Journalist: Olivia Kinghorst | Photographer: www.foto-shooting.ch | Magazine: Trust engenders courage – October 2022
She is one of the most popular faces in the Swiss financial sector and is head of the Swiss branch of the asset management company BlackRock. Mirjam Staub-Bisang talked to ceo magazine about dealing with change, making difficult decisions and courageous leadership.
You manage the Swiss branch of one of the world’s biggest asset management companies, with a domestic market share of around 7%. Did you always plan to have a career in the financial sector?
Not always, my first ambition was to be an ice skater! At the same time though, I was always full of curiosity for new challenges outside sport. After I was admitted to the bar and started working as a lawyer in Zurich, I had the opportunity to work at an investment bank in London. That was my big break in the financial industry, which looking back was certainly a challenging time but definitely made me who I am now in terms of my career.
And the rest is history?
That was a big step for me but I’ve never regretted it. Helping clients to launch their businesses on the capital market as well as M&A consulting made me who I am today, and I still find it exciting now. This path took me deep into the world of private equity and hedge funds at major investment banks. That being said, in 2005 I wanted to work for myself, so I founded the investment company Independent Capital Group together with two partners, which I was able to lead for 13 years. Today, I feel at home at BlackRock. I see it as a privilege that my day-to-day workload is still so varied and that we always have so many exciting projects coming up.
“It requires a lot more strength to say no and stand by your opinion.”
How did you prepare yourself for this job?
At first, some people asked me why I wanted to work as part of a complex corporate structure again after I had run my own business for so long. Once again, though, I never regretted my decision at all and I threw myself wholeheartedly into this new chapter in my life. You could describe it as constantly having the courage to try new things. Today, I love working in international teams and on global projects in particular.
The biggest learning curve for me was fitting into a global matrix again. It took a while for me to get used to it, just as with the formal processes that go with working at an international company. In this role, it’s also important to under-stand the opinions of other people and to incorporate them. Ultimately, though, these decisions are more broad-based across the whole of the company, which is a massive help.
With responsibility comes criticism, as well as recognition. What aspects of your job as a CEO do you find difficult?
To be honest, I’m not all that brave when it comes to making decisions about staff, laying people off more specifically. Where people are concerned I always see it from the perspective of their own lives, so I’m not as hard-nosed as others. I always look for a solution that takes people’s personal circumstances into consideration. At the same time, I also like to give people a second chance.
BlackRock is one of the biggest asset management companies in the world and employs more than 18,000 people worldwide. The global investment company was founded in 1988 and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. BlackRock has had a presence in Switzerland for 25 years,and opened its first office in Zurich in 1996 with ten employees. Today, BlackRock provides investment solutions and services throughout Switzerland and employs more than 120 people. Overall, the company has a market share in Switzerland of around 7%.
What do you value more as a manager? A yes or a no?
A no. It requires a lot more strength to say no and stand by your opinion. A lot of the time it’s easier to say yes. I’m also thinking of my three children here: I don’t like telling them no, but often I have to. In the workplace it’s sometimes hard to let somebody go, especially when you like them. I often find it challenging and try to find the right way to motivate them and guide them.
BlackRock is undergoing a transformation and is positioning itself as a sustainable investor. What role are you playing in this transformation?
Right from the beginning I have always been a strong supporter of sustainable investing and impact investing – which means making sure that financial returns go hand in hand with a positive social and ecological impact. I’m currently working on the question of how we can finance the conservation and regeneration of nature and biodiversity. This can’t be done just through public funding and regulations alone. The private sector needs to play its part as well. One of my main tasks is supporting our clients with sustainable investments. I also try to suggest fresh ideas to the company through my wide network of contacts in the area of sustainability.
Have you stepped outside your comfort zone to spearhead this change?
It takes time and courage to bring people with you on this path. Courage, because it means voicing an opinion that often isn’t popular or generally accepted. Sometimes you’re putting personal relationships on the line, which have been built up over a number of years. But if I’ve learnt one thing, it’s that you can only be brave when you are afraid of losing something.
Can courage be learnt or taught?
In my experience, courage grows with experience. If you look at children, they often appear brave. This is because they haven’t yet had enough formative or bad experiences. It’s also possible to lose courage over time and become more hesitant because you know what can go wrong. Overcoming this when it is based on your experiences takes courage.
Would you call yourself a risk taker?
I’m somebody who takes risks in a very calculated way. As a general rule, I think of everything that could go wrong. What’s the worst-case scenario? Then I think about whether I can live with it. If the answer is yes, then I actually only see opportunities and concentrate on how I can overcome the challenges.
Dr Mirjam Staub-Bisang is 53 and has been CEO of BlackRock Switzerland since 2018. She is also a member of the EMEA Executive Committee and a senior advisor for BlackRock Sustainable Investing.
Staub-Bisang began her career as a lawyer after completing a law degree at the University of Zurich and an MBA at INSEAD. Since then, she has had more than 20 years of experience in the financial sector at Commerzbank, Swiss Life and Merrill Lynch. Before joining BlackRock, she founded the asset management company Independent Capital Group. She is the mother of three children and lives with her family in Zurich.
I think back to the time when I set up my own business in my mid-thirties. Even then, I thought to myself “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Even if everything were to go up in flames, it still wouldn’t be the end of the world for my partners or me.
You’ve been working in the financial sector for more than 20 years. What changes would you like to see in the financial sector in Switzerland?
The Swiss financial sector needs closer cooperation, especially when it comes to sustainability. Compared with some other countries in Europe, Switzerland allows more entrepreneurship with its principle-based regulation in the financial sector, which also leads to more competition. When it comes to sustainability though, you have to get away from thinking in terms of competitiveness to a certain extent and instead focus on how to work together. Ultimately, it’s about achieving goals in the interests of society.
“You can only be brave when you are afraid of losing something.”
Can you see progress on the horizon?
The different players in Switzerland have recognised that they need to work more closely together to reach net zero by 2050. The first efforts at working together between the financial sector and the real economy in this transition towards a more sustainable economy can already be seen. I’m also doing my bit to help move things forward. For example, I’m currently investigating the financing of so-called “nature-based solutions” as part of a working group of the World Economic Forum. Nature-based solutions include, amongst others, investing in mangrove forests to prevent flooding and erosion in coastal areas.
Interested in the latest developments in sustainable finance and impact investing? Here are six lessons from our Sustainable Finance Conference 2022 we don’t want you to miss.
You have reached the top of the Swiss financial industry, but you also have lawyer, author, CEO and President of the Board of Directors on your CV. What motivates you to take on new challenges?
I am extremely curious, and I’ve always had a strong appetite for new challenges and discovering new things. I love sharing, discussing and developing new ideas with those around me. What does the future hold? What long-term solutions do we need to address the problems faced by society, both now and in the future? It’s these conversations that motivate me to move into new fields.
The other side of the coin is when something gets too repetitive. That’s when it loses its charm for me and I want to do something else.
What is your most important pet project so far?
The preservation of nature and biodiversity.To do this you need to attract both interest and funding, which is what we need to work on. My position gives me a voice, which helps. But there are still a lot of other important institutions within the financial sector as well as the real economy that need to play their part, too. A lot can be achieved in this field if we work together with the politicians and harness the innovative capacity of research institutes.
Mirjam Staub-Bisang – In the spotlight
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