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Lessons for the next generation of asset management leaders

May 11, 2022

WAM Panel Image

L to R: Deborah Orida, Nicole Musicco and Barb Zvan

Leaders in the asset management industry carve their own unique paths, and come from equally unique backgrounds. Recently, students in the inaugural cohort of Ivey’s Women in Asset Management (WAM) program heard from three influential leaders in North American pension funds.

Coming from backgrounds in law, kinesiology and mathematics, Deborah Orida (Senior Managing Director, Global Head of Real Assets & Chief Sustainability Officer, Canada Pension Plan Investments), Nicole Musicco, HBA ’99, MBA ‘02 (Chief Investment Officer, CalPERS), and Barb Zvan (President & CEO, University Pension Plan Ontario) discussed their career paths and journeys with the aspiring asset management students. The compelling interactive conversation touched on a wide range of topics including creating a competitive advantage through culture, tapping into your own “personal board of directors” and the importance of adaptability.      

Linking leadership and culture

A clear theme from the panelists focused on the opportunity to create competitive advantage through culture. Once you become a leader you have the chance to have a profound impact on the direction and workplace environment.

“There is a real opportunity to say what culture do you want, which fundamentally is what behaviours do you want, how do you want people to work, and how do you want to accomplish things together,” explained Zvan. “In the executive role you really help the strategic direction of the organization. You are making the big choices for the organization in terms of direction and where you’re going. And you have to work through a lot of ambiguity, and you have to help others work through that ambiguity too.”

“True equity, diversity and inclusion in the investment industry is still a work in progress,” said Orida. “But I think we’ve done a really good job of creating an environment where we can leverage all of the diversity in our organization to make better investment decisions, and to provide people with interesting development opportunities because of the breadth and depth of our platform.”

Furthermore, in concert with striving for an equitable work culture, a leader must demonstrate a culture for innovation.

“As a leader it really is an opportunity to inspire innovation,” said Musicco. “In this ever-changing, wonky world we live in right now, it’s really important to lead by example when pushing to be innovative. And so that can be innovative into new geographies, new markets, new products etcetera, but that culture of innovation is the real opportunity.”

Skills you wish you developed earlier in your career

The WAM students probed the panelists to think about the skills they wished they’d mastered, or figured out sooner.

“It’s the skills that you learn when you are making that transition between analyst and leader and manager,” said Orida. “So those skills of prioritization, delegating and empowering and the importance of communication. I spent a lot of my career making sure my spreadsheet was really good, better than anybody else’s, but that only takes you so far.”

Additionally, Orida surrounds herself with trusted advisors to help steer her decision making. “I now have my own personal board of directors that just give me great advice when I run into challenging situations.”

Musicco echoed this sentiment.

“I wished at a younger age I’d realized the importance of networks, and building those networks early on. Deborah referred to it as your personal board. I don’t think it’s ever too early to use this approach to building your network, and having individuals who have been there, done that.”

Finally, Zvan highlighted the need to become comfortable with presenting on a regular basis.

“Learning to present concisely is a valuable skillset. So always seek the opportunity to do that. So I started presenting at not-for-profit associations just for the practice. It was good practice, but it is something I wish I paid more attention to at a younger age.”

One piece of advice for women entering asset management

“I think the thing that has benefitted me the most in my career is getting really broad exposure,” suggested Musicco. “Having an opportunity to work across asset classes, work across geographies – I was just so grateful to have had those opportunities.” 

“Be adaptable. You are going to be in so many different situations over the years and sometimes you are going to have to adapt your style,” explained Zvan. “You want to make sure that as women you don’t come off as too meek, and you don’t want to come off as too aggressive. So watch and learn from the people you work with, whether its guys, or senior women.”

“Embrace your intellectual curiosity,” said Orida. “I think that desire to learn and grow is part of what helps you be successful as you take on new opportunities. And the second one is proceed with confidence. Don’t be afraid to take risks, don’t be afraid that you won’t do a good job. You’ll do a great job and be successful. I would say know that, and go for it.”