AIA’s Mark Konyn: Lack of Diversity No Longer an Excuse in 2020

By Gene Lin

When Mark Konyn entered the finance industry in mid-80s London, he thought lack of diversity and representation in his sector were issues of the past. It was later in his career that Konyn realised not only his assumptions were wrong, but the buyside industry he belonged to also had a significantly low women representation in senior levels globally.

With 35 years of industry experience, Konyn now serves as the chief investment officer of AIA Group, and is one of the most recognisable leaders in the investment management industry in Asia Pacific. He is also known for being an outspoken advocate for diversity on the buyside, having joined Bloomberg Women’s Buyside Network as a founder and its only male member thus far, and on occasions has called out fund managers that do not practice ESG consistently.

In this interview, we ask Konyn about the meaning of male allyship, and what it would take for other men to speak up for inclusion on the buyside.

L: Lynk | M: Mark Konyn

L: From your perspective, what is the current state of female representation on the buyside?

M: I would say female representation across the buyside has always been relatively healthy if you compare it to other areas of the financial services industry. From my experience, the buyside is driven by an ethos of meritocracy, and that diversity drives better outcomes.

Women tend to be well represented at a functional level, for example, about half of the CIOs at AIA are women. But the industry still falls short when it comes to senior management, where women’s representation tends to thin out. I see it as a failure of the industry globally where senior management remains dominated by men. If you go back 20 years in Asia, you could say women’s representation in leadership was still nascent and needed time to develop, but that’s no longer an excuse in 2020.

L: What is a “male ally” and what is the responsibility that comes with that label? 

M: When I was invited to join the Bloomberg Women’s Buyside Network, I had to think a little bit about my potential role. I understood that for the network to be fully effective, it had to represent gender diversity as more than just a women’s issue and I had to figure out what would be my contribution.

I’m known to be somewhat outspoken about these issues, but I didn’t want to dominate a forum that is there to give women a voice, otherwise it would defeat the purpose. So, I’m a bit self-conscious about being too imposing, and I still am.

What drove it home for me was when I turned up at the first meeting, another member had seen my name on the list of founders and said it was significant that I had volunteered my time in support. That was very encouraging, as it meant that just by turning up and identifying with the Network, I could influence those in the industry and those who may join the industry in the future.

L: Speaking as a male ally, what does it take for someone with privilege to align themselves with the marginalised?

M: Working on the buyside is a process of constant triangulation. Successful fund managers recognise that diversity of opinion, perspective and experience is critical when making important decisions no matter how smart they happen to be themselves.

This realisation that diversity of view and perspective drives better outcomes, and stimulates your appetite to seek different opinions and to be inclusive. But you also must recognise the constraints that prevent you from being inclusive; and this requires an acceptance of your own privilege.

When you arrive at this realisation, you can reflect on your own journey. And no matter how tough the journey is for you, and despite all the hard work, others have had it tougher. I know that what I have achieved began from a position of privilege, there’s no doubt about that. 

L: What sets of experiences made you come to this view on diversity in representation?

M: I can give you two examples: As an asset owner, we assess the capabilities of external fund managers who have specialist skills and capabilities. For this, I draw on my experience of managing a fund management company previously. If you do something long enough, it becomes instinctive and you can tell the difference between something that is well constructed and something that is not. You develop a sixth sense that differentiates between substance and gimmick. You focus on how sustainable a capability might be.

When you make a site visit to conduct due diligence, that ability to differentiate gives you an immediate impression of how the firm is organised. You become sensitive to certain aspects: the level of diversity, and how well they are managing succession.

Economies, markets and companies are changing rapidly. The technology used to assess investment opportunities is developing at an accelerated pace, and the skills required differ to those of the past. A lack of diversity in a firm, across age, experience and gender sounds the alarm. 

For example, if you look out over the investment floor, and it’s populated only with grey haired, middle-aged, white guys in their 50s who are – with the greatest respect – probably at the latter stages of their careers, you really start to question whether the firm is sustainable. Are they current? What is their succession plan?

Being a parent also confronts you with these issues at a later stage in your life. Years after I had assumed that issues relating to inclusion, diversity and prejudice had been overcome, I am reliving the same challenges through the experiences of my children as they relate to me how they see the world. It makes me think that something has gone wrong along the way.

L: Why do you think women tend not to apply for senior executive roles on the buyside?

M: I began thinking about it in terms of a pipeline. Greater recruitment diversity creates many more options for a company in terms of managing its talent, and being flexible in addressing different business challenges. As a result and over time, as people progress in their careers, senior leadership will reflect that diversity of intake. However, this is a rather simplistic view.

Not all careers are linear, and they needn’t to be. There are things that occur in people’s lives that require a different approach. People have different priorities at different stages of their lives, regardless of gender, and a one-size-fits-all approach to career management is flawed.

We should strive to create a fluid environment where good experiences and expertise are not wasted.  I have recruited women who have been out of the labour force for a time, or have previously taken junior positions because they didn’t want the travel or time commitment. And yet, their experience, knowledge and skills are scarce.

Technology allows so much more work flexibility and we need not to be so rigid about how people apply themselves and contribute. I think the way we currently relate to work is inefficient because it disregards people who can apply their talent at various stages of their careers.

Maybe it’s not just a simplistic pipeline issue, it’s more than that. I’ve worked alongside many great women who contributed significantly and consistently over time. Yet, as I reflect, have women fulfilled their potential at senior levels? Probably not.

L: How does the hiring process contribute to gender disparity on the buyside?

M: Many of us are working hard to avoid that bias, and it’s not just gender bias. 

People tend to judge an organisation by the strength of the culture. We tend to say: Here’s a company with a strong culture that knows who they are and as a result, they are a successful company. But the downside risk is a lack of diversity, particularly gender diversity. When they recruit, they want to hire people like themselves. It is a self-reinforcing mechanism. We need to challenge ourselves to appeal to people who aren’t like ourselves. But this begins to sound like setting quotas and political correctness which is much maligned.

When I look back to the time when I joined the industry in London, the investment teams in the trading rooms were extremely diverse. We had people with liberal arts degrees, engineering degrees, people without tertiary education, and people who came up through apprenticeship. It was set up well in those days, but we went through a period where everybody had to be the same, and we probably pushed that as far as we could. Now maybe we’re going back towards greater diversity.

L: How does power dynamic in a firm change as it becomes more gender-balanced?

M: I’ll give you an anecdotal example. Last year, I did a training exercise in preparation to serve on a board, where we broke ourselves into teams and assumed roles in a simulated board. We were given a contrived case study and put under pressure to arrive at an executive decision without knowing the full picture.

Extraordinarily, only one out of 13 teams correctly assessed the situation and responded in a way that fully utilised the information given at each point in time. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, you could see what the right answer was. But in the heat of the moment, natural biases would turn up and dominate the situation. No matter which team you looked at, the same pattern started to emerge.

The instructor told us that this is what happens in groups when certain voices are too dominant, and the only way to break that down is to bring together more diverse groups, specifically create a greater balance of gender. In these situations, you need to hold yourself accountable and give voices to people who may be overwhelmed, so they can contribute.

L: What would you say to the men on the buyside who support balanced gender representation but are hesitant to speak up?

M: If you try to mandate them to accept the responsibility, you run the risk of disaffecting people in a whole host of ways. We see examples of that in quotas, requirements, legislation – however you want to put it.

It’s much better that people feel the responsibility rather than having it imposed on them. You are dealing with a set of very reasonable and rational people on the buyside, and sometimes it’s a question of exposing them to the issues and helping them understand where the gaps and limitations are. As more people recognise the need for inclusion, they would do it from a position of strength rather than one of feeling threatened.

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.