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Management in Practice

Why Leaders Need to Care about Diversity

Eileen Murray is the co-CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates—one of a handful of women to reach the pinnacle of the finance industry. Since she started working in the industry, the percentage of women in senior leadership roles has grown from less than 1% to closer to 20%. But she says that the top leaders at financial firms need to do more to foster diversity—or risk falling behind in the race to innovate.

The numbers tell the story of the challenge. While 90% of financial services firms claim to value diversity, “women still represent fewer than one in five positions in the financial-services C-suite,” according to a survey by McKinsey. The New York Times reported that “less than 10% of United States portfolio managers at mutual funds and exchange-traded funds are women.” A study by Oliver Wyman said that if trends continue, women will reach 30% of executive committees in financial services…by 2048.

Eileen Murray, co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates, has watched the slow evolution of the industry over the course of her career, and says, “I know where we are. I know our reality. Now how do we change that and make the reality something that we’d all be proud of?”

Murray argues that it is essential for the most senior leaders in a firm to make diversity a priority. “If top leaders don’t make it a priority, it won’t get the kind of action and traction it needs,” she says. “The leaders need to be there through innovative change, in my opinion, to basically work through the challenges and difficulties.”

And those leaders need to think hard about how to weave diversity into the strategy of the firm and the incentives of all its employees. “Start to remunerate them for it. If you incentivize people, they figure out a way to get through obstacles. They figure out a way to get what seems impossible done,” says Murray.

Murray spoke with Yale Insights about the benefits that accrue to organizations that can support true diversity.

Q: You’ve made it a priority to address diversity and inclusion at Bridgewater. Could you tell me a little bit about why it’s an important issue for you?

When I first graduated in 1980, I think 0.5% of senior executives in financial services were women. And at the time, I thought, “Oh, that’ll be easy to fix. In 10 years, 15 years we’ll be at 50%.” We’re at 17% today, and I don’t know whether to cry or do the happy dance. It’s great progress, but it really isn’t enough.

I grew up in a housing project. There were people from all over the place—Cuba, Tanzania, Italy, Greece. I feel fortunate to have been around that much diversity. But at the time I didn’t realize that it was unusual to experience the cooking, dance, music, weddings, and funerals of so many different cultures. I attribute a lot of my own personal success to ensuring that I’m around people who think differently from me.

When I started working, quite candidly, I didn’t understand, initially, that diversity was an issue or that inclusion was an issue. As I became more senior, I thought, “My God, what a terrible way to lose so much richness in thinking.” Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were concerns about whether you can make the business case for diversity. Fortunately, today we’re past that.

I’m focused on diversity now, first and foremost, because it’s right that people get equal opportunities based upon capability, not upon the color of their skin or their gender or what religion they practice or anything else.

Secondly, I think as a business matter the value of diversity has been proven. Studies have demonstrated that diverse populations produce much more innovation and much more change. In this fast-paced technological age that we live in, how important is that?

So, when I step back and say, “If that’s true, why are these statistics what they are?” it’s disappointing. I’m disappointed in where we are at Bridgewater. I’m disappointed in where we are in financial services. I’m disappointed in where we are, period, full stop. We have to continue to work on ways to get people to open their minds to the value of diversity.

Q: What are some of the factors that make it hard to increase diversity?

Initially, there wasn’t a business case for diversity. Early on in my career people would look at women and worry that they would get off the career path if they had kids, as opposed to looking at the rich experience they could bring back from time away.

For example, in 1985 three of the people on my team worked from home. I got a call from HR, and they said this isn’t our policy. I said, “I’m sorry, but you better make it the policy, because otherwise I don’t know how we’re going to get the work done.”

The obstacles were the status quo: This isn’t how things are done. The challenge was really getting people to open their minds and recognize their unconscious biases. We all have unconscious biases. People who are highly educated and very intelligent, like the people I’m very fortunate to work with, don’t always feel comfortable acknowledging them.

Understanding what the unconscious biases are and their negative impact on our businesses and our society has been an obstacle. I see a lot of change happening in that regard.

Q: Based on your anecdote from 1985, it sounds like there’s a need for people in leadership positions to take a stand for changing the status quo.

In 1985 I wasn’t in a big leadership position, but enough of one to have done something on a very small scale. In my career, I’ve done a lot of things where, instead of asking for permission, I’ve asked for forgiveness. I think innovation requires that.

For larger-scale change, senior people have to make it a priority. At Bridgewater, diversity is a very big priority for me and for David McCormick, my co-CEO. When I was at Morgan Stanley, it was a huge objective for John Mack. If top leaders don’t make it a priority, it won’t get the kind of action and traction it needs.

A lot of people think the leader does the strategy and everybody else does the doing. The leaders need to be there through innovative change, in my opinion, to basically work through the challenges and difficulties.

I also believe it’s really important to make people accountable and responsible for the long-term, strategic initiative of diversity. Start to remunerate them for it. If you incentivize people, they figure out a way to get through obstacles. They figure out a way to get what seems impossible done.

Leaders, if they want to have the best talent on the globe, are going to have to deal with diversity much the same way they deal with any other issue that’s critically important to their strategic agenda and future.

Q: Can you tell us about any of the initiatives you’ve undertaken at Bridgewater, and say something about how you measure success in this area?

We look at it as talent acquisition and then talent development. Hiring people is the easy part in some ways. The more important part is, how do you develop your people? Are you developing people as cohorts or are you really looking at the individual?

If you look at the individual, and I think you can do this systematically, everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. How are you, as an organization, understanding that about your employees and providing them with the developmental experiences that they need?

There’s a lot more we need to do on the development side. How does one person fit into a particular group? What are their particular challenges? What do they need to work on? Can we help them get a needed capability or skill? At Bridgewater we have a system of basically, on a meeting-to-meeting basis, evaluating each other. We pull that together to say, “Okay, what is the full picture of this person?”

One particular incident does not make a pattern, but when you see a pattern over many, many people you probably have something there. OK, now let’s look at that. You may not be so good at this, but could you be good at it? Do you want to be good at it? What will it mean for you? What kind of experiences do we need to put you into? What kind of external training might you need?

The development piece is what excites me and gives me passion. When I was the treasurer and controller at Morgan Stanley, I worked with Dick Fisher, who was the CEO at the time. It was like working for a benevolent king. He knew everything. He knew everybody. He did a tremendous job with development.

I remember arriving at a meeting and he said, “OK, you’re going to talk.” It was in front of 300 investors. He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be right here.” I was fine until I started seeing the people in the audience, their levels. Then I started losing it, to tell you the truth. He picked it back up. When we left the meeting, he said, “You did great until you started to think about who was in the audience versus what were you delivering.”

Over a succession of maybe 10 of these meetings, he made me so much better at what I was doing through his coaching. Putting me on the field. And not letting me die out there, stepping in when I needed it.

I think that’s so important for development, and I think a lot of times managers and leaders don’t really think through, what is the game plan for me to make you the most valuable player you can be?

Q: It sounds like you have to keep applying a lot of energy and always be checking whether you’re making progress and why you’re doing something the way you are.

We’re not where we want to be, so we have to constantly evaluate why that is. So, when people say to me, “Do you have 50% women at Bridgewater?” No, I don’t. Should I have 50% or 30% or 40%? What skill set am I going after? If I can’t get that skill set how do I manufacture that skill set?

How do we keep learning? Keep evolving our thinking? Keep bringing people in that might think differently? Here’s what I don’t want to do though. I don’t want to sit around and be negative about things. I want to say, “OK, what can we do to change this?” I know where we are. I know our reality. Now how do we change that and make the reality something that we’d all be proud of?

Q: Talk about what it’s like to have people who think differently and approach problems from different perspectives.

I believe you get better answers when you’re working with a diverse group of people. It is more challenging in the short term, to the extent that you’re dealing with people who think differently from you, to get the relationships to the point where you all trust each other enough to go through the pros and cons of a given decision. That development takes a lot of time.

But, in the end, I think you get dramatically better answers. I have to admit there have been days where I’ve gone home and said, “Oh, my God. I don’t know if I can go through one more of these discussions.” It’s hard. It’s hard to go into a room and openly and honestly hear other people’s perspectives. It’s hard to be vulnerable and recognize I might be wrong. But that vulnerability is really a strength.

I’ve seen a lot of people who tend to surround themselves with people that are just like them, think like them. If you look at those people through their careers versus people who surround themselves with people who think dramatically differently and really take that input in, I believe you see the difference between mediocrity and success.

Q: What becomes possible when you have a team of diverse perspectives?

People tend to focus on how things have always been done. When you bring a different group of people together, you start to create something that’s never been there before. You’re taking a risk, but if you don’t take risks I don’t know how you’re going to make money through time.

I’ve done a number of transactions in my career that quite candidly had people asking, “Why are you doing this? Nobody is doing it this way.” Well, I’m doing this because after having people who think differently express themselves, after having conversations about why we listened to this person versus that person, and conversations about why we might go one way versus another, I can look at it and see it’s clearly the right thing to do.