Libby Chambers: Leading by example in the war for talent

Libby Chambers’ CV reads like a who’s who of impressive companies: McKinsey, Bank of America, Barclays, Barclaycard and Western Union, to name a few. In conversation with Enterprise, the only female member of the Smith & Williamson Board of directors reflects on what she has learned over the years, particularly on talent and culture.

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Libby Chambers
Published: 18 Jun 2018 Updated: 13 Jun 2022

Libby Chambers’ CV reads like a who’s who of impressive companies: McKinsey, Bank of America, Barclays, Barclaycard and Western Union, to name a few. In conversation with Enterprise, the only female member of the Smith & Williamson Board of directors reflects on what she has learned over the years, particularly on talent and culture.

Libby Chambers

What attracts you when you change jobs: a cultural issue that you want to fix or a problem that you want to solve?

My career has included roles in financial services and professional services. When I look at what has attracted me to a specific role or company, it is whether it has the scope for change – can I personally have an impact? What’s the major thing that needs to get done? I’ve often worked in places where brand rebuilding was required or where there was threat or opportunity. I consider myself experienced in these areas, and in turning businesses around.

My consulting background gave me a foundation in different approaches to fixing things — in scoping a problem, figuring out what needed to get done urgently, and framing plans. My executive career has given me more opportunity to actually deliver, and drive results.

I have often found roles through tapping a network of colleagues that I’ve stayed in touch with throughout my career. I think it’s really important to stay connected to the people you’ve worked with closely, who understand your skills and experience. I often advise my teams that these relationships formed early in your career may be the most relevant — so help people stay aware of what you’re up to — whether that’s through LinkedIn, regular coffee chats, or even Christmas cards!

As a co-author of the original War for Talent research, do you think that its findings are still relevant? What are the issues for a contemporary audience?

The talent topic started to bubble up during the 90s. The McKinsey research leading to The War for Talent (1998) came about because we were constantly making strategic recommendations that clients struggled to implement — often because they didn’t have the right team or talent in place. It wasn’t enough to simply advise clients to “get a better team”.

We knew that if we were to take on this subject, we had to be fact-based and analytically rigorous — and that we would have to demonstrate that having better talent actually produced better corporate performance. We hit the topic at the right time — we were on to something that was a major issue for boards and management teams.

The ‘punchline’ was that companies need to treat talent management as a competitive advantage: put processes in place that are as robust as a company’s strategic or financial management processes, and invest in them over time. That message is evergreen. However it’s worth noting that some of the ‘top talent’ companies that we profiled eventually blew up for other reasons. Having good talent management practices can’t make up for weak financial or risk management, poor governance, letting your products get stale, or a flawed acquisition strategy. Staying on top is very hard!

What’s really changed over the last twenty years is how and where these principles are applied. Companies today struggle with digital talent, with having enough people in management that understand technology. And lately, there are big gaps around data, analytics, and risk management.

In my view, the UK right now has a bit of a double whammy: there is a Brexit risk, but there is also a lack of affordable housing in place where there are well-paid jobs. A pervasive lack of affordability for young talent concerns me in some ways more than Brexit. It might reasonably be argued that time dealing with Brexit could have been usefully spent on housing and educational policy and agreeing a roadmap for investment to solve these issues sustainably. Companies and organisations must evolve to facilitate and support remote working. As an operating executive, I’ve always had a relaxed attitude about where people need to physically be to do their jobs — perhaps I’m a little bit of an outlier. I believe that those companies that figure out how to support a flexible workforce are going to outperform those that don’t. Modern leaders understand this point.

Diversity and gender

The talent conversation has also really come to the fore again because of the conversation about diversity, pay equity and corporate performance. Talent management practices must evolve to address this new challenge. We are already seeing that those who are can create a strong employer brand.

Most gender pay gaps that have been reported are largely explained by the lower presence of women in the senior team. In order to have an informed discussion around the gap, you need a really good understanding of what the data is showing and what your own company’s particular challenges are. Newer companies, in particular, have a wonderful opportunity to ‘design in’ a model with no gaps, through diverse hiring and promotion practices.

Throughout my career, it has been common for me to be the only woman in a team — including on the Smith & Williamson board. I would say that has not been a barrier, per se. But it has required recognition that, in order to succeed, you have to succeed among men — who still often dominate the conversation and often the decisions. I’ve been lucky that the places where I worked early in my career have been very meritocratic. I’ve also worked in sectors where female advancement was an early focus, and almost a given, because they were so ‘talent- led’. And I was given the right opportunities and sponsorship. I am very cognizant that these ingredients aren’t always there, and I am vocal when I have an opportunity to make a difference in this regard.

Women have many potential advantages. Listening is a key part of effective problem solving and also being (I think) more sensitised to risk. Evidence suggests that women excel in these areas.

There are lots of areas of examples of this in the financial services sector: for example, women fund managers do a great job and (in general) are objectively very strong performers in managing assets. There are many product categories where women represent nearly all the purchasing influence, and savvy marketers are paying attention to this. Also, in client service businesses, the clients and decision- makers are increasingly women - and clients are beginning to insist on having more diverse teams. If you are a strong, capable female, and you’re in a space where your client demands diversity, you should be in a good position.

So, I’m seeing in my environment, and in the careers of others, a much deeper appreciation of what women bring to the table, which will help today’s generation get ahead — as will higher education rates and the ability to rely much more on their partners for burdens at home.

What piece of advice would you give your younger self?

Invest earlier in your own training and build a body of work and expertise that is clearly yours. Also, it’s really important to be a very good leader of others. In your 20s, a lot of your thinking is about you, but you must learn quickly how to be a good team leader — because that’s the way you will really succeed long-term. Think about good and bad experiences you’ve had in teams and be very purposeful about what kind of leader you want to be. Furthermore, you have to seek out the people who you want to learn from. In other words: find yourself a good boss and pay attention to what they do! It can make a massive difference for your career trajectory. And invest in others. It always has a great return on investment. Better, perhaps, than the markets.

By necessity, this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. This briefing does not constitute advice nor a recommendation relating to the acquisition or disposal of investments. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. Details correct at time of writing.


This article was previously published on Smith & Williamson prior to the launch of Evelyn Partners.