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The voice of senior women in single family offices

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“Where are the women in senior roles at family offices?” asked Family Capital editor David Bain last month.  It’s a fascinating question and I reached out to senior female executives in single-family offices in my network to hear their opinions.

I spoke to three executives: Hannatu Gentles, CFO and family member of the TY Danjuma Family Office, and two senior executives of a London-based SFOs who preferred to remain anonymous.  I began by asking:

What difference does being a woman make, if any?

Female CEO (FC):  “The most important thing in family office is relationship and trust.  So it’s vital that the family have staff that they work well with and therefore perhaps there is a bias sometimes.  My main family contact is female who respects other strong females so perhaps that is important in my case.  I do think men, particularly older ones, can under-estimate what women can do and are capable of.”

“There’s a book called Lean in by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook – it’s all about how women are perceived by others and the more senior a woman is the higher other people’s dislike of her is!  Possibly men are more likely to choose men for roles but I do not know this, just a possibility.”

For me, the most important thing is being able to spin up to 50 plates at any time and keep an eye on which ones are going to fall, and catching them before they do

Female Executive (FE):  “Whilst it is a stereotype; I think females can be more empathetic.  They are generally more aligned with and have more patience for personal management and managing conflicts than their male counterparts do. This is an important part of working with large wealthy families across generations.   I can say that the females in the family certainly appreciate having a woman on their board as they provide a different perspective.  Indeed so do certain males within the family.  Most importantly you have to earn your stripes like anyone else male or female.  I think many can underestimate the skillset which can actually work to our advantage!”

Hannatu Gentles (HG):  “I don’t think it makes a difference but I don’t know what it is to be a man so I can’t say.  The typical sexist answer would be that women are better at multi-tasking and perhaps are more equipped to better deal with family dynamics than men but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. I have worked with some very tough women with no ‘maternal’ instinct at all and equally have worked with some men who have been great at multi-tasking and are very sympathetic.”

Is multi-tasking a stereotype or does it ring true?

FC: “For me the most important thing is being able to spin up to 50 plates at any time and keep an eye on which ones are going to fall, and catching them before they do. – I think my mind works like this anyway but certainly, I have to do this in my home life generally so it’s how I operate.  My role requires more plate spinning than deep thinking while other roles may need deep thinkers or considerable investment experience.  I think the piece about women looking after the psychological/emotional side of family office life is really pertinent”

FE:  “I think multi-tasking rings true but I think it also a personality type. Many like to concentrate on one thing and one project at a time before moving on, and sometimes the roles dictate one’s ability to have that luxury.   My role requires having 100 balls in the air at one time.”

HG: I live with my husband and three young sons and I can testify that none of the four males I live with are particularly good at multi-tasking. Take from that what you will!

Do you think Family Office is a male preserve? 

FE: “I don’t think Family Offices are any more of a male preserve than the general financial wealth industry – if you look across the investment management and PE/VC industry in general, as well as legal firms and Big 4. I would think that males dominate the higher positions albeit that will continue to change.”

HG: ”I think that so much of running a family office is around the investment portfolio. When we established our office that is where we started. And traditionally investment management is seen as a male-dominated world, therefore, I would bet over 60% of all investment management teams/portfolio managers in family offices will be men.”

“However, family offices are so much more than just the investment side and I think you are more likely to have women working more on the other aspects of the business, property, finance, HR, operations, admin etc. Our family office has five full-time women, six full-time men and one female intern.”

Do women tend to end up doing the operational and structuring end and men the investment end?

FC:  “I think it depends on your experience – my experience is finance and operations but my family office has very little investment so that works. Perhaps there are more men in investments hence why they end up doing that piece.”

FE:  “I can only speak from our side in that we have a male executive very focused on investments, we have another male executive that crosses over operations reinvestment analysis, accounting, office management, IT, infrastructure as well as a detailed investment and banking knowledge, our male General Counsel is legal but also has great tax and structuring knowledge and detailed investment knowledge.   I cross over operations structuring tax legal project management.  I think most in senior positions have a core skillset but they have to go over broad areas and have a very detailed commercial awareness.”

Is it easier for “strong” men to be told things by “strong women” than other “strong men”? 

HG: “ Is it? I don’t know if that is the case. Some ‘strong men’ and ‘strong women’ don’t like being told anything by anyone be it ‘strong’ or not! An empowered woman is better placed to deal with all co-workers. I think experience and training comes into play here, give most people the right tools if they are capable they can deal with any situation. I don’t think it has anything to do with strength.

And the word ‘strong’ here implies pushy and/or bossy which I don’t think is the right type of ‘strong’. Strength in character is important and can be present in men and women without it being outwardly shown.”

Anon: “I think some strong men tend to listen to their own voices in preference to other strong men or women – I think it’s about teamwork and respect and understanding no one has all the answers.  The majority of our management team are men and we all have different skill sets and different personalities and approaches, meaning we are much stronger when we work together, for the benefit of the family.”

What else do you think is important to know for women trying to get into the sector?

FC:  “There isn’t much movement at the senior end of the family office market so it’s harder for people to come in and out of both the sector and roles within the sector.  It’s difficult to know where to look for family office roles, they seem to pop up here and there but no one place to look.

There’s also a time needed to do the job.  Many senior roles are advertised as 24/7 and that may put some women off who also have to manage a home and a family, and this will vary from office to office.

Finding out what the family wants and needs is essential.  All family offices are similar but different in my experience because every family is different.  Look at each role specifically to see whether it fits their experience and requirements plus whether the family values and culture would work for them.”

 FE: “I think for both men and women – to go into a Senior FO role, usually comes from one’s reputation in the sector – women especially require a referral to compete.”

Thanks to all three for answering these questions.  Certainly, if the membership list of the Family Office Council is representative this suggests that, in the single-family office world there are relatively few women in senior positions, perhaps as few as one in ten.  Therefore it’s particularly important to hear their voices and reflect on the benefits they bring to their families.

Keith Johnston is CEO of the Family Office Council a membership group for single-family offices

This is part of a series of articles on women in the family office world.  If you have a comment or question you would like to be asked please contact Keith.j@familyofficecouncil.com

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