Financial Times Author Marianne Abib-Pech On Leading the Future

Marianne Abib-Pech started her career in Arthur Andersen, before joining General Electric Europe and then becoming global CFO of one of the business units of Shell International Petroleum at the age of 35. 

About two years ago, Marianne decided to start a more entrepreneurial and impactful chapter in her career. She moved to Hong-Kong, wrote 'The Financial Times Guide to Leadership' and created Lead the Future (LTF), an umbrella brand that includes a leadership consulting firm, a financial advising platform and a thought leadership platform. 

Her objective is to act as a catalyst of ideas (via the writing), businesses (via the advising) and of people (via the leadership consulting) to contribute to the emerging of a new and better world. 

We spoke to Marianne about her passion for writing and business; the benefits of being both entrepreneur and investor; and her top tips for successful leadership - particularly for women striving to succeed in a male-dominated business environment.

TNW: Marianne, you became global CFO of a FTSE 500 business unit before the age of 35; that is certainly an achievement and would have sated most people yet you have continued your journey to become an entrepreneur, investor and author. Please share with us the benefits and challenges of being both entrepreneur and investor.   

MA-P: I see many more benefits than challenges by pairing the two activities! As an investor, you get to meet two distinct populations: the investing population (with different groups such as Angel, Venture Capital, Corporate Venturers, High Net Worth and family offices), and the entrepreneurs.

As you mentioned, I come from a very strong Finance background, but mostly in corporates. What I really valued when starting to personally invest was cutting across every type of investment group. I got an in-depth understanding of how they consider the risk/reward equation, weight short term/long term investment and what particular strategy is compelling for each of them. One of my newly created businesses is in the finance advisory space, so the knowledge helps the structuring side, giving me a much wider term of reference. The added benefit is also building a great network.

Mingling with entrepreneurs is extremely useful, when you are yourself starting your entrepreneurship journey.

I usually ask for a seat on the board of the ventures I intent to invest in, so I can observe their life from within and get at the operational level. I started calling this my ’crash course' in entrepreneurship.

I reflect on how things are working, try to find patterns and common issues. It makes my own journey easier and maybe faster. It also allows for the building of alliances at a very early stage. I like to think in terms of value-based ecosystems.

Just to give you an example, I recently invested in a very promising start-up called Pro-Finda. It is highly instrumental in the success of one of the offerings of my second venture in leadership development. We are working on jointly developing a product, so we cut costs, and enhance each other's customer value proposition. Everyone is driven to collaborate and win.

TNW: How have you found attitudes towards you as a female investor/entrepreneur? And what in your opinion does it take to be a successful investor? And a successful entrepreneur? 

MA-P: When I first started to invest, I was actually surprised to see much more male investors than female ones. I was focusing in Saas and Energy, so it might skew the picture a bit.

Generally, the investing side reminds me of the Financial services industry. It is much easier if you are male.

In my opinion, we can still sense the 'Old boy's club mentality’, even if the trend is evolving fast, and you see more and more female investors clubs.

On the entrepreneur side the sentiment is a bit different. Entrepreneurs value female investors. We bring a different perspective on issues and solutions. We act as the ‘’balancing’’ factor in male dominated boards. Female investors balance challenge and support in a much better way than their male counterparts. We are all about getting results and returns from the start-up, but I see female investors generally getting more involved in the journey, instead of coming in and only challenging results, or progress… Or maybe it is just me! 

I think to be successful in any of these, and in general, three things matter: Listening, Trying and Adjusting, plus a huge dose of resilience and patience.

TNW: Tell us more about your recent book published by the FT and how it came about.

MA-P: 'The Financial Times Guide to Leadership: How to Lead Effectively & Get Results' is the story of an accident! When I first heard I was offered the CFO position at Shell, I immediately thought "what will I want to do next?"

Over the course of my four years tenure in the role, I started to become more aware of what it feels like to be a woman in male-dominated industries. 

I started reflecting on what I should pay attention to or build on to reach the next level. At one stage I was looking for a book about it and could not find anything fit for purpose. I decided to write the book myself - and the first 50,000 words manuscript came to light. I was adamant about having it published, so I started looking for agents and publishing houses.

It is interesting to see how looking for a publisher is similar to looking for an investor when you are a start-up at proof of concept stage. By a series of serendipitous events, I ended up meeting with Pearson (Financial Times publishing house). They were looking to commission a book on Leadership as part of their business series. So we started talking or, better said, negotiating! 

I was pushing for a deal with two books, the one I had already written on women and leadership and the one they wanted to publish, on leadership in general. In the end I wrote the FT one; it was published in March this year, and I am in the middle of promoting it in Asia now, after Europe. I still intend to bring the book on women to the market by the end of next year.

TNW: Do you believe leadership skills can be learned?

MA-P: This question always brings a smile to my face… this is the trillion dollar question. Is leadership natured or nurtured?

For me, leadership emerges from three dimensions: the world you live in, the organization you are operating within, and who you are; all being fluid and fast evolving, so you are never a 'leader' but always a 'leader in the making'.

Everyone who has the drive and the will to start a journey of self-improvement will get somewhere. What matters is to find your own excellence and pursue it.

It can range from being the best manager ever, the best team leader, or the best visionary leader you can be. Leadership is like golf; everyone can learn how to play golf, but only a few can become Tiger Woods!

TNW: What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way, and wish someone had told you at the beginning?

MA-P: I will give you two. One is about failure. If you want to become a better leader, you have to fail one day.

Failure is the best way to learn, and to recalibrate how you do things, what drives you and who you are. Do not be afraid to fail.

The second is a quote. “Hurry…slowly. All of us want to go as fast as we can on the road to success, wealth and the corner office… whatever makes you dream or tick. However it is important to be ‘on time’. Intellectual capacities need to be complemented by emotional intelligence and both business and personal maturity if you want to be the best leader you can be. For that, time matters."

TNW: Why do you think there aren’t more women in leadership positions?  What do you think about a recent study that found that women don’t actually wish to be in leadership roles even if they were offered them?

MA-P: I have a theory on that very topic. The western corporate world as we know it is inherited from different streams. A scientific stream from Galileo, to Descartes or the industrial revolutions that shaped the corporation into mathematical, highly numerate and process-driven environments.

A military stream; the world we are experiencing has been scarred with so many territorial wars. Violence prevailed. Survival was about competition and being better than. If you reflect for a second, the corporate world looks like a vertical battlefield. You have a similar vernacular (Chief, Officer, etc.)  and structure (from sole contributor to leader of leaders). As a knock-on effect, it is also about discipline and one way of thinking.

A 'Financial' stream - the emergence of Corporate America after the Civil War - put money at the center of power, which was further engrained with the emergence of families like Rothschild, Lehman Brothers and Rockfeller.

The corporate world appears to have been catered for men, so women are almost fighting with History. And of course it is hard! Now, the world is changing. Values, collaboration and purpose are emerging trends. It is time for new leadership, and women will definitely play a more prominent role.

I am not a feminist… I believe in biology and observing nature. To create something you need a male and a female influence, a ying and a yang. 

To make something stronger, you need diversity. I personally believe it is time for diversity and collaboration. I am not surprised by 'women not wanting it'. Being in a leadership position is not easy. It does require resilience, drive, working long hours… and yes, at times, sacrifices in your personal life.

One of the programs we are offering in LTF-People is more tailored to women, and one of the very first sessions is about self-awareness. We ask them to think about their drives and also their fears. The force of the intention is critical for getting up there and so is knowing your strengths and what you really want.

What I also tend to say is ‘’It's okay, if this is not what you want. Don't force it. You are in charge of measuring your success. No one else is. Relax, be yourself and be happy!"

TNW: What is one lesson about leadership you learned from a boss or mentor?  And what would you like to pass on to other women leaders?

MA-P: Ask for forgiveness not for permission. Women tend to suffer from the ‘good pupil’ syndrome; we want to be perfect and always meet expectations, to comply with what is expected from us. I think it can be helpful at the beginning of one’s professional life, but in spreading your wings, be at ease with who you are, what you bring to the table and take risks - it's what forwards your career. Mercedes Erra – the CEO or Euro RSCG - brought it home for me when she told me: "Independence is what women need to learn from their male counterparts."

What I would like to pass on to other women is really two things:

Believe in yourself. Because if you don't - nobody will – hence the focus on self-awareness and fears.

Differentiate, do not compete. Always look for ‘your’ angle, rooted in what makes you… you, allowing to build on your strengths.

I think this is what really helped me in my corporate career and actually also in my writing and starting a completely different journey.

TNW: What is the best career or management decision you have made? What, if anything, would you change about a past career or management decision?

MA-P: I rarely go back and assess if something was a good or bad decision, or think about what could or should have been. I'm a ‘take a decision, based on all the information you think you need, and your instinct, and then turn it into the best possible one’ type of person.

Everyone is on a journey and it can take you to different places. As Steve Jobs nicely says, 'it is about connecting the dots'. I am trying to connect my dots every day!

My past as a CFO helps me assess business issues with a risk/reward mind-set, which is very useful in the corporate finance side of Lead the Future (LTF-Capital). On the leadership consultancy side (LTF-People), I also use it to assess strategic needs and issues for organizations in a financial way. Why? Because I can - I speak the same language - and because bottom line leadership is about creating sustainable value.

My creativity, expressed through my writing, is used in both my businesses. On the corporate finance side, it helps me push the thinking, associates things that might not be naturally paired and find new solutions. It also helps build networks and a differentiating brand. On the leadership side, I create innovative and unique leadership programs because of it. The programs are designed to address individuals holistically, and give an important part to feeling and experiencing.

TNW: Tell us more about the three pillars of LEAD THE FUTURE

MA-P: Lead the future is a great new adventure, still at the infancy stage. My expertise is in Finance and in the Energy sector. I trained with what one could call the best corporations, Arthur Andersen and General Electric and spent time in Shell and BHP Billiton.

My interest, or my gift, has always been in developing others, nurturing leaders of tomorrow.

I started within my own team, but then expanded within the organization. Whilst at Shell I designed and implemented a leadership program for emerging leaders in Finance that I believe is still in use today.

My passion is writing. Everything starts with an idea. Having the ability to make people think and maybe trigger the first step towards change because they feel inspired or encouraged or just better is important for me. I think it is my ‘French’ side, we love words and ideas and change.

Lead the Future encompasses all of the above. Our purpose is to participate in the emergence of something new. We want to unleash potential in businesses and people to create sustainable value.

Lead The Future is actually a brand, with two distinct companies: LTF-Capital and LTF-People. LTF-Capital provides operational or strategic financial support and non-executive services for Mid Cap or start-ups in the Energy sector. LTF-People is looking at ‘emerging’ leadership. When I say ’emerging’, I refer to every sense of the word: geographically - such as Asia or Africa and other developing countries; business models - we like to work with businesses in transformation, and demographically - we have a special focus on young leaders and women.

The vision is to create a change-driven ecosystem, new businesses require new types of leadership, new leaders help build and maintain more sustainable businesses… and eventually you create a paradigm shift.

The writing is the glue as I write both on investing and leadership and in different publications.

TNW: Who has been your greatest inspiration and what keeps you going? 

MA-P: I do not think I have one source of inspiration or a role model for that matter. I am more a ‘mix and match’ type of person.

I pick what I admire in different people and try to apply it in the way I interact with people, organizations or in the way I am building Lead the Future.

That said, I think I am inspired every day by different, small things. It can range from discussing cultural leadership with the head of investment banking Asia, to seeing my new assistant become more autonomous and self-confident, or creating a new leadership program. It is very hard to pinpoint, but I think what has always pushed me forward or inspired me is learning, creating and helping others… I guess it is about having an impact.

Yes, that’s it and it is what keeps me going. It is seeing that Lead the Future, the team and myself are having an impact; big or small. It is the fundamental purpose of the company, making an impact on businesses and people; help them to reach or unleash their potential.

TNW: Do you have a favourite quote that you would like to share with us? 

MA-P: That is one of the most difficult questions! I have several ranging from John Quincy Adams on leadership, Boileau as mentioned above, the famous ‘You will be a man my son’ from Kipling, or the Dalai Lama.

I think I will go with Gandhi's most famous one: "Be the change you want to see in the world". It encompasses everything for me.

All starts from within, all of us can decide to take control of our journey. It alludes to resilience, caring, impact, a sense of purpose… and to participate in something bigger than oneself.

TNW: What is next for the powerhouse of a woman that is Marianne Abib-Pech?

MA-P: Right now, there is no ‘next’! Lead the Future is going to keep me occupied for a while. I am constantly refining the strategy, finding new angles and developing new products, observing what is needed, who needs it, etc. Then, when Lead the Future is where I want it to be, it will be time for a Foundation and for focusing solely on giving back to as many as we can.

Maila Reeves was the UK Editor of The Next Women and responsible for the Pitch Events in the UK. She has done tremendous work with getting the brand across and organizing the events in the UK. She has since then moved on, but stays liaised with The Next Women by contributing to its editorial mission. Maila used to be a lawyer with Norton Rose, and is an investor. She is passionate about making the business environment better for both men and women.

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