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Talking Head Interview with Beatrice Devillon-Cohen, Observer to the Audit Committee at the European Investment Bank

13 Jan 16:00 by Clare Beresford

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The Laurence Simons Search Talking Head series continues with an interview with Beatrice Devillon-Cohen, Observer to the Audit Committee at the European Investment Bank, and Independent Member of the Finance Committee at Kings College.   With over 25 years’ experience in a 'global systemically important bank' at Board and Executive Committee level, Beatrice has extensive technical expertise.

Having run international trading businesses with P&L accountability of £200m+, Beatrice is an expert in risk management including credit, market, operational and cyber. In addition, her Harvard Executive Diploma in Cybersecurity Management has led to her being an expert in this area at Board level. She is also passionate about Climate Change and its effects on the financial sector.

Clare Beresford, CEO at Laurence Simons Search catches up with Beatrice to discuss all things career, challenge, diversity, and finance related.

Clare Beresford (CB): Good morning Beatrice.  Thank you for taking the time to chat to me today.  Please can you tell us a bit more about yourself?

Beatrice Devillon-Cohen (BDC): Thank you Clare. I am French with family origins in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria; I moved to London 12 years ago and I recently became a British citizen. I always cherished that international dimension (I chose Russian as a second language in junior school and learned basic Danish for my first job). After graduating from business school, I started working in investment banking as a trader in Paris, then London. 25 years later I have now embarked on the second part of my career, building a portfolio of non-executive positions in the UK and Europe.

CB: You're talking to a friend of a friend at a party. How do you describe what you do?

BDC: Managing traders team is about operating in highly pressurised situations, dealing with a large amount of information, assessing risks, constantly making quick decisions based on them and living with the consequences or benefits. It requires nerves but also a strong team spirit and high emotional intelligence as you continuously read people and situations. Having moved to the other side of the boardroom table as a non-executive, I am now leveraging on my experience to ask the questions rather than answering them.

CB: Please can you tell me about the moment you decided to take this career path?

BDC: I always loved a challenge and in the early 90s financial markets were developing rapidly, offering the perfect option. Gender diversity was an unknown idea and I thought it would be good to prove women could excel at the job. The intention was to work 10 years in trading and then move to a position where I could have an impact, make a difference, maybe in an NGO. 25 years later I realised that I had got stuck in that career-chasing game and had lost track of the initial plan. Leaving a successful role was a difficult call, but I felt the need to learn again, be challenged in a different setting and broaden my horizon outside of a dealing room. Over the years, I had developed a CEO mindset in my business, I had a strong international experience managing diverse teams in Asia, Europe, and the US. I coupled these with an added specialisation in cyber-security at the board level and I realised I could offer a different and interesting skill set as a non-executive director.

CB:  When were you most challenged in your career and how did you overcome it?

BDC: There have been many tough moments in my career when I thought I would not have the strength to fight any longer. Strangely enough these are the ones I value most. They have made me more resilient, patient and definitely developed my sense of humour! My biggest challenge was probably after having moved my family to London in 2008. I had to build a global team and customer franchise while running large trading risks in the midst of Lehman Brothers unexpectedly collapsing (and many trading desks closing due to large losses). It was 24/7 for many long months with 2 young children at home. The plan was to stay focused, lead by example, and ensure the team was engaged and trusted me. Managing with empathy is essential. People take more risks on your behalf and are more creative if they know you care.

CB: Outside of material gains, including achieving professional goals, what gives you the greatest joy and how do you share it with others?

BDC: My greatest joy comes from learning. It can be from discussing with friends over their own interests in completely different sectors than mine, hearing about some new trends from my teenage kids or discovering funny English expressions with my British colleagues. Whatever keeps me current, curious. and challenged.

CB: You were recently listed in the ‘100 Women to Watch 2020’ for FTSE 350 Boards by Cranfield University.  What advice would you give to women aspiring to feature in similar lists in the future?

BDC: Take the time to be a specialist in your area, it requires effort, you will encounter setbacks. Do not be afraid to be different. Be curious: new developments, new sectors, current or upcoming global issues should be on your radar. Exchange with as many people as possible, demonstrating a genuine interest in them. It is not about driving a specific agenda; it is about developing lasting relationships. Some will become your mentors, but they will all be carrying you through tough times and making you laugh and enjoy life.

CB: What are you most proud of in your career to date?

BDC: Leaving a successful executive career at the top of my game was not an easy decision. But I had thought about it for months, I was feeling stuck and bored and I was ready to jump. I hope that it can inspire some, afraid to take risks and not believing in their potential, to step out of their comfort zone. I realise now that the more you are out of this comfort zone, the less you feel pain. That is when you stop self-limiting yourself and dream big again.

CB: Diversity and inclusion is very important to Laurence Simons Search, I am an active member of the 30% Club, and we consistently ask our clients about their D&I policies as part of our due diligence.  Can you please tell us what diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you, and why they are important?

BDC: Diversity, equity and inclusion are about fairness, doing the right thing, but are also part of an obvious business decision. You cannot expect having, in a room, the best minds and ideas if you exclude half of the population. If you are curious you need to hear the dissenting voices. Diversity needs to take many forms: gender, socio economics, thoughts, disabilities, and many others. And then inclusion will ensure you listen to these different voices, so they feel valued. One of my friends sadly described it as, too often, having been invited to the ball but nobody ever having asked her to dance.

CB: How would you advocate for diversity and inclusion with colleagues who do not understand its importance?

BDC: Diverse teams perform better. Diverse organisations are more resilient and more profitable.

I strongly believe that the tone from the top is essential. It is not only about intentions, or a box ticking exercise, it is about walking the talk. Some countries have adopted quotas. On a voluntary basis, there are interesting initiatives like the Future Board scheme by the 30% Club. Some FTSE companies are inviting employees from diverse backgrounds to attend and participate to their board meetings. The results should serve as an example for the business community that more engaged employees, feeling valued and being more creative provide better results for all stakeholders.

CB: In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of working in finance currently?

BDC: The rise of regulation and compliance was until recently the biggest change in finance. Nowadays we need to consider the impacts of climate change and Cyber-risk as our new challenges.

Climate change will have a strong effect on banking businesses. Consider for example Central Banks required stress tests or new pricing models in Celsius degrees (deviating from the Paris agreement) for Bond markets.

Cybersecurity risk, in a world where the share of algorithm and electronic trading is growing rapidly along upcoming quantum computing, will be another threat to manage. This will require renewed agility and creativity, supported by more diverse backgrounds.

CB: And finally, if you had an extra hour in the day how would you spend it?

BDC: You would probably find me swimming in my local lido or lost in a heated debate with my family!

CB: Thank you Beatrice for your honesty and insightful answers.  It has been a pleasure talking with you today.