"People, Culture, Leadership": Q&A with Kylie Willment December 2017

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When asked to sum up her first few months as Mercer's CIO, Pacific, Kylie Willment needed only one word, "exciting!" In an informative Q&A with Industry Moves, Kylie speaks of the values alignment she's experienced in both her current and previous roles, shares her excitement for the 'unstoppable train' that is responsible investing, reflects on lessons learnt in self worth that now form part of her personal mantra, and why flexibility at work is key to achieving balance.

What initially attracted you to a career in finance?

I was always strong in maths at school, so it made sense that I’d gravitate towards something numeric. I actually started an economics degree straight from school but I didn’t like the theoretical nature of it so I switched to commerce. It’s interesting how your thinking and preferences evolve over the course of a career. While I’m still not a massive fan of pure economics, I do now find the uncertain and ambiguous nature of markets, and the various interrelationships, one of the most fascinating (and challenging) elements of my job.

How have you found your first few months in the role of CIO at Mercer?

In a word - exciting! I’d been at TCorp for a massive chunk of my professional career. I stayed there so long because I felt a strong sense of value alignment, that’s a hard thing to give up. Pleasingly, I already feel the same alignment of values at Mercer. The opportunity to create better lives for Australians in retirement is a huge privilege. As is being able to generate investment income that helps fund the important work done by our endowment and foundation clients. Our clients place an enormous amount of trust in us. That’s a responsibility that everyone at Mercer takes very seriously.

In your opinion, what’s the most exciting thing happening in the responsible investment space at the moment?

The most exciting thing for me is that responsible investing is now very much mainstream. There is now strong acceptance across asset owners of the positive link between ESG and better risk-adjusted returns over time. Once you have that belief, you have to put time and energy into building a strong responsible investment framework within your fund. Fortunately for me, Mercer has a world leading responsible investment consulting team. One of my goals for 2018 is to make sure that we are leveraging the very best of Mercer’s responsible investment capability within the Funds, for ultimate benefit of the investors.

At a conference in the US earlier this year I heard someone say “ESG is a slow moving, unstoppable train”. The only thing I’d question in that statement is the speed of the train…

"The importance of people, culture, leadership. You can have the smartest people in the world but if they don’t share a common sense of purpose, you’ll get nowhere."

What has been one of your most memorable investments to date?

As a believer in diversification, I’d be hesitant to call out any particular investment. I don’t believe that the success (or failure) of a portfolio should revolve on any particular investment but rather on robust portfolio construction.

Having said that, one of the things I’m most proud of from my time at TCorp was the building out of the asset classes exposures from fairly vanilla listed equity and government bonds to diversifying return sources such as real assets, multi-asset and other alternatives. Of course, as you start investing in unlisted assets, even a well-diversified portfolio will carry more asset-specific risk than a listed equity portfolio. It's somewhat inevitable that there will be misses from time to time. That’s where prudent risk management comes in. You need to make sure that your portfolio is resilient to any asset specific event or drawdown.

What was the best lesson that you took away from your 17 years with TCorp?

The importance of people, culture, leadership. You can have the smartest people in the world but if they don’t share a common sense of purpose, you’ll get nowhere. The magic happens when leaders set a clear vision and purpose, put in place the right structure, fill it with the best people, agree on a set of beliefs and then empower the team to get on with the job.

Do you have an industry mentor or someone who has made an impact on your career in some way?

I don’t have a specific mentor but I have made a habit of engaging with a whole range of smart and successful investors both locally and globally. I find you can learn a lot from what people do and how they do it. But often the more powerful questions are why people do things the way they do it, what journey have they been on to get where they are, and what have they learnt along the way?

Even though I haven’t had a specific mentor, I believe strongly in the power of mentoring. Over the past decade, I have sought out opportunities to mentor people both internal and external to my organisation, formally and informally. I’m always surprised by how much I personally get out of those interactions.

What was your very first job?

Woolies deli chick! Thursday nights and Saturday mornings when retail trading hours still worked that way!

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve received?

Believe in yourself! It’s become a personal mantra and one that I share with as many young women as I can. Females are particularly predisposed to underrating themselves. It translates as a lack of confidence. Someone once pointed out that I would look to more senior people in the room (probably a male) for validation of what I was saying.The reality was that I knew more about the issue than they did. I realised that I could work on presenting my views with confidence and authority and I found that people started to listen and gave me positive feedback. That builds confidence, so the next time you’re even better. It’s a virtuous circle.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I’m a working mum with two great kids – a 12 year old son and a 9 year old daughter. I want to have a great career and be a great mum at the same time. I wish there was one single answer on how to achieve that. The reality is that it takes constant tweaking and adjusting, depending on what’s going on in your work life and what’s going on in your family life. For me right now, it’s a combination of my husband and I working as a team, getting in additional help at home when we need it and working for an employer that understands the importance of providing flexibility.

On the last point - understanding Mercer’s flexible work practices was a key factor for me during the recruitment process. Fortunately, they are one of the few organisations I’ve come across that truly embraces flexibility for all - males, females, parents, non-parents, seniors and juniors. This can mean working from home, working part time, working non-standard hours or leaving early to attend an important event at school.

If you weren’t working in finance, what would you like to be doing?

Good question. I’ve never really doubted my career choice so I haven’t spent a lot of time pondering what else I’d do. There was a moment when I considered studying speech pathology. Ironically it turns out my daughter is dyslexic and I’ve come to really value that profession. So maybe that…

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