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INTERVIEW: SANDIE OKORO
GENERAL COUNSEL, HSBC GLOBAL ASSET MANAGEMENT

Sandie Okoro is General Counsel of HSBC Global Asset Management and Deputy General Counsel of HSBC Retail Banking and Wealth Management. Prior to that, she was Global General Counsel at Barings Asset Management.

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GC: Is your diversity and inclusion approach primarily driven by internal factors or external pressures?

Sandie Okoro (SO): Diversity and inclusion make great business sense. Your customer and client base is diverse and if you want to grow that customer base you need to create products that are going to be attractive. Your customer base is looking to be represented. Look at the way advertising has changed − customers are much more aware of those sort of things, and gone are the days of cross-selling the same thing across the world. You need diversity through your organisation and through your leadership team.

GC: What can lawyers bring to the diversity agenda?

SO: Lawyers have a skillset of seeing what's not there; we can see the gaps and draw the necessary threads together. In a group situation, we may be more attuned to unconscious bias because we are simply used to looking for the gaps. Lawyers can be invaluable in getting diversity metrics that are viable and meaningful. You can ask lawyers those very simple questions about how to embed something and take it from the theory to the practice. We’re good at that because that's our everyday job − we can help organisations get to a better place.

GC: You have spoken about wanting to make flexible working the norm. How does that work in practice?

SO: Conceptually the notion of how we work can affect what companies (and we ourselves) see as ‘success’. My legal team for Asset Management in London works on a flexible basis, as does most of the rest of the asset management business. I structured my team in such a way so that everyone can work two days a week from home. Most people take up that flexibility, and men are as keen on it as the women – it helps with work/life balance issues. Interestingly, when I recruited for my team men were very keen on flexibility and this was something they hadn’t seen elsewhere.

The world will be a very different place in 10 to 15 years. Way back when and before the invention of the Blackberry, the technology that allowed us to check emails remotely was the first step towards flexible working, which freed us up. Things like video conferencing have also been very significant, innovations as had the ability to can access your desktop remotely and securely. It is great from a disaster recovery perspective − if people work from home on a regular basis then it allows the business to carry on running, and businesses have started to realise this over time.

Millennials will expect a lot of flexibility – they do not want to work in the same way we work. People have many different reasons to want to work more flexibly. Flexible working can be necessary because of children, looking after elderly parents, training for a triathalon etc and the ability to work in this way reduces stress an awful lot, leading to people becoming more productive and happier in their jobs. If you give people the flexibility to organise themselves, you end up with less absenteeism, and time off sick, this has to be an advantage for employers. Let your people organise themselves and their work and then you should be able to look at output not just their “facetime” in the office. I appreciate this doesn’t work for everyone but if you do not trust your team to be productive if you allow them to work flexibly then you have to ask yourself if you have the right team.

GC: Have you any thoughts on how to be effective as a role model?

SO: I think of the term ‘role model’ as just telling the truth of your story, whether it was hard or easy, and just being honest and true to who you are. If someone identifies a person as a role model then that person owes it to others to help them navigate their careers. Madeleine Albright [the former US Secretary of State] said “ there’s a special in hell for women who don't help other women”.

It's hard to succeed in the legal profession full stop, regardless of whether you are male or female. I think that ultimately there are as many barriers as you put up yourself. You can put up ‘female’ and ‘black’ as excuses, or use them as weapons of defiance. The two things I was told at the beginning of my career were to change my surname as it would be a barrier, and to forget a career in the City as ‘no one would ever employ someone like you‘. I decided that couldn't be true. It was the worst piece of advice, and ignoring it turned out to be the best thing I ever did.

When I think about what I have seen of others, my career has not been difficult. My guess (and it is just a guess) is that it's probably harder to be black and male than black and female, and many people don't appreciate that slight nuance. I say this because it is my perception and personal experience that there seems to be many more black female lawyers in senior roles than there are black men. The reverse is definitely true if you are white.

Social mobility is another big part in all of this. When I do mentoring talks, people think themselves out of the game because it will be hard or they have heard as such. There is a lot of self-harm that goes on and you just have to not worry about that and go for it anyway, particularly now when people are trying to be more aware of diversity. My attitude was: ‘I don't think there will be a problem for me’. I was very determined and stubborn, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You need to show people from ethnic minorities the networks and the opportunities, rather than how difficult it can be.

When I was in primary school, we were asked ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ and I said I wanted to be a judge. My teacher said ‘sorry, but little black girls from Balham don’t become judges’ and in my head I said ‘that's what you think’. It was the first time I had heard anything like this and it made me think that those in authority don’t always know what they are talking about. My Parents certainly didn’t tell me that things were going to be hard for me, quite the opposite. I was told by them that my gender and race can never be an excuse for not succeeding. My secondary school was fantastic in telling me that I could do everything. I went to a girls’ school, so I saw a spread of things that girls could do. We were told the world was our oyster.

I am involved in mentoring because not everyone is lucky enough to have that foundation. I do it officially and unofficially. Outside HSBC it is more through the talks I do, and sometimes someone comes up to me and asks if I would be there mentor. I mentor four people at HSBC but outside of work I do not have the time to do that. So I agree to meet people just the once, for one hour for a one to one. I call this my one/one/one mentoring. I usually schedule these meetings at a lunchtime and do about one a month. I tend to see between 10 and 12 people a year. Lunchtime is a great time to do it, I figure I can find at leat one lunchtime free a month. I consider it part of my duty. I simply give words of encouragement and a realistic view of what the challenges actually are. There is an amazing range of crises that people face, but the common goal is helping them gain more confidence in themselves to help them achieve their dreams. They don’t really need me for that but I am happy to share my experiences.

GC: Do you have any mentoring tips?

SO: Make sure you set really clear boundaries. People come to you because you have been successful and they want to share that success. Being a mentor is not the same as being a sponsor, so make sure they are very clear that they are your mentee and you are not there to help them get a promotion or a new job!

You have to be as open and honest about things that didn’t work for you as much as things that have worked. What makes a success sometimes is the ability to pick yourself up and keep going on.

Let the mentee set the pace, but make sure that it works for you. Also set out a time limit at the start. A year can be quite draining and you need to protect yourself.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that they are there to mentor, not to lecture. Avoid ‘the great I am’ and make it more about them.

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