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“Diversity can’t be something you just delegate to HR. It has to be owned at the top”

Category: diversity, Women in Leadership, International Women's day, Flexible Working, Women on boards, Parenting, inspirational women

Gender focus

“Diversity  can’t be  something  you just  delegate  to HR. It has  to be owned  at the top”


DIVERSE OPINIONS “I demand genuine partnership in my team,” says senior American Express executive  Anna Marrs, who’s here to talk about leadership, diversity and Virginia Woolf


Michigan-born Anna Marrs is the president of global commercial services at American Express in London. Her career in finance began at  a New York hedge fund in the 1990s, and she first arrived in London in 2000, meaning to stay for six months. After meeting her British husband, she ended up staying for 12 years, before heading to Singapore for four years during a seven-year stint at Standard Chartered. As a senior female executive in the finance sector, she’s very much in a minority, and is a passionate believer in all forms of diversity in the workplace.

BL What challenges have you faced as a woman in the financial sector? AM The challenges have been different in different phases  of my career. In my 20s, they were the old-school ones,  with sales guys expecting me to make the coffee, and the more overt sexual harassment. In my 30s, they were about  having kids, and finding out what I was going to be like as  a mother – but also a mother who went to work. Now, in  my 40s, I’m in a very visible leadership role, but I don’t necessarily look like the person everyone thinks leaders  look like. So the latest challenge has been to define a leadership style that’s true to me.

BL Do you think you lead in a different way to men? AM If you’re in a senior operating role at a company, you can’t influence every detail of how business is conducted every day, so I step back and concentrate on the areas where I can have the biggest impact. One of those is where investment or cost is going in or out. And the second is about the people. When it comes to the people side, I demand genuine partnership in my team. Maybe that’s a female characteristic, but it certainly seems like a good idea, because how Person A and Person B collaborate on something totally impacts the layer below, and then they impact the layer below that.


BL If there were even numbers of men and women  in leading roles in companies, do you think the cultures of those companies would change? AM Well I’ve certainly seen that. In the two leadership teams I’ve been in where there were a lot of women – at Amex now and at Standard Chartered before that – the women have generally been really good collaborators.  I don’t know if it’s innate or if it’s the kind of skill that is valued more in women leaders than in men, and so they  get promoted in line with that perception. But what I’ve benefitted from, in general, is having a group of female peers who work really well together. And if there is ever chest-beating behaviour in other parts of a team, having women around is helpful, because we tend to take less of  an aggressive stance in those situations.

DIVERSE OPINIONS “I demand genuine partnership in my team,” says senior American Express executive  Anna Marrs, who’s here to talk about leadership, diversity and Virginia Woolf 3 MINS

BL What should companies be doing to increase diversity in general? AM The first is just alignment at the top on the business case and then setting the agenda. The business cases have been made by many research studies, and there’s a  lot of evidence about how you see outperformance from more diverse teams. Diversity can’t be something you just delegate to a special initiative or to HR. It has to be owned at the top. Because of the baby years in my 30s I also think the move towards more flexible working is a tremendous benefit. And the other really positive thing that’s helping with getting more diverse candidates up the organisation, particularly women, is paternity leave. Companies have had the two-week version for a while, but now in some of our markets the father can take five months. For a couple, that’s really transformational. I remember my husband and I went from “We’re having a baby” to “I’m at home with a baby”. Giving men the opportunity to participate in that experience is really positive.

BL Are you optimistic about diversity issues? AM I’m a combination of optimistic and impatient. Yes, we’re making progress. I’ve worked with a few CEOs now who totally own this agenda and have made tremendous progress with diversity in their own teams. But sometimes it does seem very slow at the macro level. My go-to feminist text is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. She talks about how we’re all going to have a transcendent mind, but it might take 100 years before we’re all free of the shackles of biased ways of thinking. She wrote that book in 1929, and  I don’t think we’re ten years away from transcendence. Looking at ways to make progress more quickly in companies and the world at large, there are strategies like having targets or holding a role open until it can be filled with a diverse candidate. They’re clunky and you wish there was no need for those kinds of interventions, but in the meantime we can’t wait another 100 years.

BL Do you have an aspiration that things will have changed by the time your daughter enters the world of work? AM My daughter’s 11 and she’s very clear that she isn’t planning to work and wants to spend her time with a number of dogs! I guess what every parent wants for their child is the ability to realise their potential without artificial limitations. Some of the limitations early in my career created a degree of drive that maybe net benefitted me,  but I guess what I want for my kids is that they encounter fewer of those. 

Interview by Tim Hulse. Photograph by John Davis. British Airways Business Life    


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