Investing In An Inclusive Culture: a Conversation with Suzanne Brenner and Justin Reed

December 03, 2021
Adrienne Penta, Executive Director of the Center for Women & Wealth, sat down with Suzanne Brenner, BBH Partner and Chief Investment Officer, and Justin Reed, Deputy Chief Investment Officer, for a candid and insightful conversation on creating a diverse team with an inclusive culture. They explore how and why that may lead to better outcomes for our clients.

In September, Adrienne Penta, Executive Director of the Center for Women & Wealth, had the opportunity to speak with Suzanne Brenner, BBH Partner and Chief Investment Officer, and Justin Reed, Deputy Chief Investment Officer, on a range of topics including how they both came to investing as a career, how they work together, and the importance of diversity for positive investment management outcomes. The interview has been edited and condensed for space.

Adrienne: Thanks so much for speaking with me today. We’re going to start with a little bit of background for our readers. What initially drew you to the industry and into investment management?

Suzanne: I came to the investing world in a more roundabout way than many of my fellow CIOs! I began as a classical pianist and earned a Bachelor of Music degree from the Aaron Copland School of Music. But as I was about to enter the world of music, I realized that that was a passion and not the right career for me, so I returned to school to get a degree in accounting. I joined Ernst & Young, where I became a CPA. But I realized that I didn't want to be a consultant – I really wanted to be on the inside of some of the companies I was working with. I joined a private equity firm called Louis Marx Junior and I loved it. I loved that what we were doing mattered to these firms. I loved raising growth capital and pulling together plans to grow and manage these businesses.

Then, about a year later, I got an opportunity to work for the Rockefeller Foundation and that was the beginning of my real investing career. I love the intellectual rigor of investing; I love always learning something new, talking to interesting people, trying to dig up facts. This is the thing that I tell young people who are just entering this career path – you really must be intellectually curious. After a few years I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I couldn't resist the intersection of art, music, and investing. Now I'm here at BBH; it’s been a wonderful journey.

Justin: I wish I could say I started as a classical pianist but I’m just not that interesting! My path started at the dinner table with my father and talking through books that he had read and given to me. One of the things that really resonated with me – even then – was opening the business section of the newspaper and looking at differences in investment performance, at the disparity in investment results. So, I began questioning what separated great investors from the rest. It all comes back to this north star which, for me, is a desire to help people better invest their assets.

So, for my senior thesis at Princeton, I tried to gain better understanding of how to help individuals invest their money. I looked at that through a behavioral finance lens and that's what really lit the fire for me wanting to be in the finance world. After graduation, I joined JP Morgan in private banking and I had a great experience there. I wanted to enhance my skill set and also explore the breadth of the investing universe so I went to graduate school to get an MBA and a Masters in Public Policy. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to work at Princeton University’s endowment, one of the top tier endowments in the world. This was a fundamental learning experience and continues to be a huge influence on me as an investor; subsequently, I worked at the Metropolitan Museum with Suzanne. Both those places were just master classes of institutional investing. My goal has always been to parlay those experiences to really help individuals and institutions better invest their money.

Adrienne: We talk a lot about the role of mentors in our careers and how important they are. Mentors are particularly important for attracting and retaining diverse talent. Who, in your career journeys, have been the most important or impactful mentors to you along the way?

Suzanne: When I entered the Rockefeller Foundation, where I really started doing the investing role I am doing today, I met a woman named Rosalie Wolfe. Rosalie was the first woman CIO at the Rockefeller Foundation. She was impactful for me because she understood the struggle that I had at the time. Namely, I had three children and was trying to manage my career and my personal life; I was trying to do a great job in both. She left a book on my desk – A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Her message to me was this: you don't have to choose but at some point, you’ve got to think of yourself, you’ve got to take your time to write, you’ve got to have your own money, you have to have your own room. That was really impactful. I really was able to adjust my thinking and understood that I'm not taking time from my children if I give it to myself. That helped me do a better job in both of those roles. Having someone who understood what I was going through was so helpful.

Justin: I'm not just saying this, but Suzanne is one of my formative mentors. She has the all-important trilogy of qualities that you really want in someone you’re working with closely. She's a great investor, she's a great manager, and she happens to be a great person. It seems like that should be really easy to find, but as it turns out, it's not! Suzanne has all three of those qualities and she's definitely someone I seek to emulate in variety of ways.

As I reflect on that question, I think I've been lucky to have quite a few high quality mentors in my career. They include bosses, like Andy Golden at the Princeton endowment, who has been incredibly helpful to me in my career, as well as other investors in the wealth management industry and even leaders in other industries. One of my top mentors works as a CEO at a healthcare company. Mentors are helpful because they bring different lenses and different experiences to your own. So, it's not only finding those mentors that can help you within your role, but also having different experiences that can help you in different ways.

“While diversity is important, so is inclusivity. That’s something we strive to work on and improve. You can have a lot of diversity on your team, but if you’re not actively seeking their opinions then you’re underperforming as a leader.”
- Justin Reed

Adrienne: I love that. As you turn the table and think of yourselves as mentors, as I'm sure you are for many people in this organization, what's your philosophy on that relationship and serving as a mentor or somebody bringing along the next generation?

Justin: One of my mentors has always told me to “just pay it forward.” That’s always been something that I've held really close to my heart and believe it is the way to really do her justice. The way that she's been helpful to me in my current role, I try to do the same for others. There is an incredible responsibility we all have to help others be the best versions of themselves. I’ve gotten better at this over time. When I initially started in the industry and started mentoring people, I looked at it through a lens that was biased towards my own experience. But I soon realized that the best advice is always customized. You have to ask a lot of questions to understand the situation for that person. It is actually very analogous to how we think through asset allocation for clients – you have to ask a lot of questions to understand their goals and objectives. Suzanne mentioned having three kids; I have three kids myself. While I hope they’re as successful as Suzanne's kids one day, my wife and I have to treat them very differently. They are three completely different people, and so to get the best out of them, we have to navigate their different ways of being. Mentoring is very much the same! You have to understand each individual situation to be able to really give helpful feedback.

Suzanne: I completely agree. Another thing I’ve learned is that you need to communicate frequently, and in addition, leaders have to give critical feedback when it is appropriate. You have to be able to say “here are some things you can improve” and that’s something that I’ve learned to do. Sometimes people don’t even realize what you want or how you want it or how they’ve missed the mark. You have to tell them.

I also think it's important to give people exposure and opportunities. Justin and I often say to the younger people on the team, “we would like you to opine before we do.” We want to hear from everyone, we want to understand their perspectives. Every perspective is important. We want everyone on the team to believe that their opinions are valued.

Adrienne: Both of you have spent a lot of time in the last several years thinking a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion as it relates to the investment function. Why is diversity important in making investments?

Suzanne: I think the only way to make a good investment decision is to consider all angles of a particular investment and a particular issue. If you don't have people who think differently, who can raise interesting questions because of their own diverse backgrounds, then you’re not going to get a good answer. We like having people who have different backgrounds and are at varying stages in their careers on the team. For example, one of the people on our team was very adamant that we should be looking at cryptocurrencies. That was something he had experience with and that got us thinking about it in a different way. So I think it’s important to have people on the team who have these differing perspectives because then you’re going to get many questions and hopefully, a good discussion to get to the right answer.

Justin: While diversity is important, so is inclusivity. That’s something we strive to work on and improve. You can have a lot of diversity on your team, but if you’re not actively seeking their opinions then you’re underperforming as a leader. That means recognizing similarities and differences, both of which are very important in building a high-functioning team. Bringing different perspectives can lead to difficult conversations and even less-efficient conversations but we found that that’s how you avoid group thinking. In the end, it results in better decisions.

Suzanne: I have worked for people who have said “it’s my way, I’m making the decisions and I don’t want to hear anything else.” It’s really upon us as leaders, to say, “every topic is out there for discussion, we want to hear every point of view on an investment idea so that we can make sure that it’s not an issue that we can’t overcome.” There are lots of people who lead and are insecure about hearing opinions that differ from their own. But we believe it's very important to be leaders who can engage and take advantage of that diversity of thought.

“We must make sure of finding overlooked investment talent, and that sometimes takes effort and time but it’s worth it. When our managers talk about hiring new people, we engage in conversations on how they’re sourcing diverse candidates."
- Justin Reed

Adrienne: How do you successfully engage a diverse workforce? How do you create that inclusive environment?

Suzanne: I think you solicit diverse opinions. But sometimes, people make a mistake by not addressing those diverse opinions directly. For example, a team member thinks that what they’ve said is really important but if you go in another direction, and don’t address their perspective, that’s a mistake. You need to say, “I’ve heard you, but here is how I overcame your issue.” If you’re going to be inclusive – you have the responsibility of saying “here’s why we think your point is really well stated but we can mitigate that risk so let’s talk about that.” People will then think their opinion is valued.

Justin: That’s a great point. The only other thing that comes to mind is to continue to remind the team that the discussions are idea based and not personal! You’re debating the idea not the person and you have to be careful of that.

Suzanne: When people respect one another as much as Justin and I respect each other, we can sort of go back-and-forth and we don’t always agree. But we can talk through it, and we can get to the right answer, in a respectful way.

Justin: It’s the motivation and goal we share too! When you know that your team is heading to the same goal, you can trust people and that’s super important.

Adrienne: You have these really inclusive views on how you create and manage a team to create the best results, but on the path there you have to create a diverse group and inclusive environment for it. Why is it so hard to gain the same type of diversity throughout the industry? Why are there so few women and people of color in investment management?

Suzanne: Frankly, I don’t know the answer. I think the percentage of women that go into investment jobs are probably equal to men – at least, right out of school – but for some reason, women are not staying. I think some of it comes down to the mentorship at these firms. There are not enough people that look like them, that have done things in a way that seems similar, or reflect what they’re going through. I remember that there were times when I thought “I can’t do this anymore. My children are sick, the nanny isn’t here, and the pressure is too much.” But having a manager that said, “I get it, take the day off and go deal with your kids and get the nanny hired” made a difference. But I really don’t know the answer, and it’s a shame. Is there any difference in terms of diversity, Justin, that you would answer?

Justin: Not really, it’s complex. It would be a multi-variant type of answer. For the industry, it’s a bit better at the entry level in terms of getting in diverse talent but somewhere along the way we are unable to keep the same percentage of diverse talent in the pipeline. So, my hunch is that it’s due to a variety of factors. One might be bias. Another is that I think inclusivity is hard and it takes a lot of work and intentionality. It is a long-term investment. It takes a lot of training, practice and having a learning mindset to see results. We have a lot of work to do in our industry in keeping diverse talent.

Adrienne: You are doing this work not only within BBH, but you’re also instigating these conversations in our larger investing ecosystem. Talk a little about the work that you’re doing using DEI with respect to our outside investment managers.

Justin: It’s our job to select the best investment talent in the world, to invest on behalf of our clients. We have to make sure our funnel includes a very diverse group of investment managers because the investable universe is actually very diverse. We must make sure to find overlooked investment talent, and that sometimes takes effort and time, but it’s worth it. When our managers talk about hiring new people, we engage in conversations on how they’re sourcing diverse candidates. We care because there is empirical evidence that adding diverse perspectives leads to better decisions. Those conversations have led us to understand our managers better as well. We are learning how they think and that’s an important part of our diligence process.

Adrienne: Earlier, we started talking about a little bit about your relationship with each other and how you work together. You come from different backgrounds, you’re different people, and you come from different generations, how does that impact your relationship with each other and how you lead this team?

Suzanne: At the end of the day, working together is about respect. If you have respect for each other, you work together well. We respect each other and value each other’s perspectives. We’ve known each other for a while. We’re also very similar. If Justin were to say “I want to be a quant, and I don’t believe in fundamental investing”, we probably would have a bit more difficulty in finding a middle ground. But we have a similar investment philosophy and a similar approach to how we want to manage and mentor people. We want to set a certain culture in our group, and it’s very important to us that people feel included.

If we have the same fundamental beliefs then we can have very robust discussions on things about which we disagree and still have a great relationship and team. It comes down to trust. I trust that he has my back, and he trusts that I have his. We have the same goal; we want to generate the best results that we can for our clients. When we get up in the morning that’s the first thing on our minds, when we go to sleep that’s the last thing we think of.

Justin: Well said! It is about recognizing our similarities, embracing our differences, and then leveraging those. When you get into the investment decisions, that’s when you really want to understand differences in opinion. You have to be willing to listen and be curious about what the other person is saying. Sometimes you don’t understand what they’re saying but you trust that they’re trying to help you make a better decision, so you ask a follow up question “what do you mean?” and that’s an important question.

Suzanne: I actually think our generational difference is a positive as I highlighted when we talked about team members having different perspectives. There are things that you have that I don’t, and that I have, that you don’t. We’re learning from each other because of the generational gap and that is due to the mutual respect.

Adrienne: Our last question, which we ask all the people that we interview for W&W Magazine, is ‘what one piece of advice would you give to your younger self?’ Justin: I am appreciative of all of my experiences up until this point, so I think I would remind myself to trust my instincts, focus on the things I can change or influence, and enjoy the ride.

Suzanne: Do not worry so much about where you are and just continue to do the right things: learn, ask questions, and embrace the right process. Don’t worry about the outcome as much. It’s hard, when you’re trying to advance, because you’re thinking too much about what the outcome will be but trust the process and in so doing, save yourself some years of angst!

Adrienne: Thank you both!

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