#WomenInFinance Champion Change – An Interview with Cynthia Egan
Across the business landscape, there’s no singular cadence of change. Technology advances in financial services are happening at lightning speed, while institutional reforms such as gender inclusion are moving more slowly. If you ask Cynthia Egan, corporate director at Unum, corporate director at The Hanover Group and director at the BlackRock Closed End Funds, what is important is that we continue to make change happen.
We spoke with Cynthia to learn more about the transformation she’s seen during her 30-plus years in the industry, and what she’s doing today to facilitate gender parity, both inside and outside the boardroom.
When it comes to influencing how companies operate, what do you think corporate boards do well, and what could they do better?
Corporate boards work hard to bring meaningful support and input to company management. Each company has a unique area of focus, but I believe that all boards need to stay diligent about governance and, from a business perspective, keep the volume turned up on technology and talent. Tech innovations are driving huge opportunities for growth and scale in every industry and many boards are encouraging management to boldly allocate capital for technology and advances that will keep them competitive. Companies who don’t tap into these opportunities will fall behind. When it comes to talent, many boards have begun to appreciate and embrace diversity, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. Any good board, just like any successful company, must be focused on having the right talent in place.
State Street Global Advisors recently moved Fearless Girl to her new home in front of the New York Stock Exchange. As a woman who has served on numerous boards, what do you think is the key to achieving gender parity on corporate boards?
Fearless Girl is symbolically inspirational — I loved showing her and talking about her and all that she represents to my two young nieces. She’s really something to be proud of. When it comes to board diversity, the road has to start long before the actual search process begins. We need more diverse candidates coming through the pipeline at all levels in every industry so that eventually there is a deep pool of board ready talent. To be honest, I’m not really a fan of mandates like California’s recent bill requiring publicly traded companies who are headquartered there to add a woman to their board by the end of 2019. While I absolutely agree that we need more female representation on boards, I think those types of mandates are too focused on the short term and can actually diminish the significant merits of female board members.
Improving gender parity shouldn’t be the result of a “one-and-done” mandate. To me, it’s more important — and more effective — to put our emphasis on achieving long-term cultural change and talent development.
You have created and led gender inclusion programs at both T. Rowe Price and Boston College. What advice would you give to organizations looking to develop similar programs?
Things won’t change overnight. But with true commitment and the right resources, inclusion will gain traction. At both Boston College and T. Rowe, we decided to listen and discover, through surveys and round tables, to fully understand the dimensions and priorities of the challenge. We then created a few highly focused programs, which were energized by tapping the passion of champions throughout the organizations. It took accountability from the very top and much patience, but the results are tangible. I’m very proud when I look at the Boston College board diversity, which is at a historic high for the university. T. Rowe’s board roster is also a good example of progress with diversity.
You’ve worked in many (and seemingly very different) areas of finance – building and leading retirement and charitable giving businesses, compliance, government, human capital, and more. What was one of your favorite roles and why?
Leading businesses that were advancing retirement security for millions of Americans was incredibly gratifying. But one of my favorite roles was being president of the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund*. In its early days, the Gift Fund was truly a “start-up” and somewhat misunderstood, so it was challenging and exciting to work with regulators and the press to get our story straight. Even more exciting was leading the team that drove all aspects of the business to become the nation’s second largest public charity. By far the most rewarding aspect was building a business that supported hundreds of millions of charitable contributions to worthy causes. That was special.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in financial services during your 30+-year career, and what do you hope for the future of the industry?
When I entered financial services, mutual funds were just beginning to materialize as a competitive investment vehicle. As they picked up serious traction, a great quote emerged about how “mutual funds brought Wall Street to Main Street.” When mutual funds were combined with technology, payroll deduction and the 401(K), Wall Street ended up right in the living rooms of millions of Americans! It was remarkable to see how retirement security and individual ownership began to expand beyond Social Security and shift away from pensions.
Another rather stunning change has been the transition from paper to phone to voice response to online interaction. Technology advances have benefited not only individual empowerment, but also job responsibilities and the quality of work. Instead of shuffling mounds of papers and reports, more employees than ever are able to use their critical thinking and technology skills. In the human capital landscape, it’s been gratifying to see an increased emphasis on diversity and inclusion. The true leaders of today know that this is one of the most important areas of focus that will generate value in the workplace. As far as the future, I’d like to see continuing advances on the important topic of retirement security, and, of course, more progress overall with diversity in the workplace.
Right now you serve as a corporate director at Unum, corporate director at The Hanover Group and director to the BlackRock Closed-End Funds. How do you balance the responsibilities of the three roles?
Balancing many moving parts is a combination of having a deep sense of responsibility and being involved with something that you truly enjoy. I’ve always found that if I love what I’m doing it becomes almost natural to prioritize effectively. When I think back on building the retirement businesses and leading the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund, I couldn’t wait to get to work. But it’s not always easy. If you don’t particularly love what you are doing, that’s when that sense of responsibility has to kick in. I’ve always felt that for any role, it’s a must to do your best. Over my career I’ve had a few humdinger jobs that I didn’t love, but always tried to put my best foot forward. Today as a board member, I’m part of the elected body that represents the company’s shareholders so it’s critical to be truly invested in the success of the company. I want to know as much as I can about the company, the industry and investor perceptions, and aim to bring as much knowledge and experience as possible to the board room.
What advice do you have for young women just starting their career in finance?
Along the way I learned that success is a balance between personal and professional development while simultaneously recognizing that you are working to create value for your company and shareholders. Be sure to understand what’s important to your company, including corporate goal and strategy, and how your skills can create value. Develop those skills and your personal brand, and cultivate a strong network of peers and mentors. There will inevitably be challenges, but if you always put your best forward you will shine.
And then there is the enormous topic of work/life balance. I once worked with a terrific man who said, “My responsibilities are from the driveway out and Sue’s (his wife) responsibilities are from the driveway in.” I remember thinking “well, lucky you to have Sue.” Many women are handling both ends and the middle of the driveway, and it’s impossible to keep it all smooth without help. I’ve been a working mom for most of my career and would have had far fewer contributions without having a strong support system. It takes focus and time to organize, but solidifying your personal infrastructure is just as important — if not more important — than any management or leadership initiative you will ever undertake. And don’t forget to ask for help, and offer to help others.
We’re all in this together.
*Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund is a product of Fidelity Investments and is not sponsored, endorsed or promoted by State Street Corporation.
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