skip to navigation skip to content

Compass

 

Helena Morrissey, Chief Executive of Newton Investment Management

The former philosophy student on staying true to herself, and why she wants to drive the 30% Club to extinction.

Time Infinity

Helena Morrissey

Helena Morrissey

It is important for me to delineate between bossiness and leadership. In my youth, I tended towards the former. As I grew up I still felt the urge to lead, but learnt to do so only when I had a mandate. I lead from the front but it’s not the only way. There are people who are very quiet and take a back seat but who are also very authoritative. I sometimes think I’d prefer to be like that – but it’s not my style.

I have always wanted to be the biggest and the best, but I am only competitive with myself. I never really felt I needed to be part of a crowd, even as a child, but I did often feel I should be the person in charge! Coming to Cambridge was a huge transition and for a long time I felt a bit uncomfortable. My years aged from 16 to 22 were my least confident – to date at least… I spent the next 15 years trying to do a good job and gain financial security for my growing family. I remember someone telling me they disapproved of working mothers – well, my husband had been made redundant and we needed a breadwinner.

In order to succeed it’s important to have robust people around you to support you in your choices – but you also have to be robust yourself. When I was a student at Cambridge I had friends who had much clearer views than me at the time who encouraged me to apply to work in the City – not necessarily a natural choice for a female philosophy student. When I got there it was tough and sometimes I took things too personally. My advice to young women setting out in the workplace now is not to take everything too much to heart. You shouldn’t have to put up with any unfair treatment but, if it happens, not only is it good to speak up – not in a militant way but by gently pointing it out – but also realise that often it’s not personal.

I have always tried to be true to myself, whatever the situation. All the real leaders I know respect each other precisely because, even if we disagree, we are firm in our beliefs and have our sights set on a goal. My husband and I have taught each of our nine children that they must find their own passion and then follow it come what may. My 20-year-old daughter, who’s a singer-songwriter, gave her first interview recently. I read it with some trepidation because I knew she’d be asked about me, but she had said that I had made her feel she could achieve whatever she wanted. The most important thing is to believe in yourself – but it helps if others do too.

Time is more elastic than we think and we are all capable of doing more. I may have nine children and a demanding job but I am no superwoman – I just work very hard and have had to become more efficient. I struggle with the same issues as every other working mother, though possibly I have more of them. And of course I get down sometimes, but I deal with each day a day at a time. My husband has always given me hugely good advice and keeps me on the straight and narrow when I am feeling wobbly. Our middle son once said he wanted to be just like his daddy when he grew up and be a stay-at-home dad. We all laughed as we hadn’t thought of that aspect of the role models that our children see, but I was so proud of him – he understands that his father makes everything I do possible.

Since we set up the 30% Club aimed at getting more women into the boardrooms of FTSE companies, I have become really optimistic about the opportunities for women. The last five years have seen so many developments in the UK, with legal steps forward on parental leave and the gender pay gap, and the 30% Club is now established in 10 countries. My biggest thrill is when women tell me they have done something differently because of the Club, something that they wouldn’t have been able to do before. We’re by no means there yet but the ultimate goal of the 30% Club is to self-destruct because it is no longer needed.

Now I am keen in the next stage of my life to build upon the progress, in particular to create an easier path for those coming up behind me. I do mentor individuals, but by changing overall attitudes in the workplace I believe I can have a much wider impact. It’s not just women who need to have more choices, it is men too. Though I do still find myself too often the only woman among the men around the boardroom or management table. And that continues to grate.