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the lunch

Helena Morrissey, champion of women in the boardroom and CEO of Newton Investment Management lunchfor the Globe and Mail

Helena Morrissey doesn't believe in work-life balance.

The CEO of London-based investment firm Newton Investment Management is a rare female leader in Britain's asset management sector and – even rarer – has nine children, ranging in ages from 5 to 22.

They are all hers – no mixed families – and she says technology makes it possible to juggle her life by allowing her to work from home late at night or deal with her children's issues while at work.

"I don't believe in work-life balance, I just believe in living a life where you're kind of like at 360 degrees all the time," she says.

Ms. Morrissey was in Toronto recently to help plan the launch of her international 30 per cent Club in Canada this fall. The club is for CEOs and board chairs who have pledged to work to improve the proportion of women in senior roles.

With no time for lunch, we met mid-morning for coffee – or more accurately, bottled water. She is chatty and warm, readily volunteering examples of what she calls "huge mistakes" she has made in her career, and happily discussing her busy life with six girls and three boys.

None of her children have yet expressed interest in a career in business, she says. But she remains optimistic. "I've got to have one. But so far no one is obvious, if I'm really honest," she says. "Hopefully I haven't put anybody off."

Ms. Morrissey created the 30 per cent Club in 2010 after spending years advocating on behalf of women, but seeing almost no progress in the proportion of women on boards or in top executive roles. "We had lots of efforts and lots of events, and people said, 'How inspiring, how marvellous.' But it didn't actually seem to inspire real change."

She concluded the same people were talking about the issue without winning over key business leaders who were unconvinced. "We needed to include the people in power more," she says. "So that was where the idea came about that the members of the club would be chairmen."

At the start, however, she says she made a key mistake. In her enthusiasm to recruit senior business leaders, she personally wrote to chairs of Britain's largest companies to invite them to participate.

She says she didn't realize how much resistance there was to diversity initiatives at the time, and discovered she should have left the task to the club's member chairmen, who would have been more warmly received by their conservative peers. "I literally had hate mail from people – very rude," she says. "Really, very abrupt."

The name of the club comes from the idea that British companies in the FTSE 100 index should aim for 30 per cent women on boards, but chairs don't need to pledge a precise target to participate. There are now 100 participating board leaders in the U.K., and the concept has spread to Hong Kong, Ireland and the United States, where a club launched in April.

A Canadian club is coming this fall, organized in co-operation with women's advocacy group Catalyst Canada.

"I firmly believe that rules don't necessarily get the right behaviours out of people," she says by way of explaining why she opposed regulation that would introduce quotas for women. "You only get that from people owning it in their hearts and in their minds."

Amid the heightened regulatory pressure, the proportion of female board members in Britain's FTSE 100 index has climbed from 12.2 per cent in 2010 to 21.6 per cent by May this year. In Canada, where women comprised 12.3 per cent of directors on boards of S&P/TSX composite index companies in 2013, there has been less external pressure to compel reform.

Some provincial securities regulators are preparing voluntary guidelines that would require companies to report on their approach to diversity or explain why they have opted not to make any disclosure. There is no threat of quotas, and no proposed targets.

Ms. Morrissey says the political climate in Britain created impetus for change, but it is possible for the private sector to take the lead in Canada. She says she is optimistic because business culture is changing quickly. "I think now there is a genuine realization that if you want to lead a modern business that's going to be successful in the future, you have to get with the program."

Ms. Morrissey, 48, has seen the changing culture during her own career.

In her 20s, she worked at London asset management firm Schroders, but left in dismay after her boss expressed doubts about her commitment because she had had her first child and had taken a short maternity leave.

She joined Newton in 1994, and found a more amenable environment, but one that was still predominantly male. Initially she was a fixed-income fund manager, and describes herself as "most lonely person on the investment team," working under the only other woman in the group, who ran a bond portfolio. After a year in the job, her manager quit, and she took over managing the bond portfolio.

In the late 1990s, Newton was 75-per-cent owned by U.S.-based Mellon Financial Corp., now called Bank of New York Mellon. In 2001, Mellon exercised an option to buy out shares of Newton it didn't already control, including shares owned by some senior executives.

The decision prompted the departures of a raft of senior people in the firm, including Newton's chief executive officer and chief investment officer. By then Ms. Morrissey was one of four people on a senior strategy team at the company, and was quickly offered the chief investment officer position.

Other managers at Newton balked, however, saying the job should go to someone with a background managing equities because most of the firm's business was in managing equity portfolios for pension funds, charities and other clients.

In a surprising twist, however, the same group of managers agreed Ms. Morrissey would be well suited to be CEO instead of CIO. Senior officials at Mellon agreed with their recommendation.

She was only 35, had five young children at home at the time, and says she didn't even have a clear sense of what the CEO needed to do. "I remember calling my husband, and I said, 'I'm not going to be the chief investment officer any more, I'm going to be the chief executive," she recalls.

"He said, 'What does that do?' And I said, 'I have no idea,' which was absolutely true. I'm the poster child for not having management training. And I made huge mistakes."

Her examples of her mistakes, however, are personally embarrassing rather than financially misguided.

On her second day on the job, for example, she gave a lengthy interview with tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail, a sensational publication she says she didn't understand was "so infamous." The headline on the story the next day called her Billion Dollar Babe, referring to her oversight of Newton's huge assets under management, today worth over $90-billion.

"I was so mortified. My colleagues were up in arms – it was so frivolous. [They said] it's going to kill this firm in a week. I didn't talk to anybody in the press for five years after that."

In her early days as CEO, she had little interest in campaigning for more women in leadership, saying she was absorbed with learning the job and doing it well, while also focusing on her growing brood of young children.

She credits her husband, Richard Morrissey, with making her home life possible with nine children. A former financial journalist with Bloomberg, he quit when they were having their fourth child to stay at home, helped by a long-time nanny. "We kind of muddled through, but it was the only way we could make it happen."

She grew more interested in becoming an advocate for women, however, as more young women kept approaching her privately for advice about how to make their careers work with a family. She began to appreciate the importance of having more role models in senior positions.

The question was how to frame the debate. Ms. Morrissey says she is a "passionate believer in equality" and a "huge feminist" but feels making the argument in feminist terms will have negative connotations for some people.

The 30 per cent Club stresses that diversity improves decision-making and group dynamics and helps boost bottom-line profitability. Its literature says gender diversity is "a business issue, not a women's issue."

"A lot of this is about levelling the playing field, but through the language of business rather than just saying it's about something that could be viewed as political correctness," Ms. Morrissey says. "Because not everybody responds well to that."