MGA Consulting’s Virginie Maisonneuve: Success on the Buyside Takes Discipline and Innovation

By Isabel Wong

When successful investment strategy is often thought to be powered by advanced data analysis and technology combined with industry experience, Virginie Maisonneuve, founding partner and CEO of MGA Consulting, says there are other critical factors that underpin the creation of a sustainable investment process.

The former chief investment officer of Eastspring Investments says in order to drive real and sustainable changes in the asset management industry, top executives in the industry must champion the art of self-management and create alignment between teams.

When asked about diversity in asset management, particularly on the gender gap, Maisonneuve highlights that the gap is still wide versus other professions. “Sectors such as the medical, legal, and accounting fields that also require long working hours still have a higher female representation in senior roles than the asset management industry,” says Maisonneuve, “so, perhaps the buyside is not doing a good job in terms of explaining what we do”. 

After more than three decades in leading roles in firms such as Pimco and Schroders, Maisonneuve aims to continue developing future female talent by working as a founding member of initiatives including Bloomberg Women’s Buyside Network in Asia and the CFA UK Institute Women’s Network before she moved to Singapore.

L: Lynk | V: Virginie Maisonneuve

L: Could you tell us about your career journey? At what point did you decide a leadership role on the buyside would be for you?

V: I’ve been interested in China since I was five, and I’ve always said I would go to China and learn Chinese. I always knew that was going to be my path. 

So I went to mainland China back in the mid-80s, I was so fascinated by the experience that I eventually decided to work for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs there for a while. As I am naturally a curious person, I was always looking to learn new skills and therefore, I entered the asset management industry where learning new things is part of the daily job. After beginning to work in the industry, I felt that it was not just a job but a passion as I never saw the hours. 

During my early days in the industry, I would get to the office in the morning and in the blink of an eye, it’s suddenly 7pm in the evening. That’s what I call “working in the flow” and only through achieving that with a clear vision, leadership would become a natural next step.

Innovation has always been a key element for me to create strategies and new products. For example, I set up one of the first China funds sold to US institutional investors when I worked for Batterymarch. There I also set up innovative investment strategies in the “quantamental” space – a combination of quantitative and fundamentals investment processes – and started investing in emerging market stocks for global portfolios which was something unusual at the time. These days, my firm is trying to create artificial intelligence tools to help portfolio managers organise their assets.

Important lessons I learnt from over 30 years in the investment management industry?
1) work in the flow;
2) have a clear vision and understanding of the current market environment;
3) create alignment with your teams. It’s a work that’s very demanding, but I’ve always felt that was my thing.

L: What would be your advice for those who would like to pursue a leadership role on the buyside? And how can they develop a strong work ethic to excel in those roles?

V: There are several factors. The first one is you really have to respect your own authenticity. If you work from a place of authenticity, where you are true to yourself and you have that alignment between the work and your passion, everything will fall into place eventually. If you work in coherence, there’s often something quite magical that happens with other human beings in the team. You will feel the coherence, and then it becomes true collaboration and teamwork. Nowadays, it’s too complicated to do things on your own, you really need to work with a team.

The second thing is your own resilience and energy. You need to self-manage really well. Actually, I used to be a gymnast when I was young, and sports have always been part of my DNA. So playing sports, doing yoga and meditation regularly has been my way of anchoring myself for the past 35 years. You need self-management because it’s a busy world – it’s easy to think “oh my god there’s so much news in the world, so much is happening. How can we keep track of everything?”. The fact is: You can’t keep track of everything. You have to strategically process information, and the ability to feel grounded and self-manage is really helpful.

The third thing is: Have fun. When you enjoy and have fun with the things you do, it is both beneficial for yourself and the people around you. As well as the three factors mentioned, being able to collaborate is important when developing a strong work ethic. You could have the best idea in the world but you need to be able to discuss it with people, create alignment and convince other teams – that’s what true collaboration means. Only if you have that, then you will be able to do high-impact leadership.

L: Does personality play a role in deciding whether or not a woman should or should not choose a career on the buyside?

V: Personality is not a gender issue. Both men and women can have different or similar personalities and characteristics. The buyside business is a high energy profession and could be overwhelming to some, this is why the ability to self-manage is key to succeed in the industry.  

The other thing is curiosity. If you love to learn about the world and what’s happening, then this job is for you. You could be a student of history, you could be a student of business – you can be any kind of student as long as you do not stop learning.

Then, you need to have the ability to think logically and make fair analysis. To be able to assess and identify buying opportunities, you need to be grounded. But it is also important to be able to analyse data and facts, and respond with the right decisions and investment process. To put it simply, it is all about EQ and IQ. Those are the essential skills for a career on the buyside, and both men and women can have them.

L: What can the buyside do to attract and retain female talent?

V: The simplest thing for companies to do is offering a strong returner programme so women feel welcome after their maternity leave. It sends a message to all women within an organisation that they are valued and respected for their contribution. It is important for employers to communicate clearly with female employees before they go on maternity leave about upcoming work arrangements. Losing successful female talent after childbirth is a big loss for any firm.  

The other thing companies could do is conduct firmwide training on unconscious bias. This concerns gender but also diversity in general including ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and more. With regards to maternity specifically, employees within an organisation should be educated about the different thoughts and interpretations that happen when a certain female co-worker goes on maternity leave in order to create a neutral environment where people are able to see their co-workers as valued members of the organisation regardless of their changing priorities in life. We need to normalise the idea that flexibility and agility is a big competitive advantage for companies, and this includes welcoming women back after their maternity leave. 

Depending on the size and resources of the firm, it will also help to provide childcare support for employees. But I think COVID-19 is showing remote work can be an option to provide more flexibility at work. After all, it should be about cultivating a culture of acceptance and collaboration. Women do not “lose their brains” after they have a child. 

L: At which point could the lack of diversity problem on the buyside be most effectively solved? Is it through the hiring stage, project allocation stage, or promotion decisions?

V: I think it’s at every stage. At the hiring stage, the key is to hire people with personalities and mindsets that work for the job. Some preferred traits are curiosity, a lot of energy, logical mind and more. You will already want to achieve a diverse workforce through hiring. By “diverse”, it’s not only gender-focused, you want ethnic diversity, socioeconomic diversity, thought diversity, background diversity, racial diversity, and gender diversity.

When new hires join as interns or junior employees, you will want to give them a chance based on their capabilities. Firms should invest in their own people. The good thing to do is to give them a chance to grow in their roles, and that should be completely independent of their gender but according to their talent.

Often, women are reluctant to raise their hands and say “yes I can do that”. Leadership training for all employees is crucial and will support women in bridging the gap. I have met interns who are able to demonstrate strong leadership skills. They are generally intelligent self-starters who look at things differently, and are able to collaborate with people. So I truly believe that companies should reward behaviour that fits their cultures, regardless of gender, age, and race. 

Working in partnership with HR is also key to solving diversity problems on the buyside. A lot of talent development programmes in the past tend to be stale and standard. I think people nowadays need to be offered training that will develop them into areas that they are interested in as everyone has their own strength. While it will not make sense to offer tailored or individual coaching to everyone, HR departments can still develop learning programmes that are more customisable, especially with the help of online resources.

L: What do you think would be the most effective way to encourage young girls to opt for or consider a career on the buyside?

V: When I was in the UK and heading the CFA women’s network there, I organised programmes such as mentorship for girls from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds who were interested in finance. They often think it’s impossible to work in the financial industry, but those programmes were set up to open the realm of possibilities and options for them.

L: If you have the power to change one thing about the buyside, what would it be?

V: I would make reporting of diversity and sustainability a requirement for all buyside firms. It’s also about how people from diverse backgrounds work together to drive a common purpose and create value.

Having a company culture that allows people to take risks and be innovative will also create a much more thriving environment that brings out the best in each individual. For the buyside to have positive changes, there needs to be more partnership and collaboration. As capital allocators, we have the power to drive important changes through making investments and allocating capital in a way that benefits not only shareholders but all stakeholders in the world. 

If there could be more collaboration between firms, asset owners, asset managers, and regulators, powerful changes that benefit everybody will happen much sooner. In a world where disruption is happening at a faster pace everyday, this is necessary. 

Buyside Power Women is Lynk’s latest interview series that features conversations with female leaders and male allies on the buyside to increase visibility of women in the industry. The series covers the career journeys of female CIOs in different regions, and how advocacy for diversity could influence future capital allocation.

Stay tuned for upcoming Buyside Power Women editorial articles and live events here.