management, there was not a clear-cut career path for me. Push yourself early on to take risks.

Second, focus on your strengths as much as your weaknesses. Everyone is going to have an idea of what they do well and what they don’t do well, and you could miss out on how you can get even better at something you’re uniquely great at if you don’t spend time developing your strengths.

Additionally, your network matters. Throughout my career, I have really enjoyed working with different people. I unintentionally built a great network of relationships as a result, but my network-building would be more intentional.

How has your past influenced your career and how you perceive the future?

I grew up in a literal social experiment. My hometown of Columbia, MD is a “planned community” just outside of Washington, DC built around the goal of economic and social inclusion. It was founded on the principle of becoming a place for everyone to be their best self, regardless of race, religion, gender or economic status, and has seen terrific success. As I look back on my career, it comes back to these basic principles: If you allow people to be their best self, you’re going to better results. This is incumbent on us as leaders. How do we hold ourselves accountable for making the financial services industry better? My hometown – built on a foundation of inclusion – is consistently ranked one of the best places to live in the United States. If you can be like that in a city, you can be like that in an industry.

1. Zernike, Kate. “Working to Ensure the ‘Year of the Woman’ Is More Than Just One Year.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/us/politics/women-candidates-activism.html (retrieved December 19, 2018).

2. US Department of Education. “Back to school statistics.” National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372 (retrieved December 19, 2018).

3. Hindlian, Amanda. “Closing the Gender Gaps: Advancing Women in Corporate America.” Goldman Sachs. Retrieved from https://www.goldmansachs.com/insights/pages/gmi-gender-gaps.html (retrieved December 28, 2018).

4. Kingsbury, Kathleen. “Financial Concerns of Women.” BMO Wealth Institute. https://www.bmo.com/privatebank/pdf/Q1-2015-Wealth-Institute-Report-Financial-Concerns-of-Women.pdf (retrieved December 19, 2018).

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