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Talking inspiration and ageism with Credit Suisse’s Marisa Drew

One of the most powerful women in finance, Marisa Drew, CEO of Credit Suisse’s Impact Advisory and Finance Department, is also one of the most determined to effect change, fighting for gender parity for more than 20 years. Here she talks leadership, imposter syndrome, and the work/life continuum.

 

The IAF ‘facilitates projects that have a positive economic and social impact, as well as generating a financial return’. Why were you chosen to head up the department?

Funnily enough, I asked my CEO that when he selected me for the job! I think the first is my history in capital markets – being able to structure transactions in a creative way that appeals to the needs of the investor community, and the second is my experience in the for-profit, business-building side of banking. IAF is effectively a start-up under the umbrella of Credit Suisse, and in many respects, that skill set of how to set up a team, define the strategy and implement it probably also led to the appointment.

Another is that I bring a healthy dose of cynicism to the job. There’s so much desire to do well in the world, but we have to be practical about what works and what doesn’t. One can spend a lot of time in this area chasing rabbits down holes and never come to an outcome that is meaningful enough. If we’re going to try and create change, we want to do it on a scale that really makes a difference. 

 

Do you consider yourself a ‘natural leader’ or is it something you’ve had to learn?

There’s probably something in the DNA of people who are comfortable building and leading teams, setting strategy and having conviction around your ideas. But by no means are we born as a fully formed beast. We learn over time in terms of what it means to be a leader. So much of leadership, in my opinion, is galvanising teams around a vision and figuring out a way to get the best out of your people – motivating them, understanding their skillset, championing them as much as possible and giving opportunities that allow them to shine.

 

You’ve said before that one piece of advice you’d give to women is to believe they are deserving of the role they’ve found themselves in. How have you overcome imposter syndrome?

I had one epiphany moment many years ago when I was a junior banker and we were working on a transaction that involved complicated legal covenants. I was getting really frustrated and assumed I was the only one who was struggling with the legalese. Particularly because a peer of mine, let’s call him Bob, was very self-confident and walked the halls as if he knew everything.

I went to my mentor’s office and had a bit of a meltdown, and he leaned back in his chair and chuckled. I said “Why are you smiling!?,” and he explained that Bob was in his office just before me, whingeing that he was just as lost as I was.

That was such ‘a moment’ for me. I realised then that I should cut myself a little bit of slack and remember we were all in the same boat. That gave me the ability to relax and have confidence and think of myself and my peers as equals in terms of our skill set and capacities.
 

You are an advocate of public targets, such as the Women in Finance Charter, but say 20 years ago you felt differently. How and why did your opinion change?

When I was younger I thought having a target was somehow doing women a disservice – that people would always wonder if you got there for the right reason. I spent 20 years in earnest trying to do all sorts of things to move the needle to help women advance in financial services, but came to the conclusion that unless there’s a target, we’ll end up in the same place in 20 years’ time as we were 20 years ago. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. I’m also a big believer that once you hit the 30% tipping point, things become organic and take care of themselves.
 

What were some of the initiatives you used to work on to try and effect change?

I founded the Competitors’ Diversity Forum 20 years ago, which was a group of very senior women in the industry with an express desire to promote women in financial services.

We researched and found that in many cases, guidance counsellors at schools weren’t presenting banking roles as viable careers for women. So we held events where women in our industry, at all levels and ages, talked about their careers and showed they were self-actualised and were ‘normal’ people and had families – basically tried to counteract some of the negative assumptions out there. They were really popular, attracting hundreds of school-age girls, and we thought if we can just inspire a few to get excited and see banking as an attractive career option, then we’d be somehow 'paying it forward'.

 

What advice would you give to an older women who was nervous about entering the workforce, perhaps after a career break or on joining a new company?

Have the confidence that the sum total of your experience before you left the industry is something you don’t lose. Think about what it is you bring to the table that’s different, that leverages your experience and take confidence in your wisdom and maturity even if you need a refresher on changes that have occurred in the industry in the meantime.

At CreditSuisse we have a program called ‘real returns’, which deliberately finds people (mainly women) who’ve been out of the workforce for a while and want to re-enter. And the thing I always say is 'your brain doesn’t die when you take time out'.  You need the ability to understand how your relevant skills can be applied and access to the available roles, but if you can make that connection then you can successfully and productively return to the workforce.
 

The theme for International Women’s Day is ‘balance for better’. Do you think you’ve achieved the work/life balance?

Life is a big juggling act and there’s no such thing as true balance. I don’t view my work and personal life as either/or, but as part of a continuum – my work life enhances my personal life and the reverse. I’m a kid who didn’t come from means and had a narrow view of what I could possibly achieve with my career. But my job has given me the most incredible opportunities, in terms of serving my clients and travelling the world, and a lot of my clients have become friends so a very satisfying and blurred line between where my personal and work life begin and end.

However, I do carry out this little exercise where I view my life as a set of scales, with self-actualisation as a marker for balance.  If I ever reach the point where what I put into this job is not equal to what I’m getting out of it, that’s the day I probably say I’m done. Because life’s too short to have regrets. I do that every six months or so and in 30 years I still love what I do, still wake up wishing I had 24 more hours in a day and that’s a sign you’ve found something you’re passionate about.