September 8, 2018, 10 min read
Interview by Sarah Wagner
This week Sarah talked to Karina Robinson, CEO of Robinson Hambro, a London-based headhunting and CEO advisory firm. In the interview, they discuss the power of using the right words, why it is important to drink coffee with strangers and why women should invest more time in getting noticed.
You have been a financial journalist for most of your professional life. At some point you decided to move jobs and become a headhunter. What lead to the decision to switch careers?
I did journalism all my life and it is a fascinating and amazing profession, giving you many new insights by talking to people all over the world. But it’s almost like becoming a nun at some point. Not that you don’t have sex, it is simply that you are spending a huge amount of energy while not being paid properly. However, when you love something then at times you make a few sacrifices and the financial sacrifice was mine.
At some point, I thought ‘You have this one life’ and while I was enjoying my job, I decided I wanted to do something different in the second part of my life. We have only so many years to live so I wanted to do something about it. When you are working you have no time to think. I ended up giving up my job and I had lots of coffee with people to come up with ideas.
I never thought I would become a headhunter, actually. I imagined I would do public policy in a bank as I was very interested in macro policy and how business works. But the more I talked to people the more it became obvious that this field was very bureaucratic and not for me.
I had a second aim which was to spend 50% of my time helping others. Hence, one day I was sent off to see the chairman of a headhunter firm about being a trustee of a charity. When we finished the interview, he asked me to help him with the board search practice. Shortly after, I joined as Co-Head of Board Search. This wasn’t my plan at all! The opportunity came about because I had been open to talk to many people who could bring something to me and who I could bring something to as well.
“However, when you love something then at times you make a few sacrifices and the financial sacrifice was mine.”
How much of your success is based on luck and intelligence? Do you think plans are important?
I never planned anything. Of course, a decent amount of intelligence and hard work is imperative - and never underestimate luck. But it is about getting out there and meeting people. One thing that women do not do is invest time in getting noticed. Nobody notices you unless you draw attention to your work. You have to tell people you are doing a good job. The men out there spend around 20% of their time networking in and around their company. I also didn’t do enough of that when I was younger, but I have become more and more aware of how important it is. Women have this school attitude: We sit quietly and do our work/exam and as long as we do well, everything will be fine. But if people don’t even know you are taking the exam, you will not be able to advance into other places.
A way around it is by making yourself more known through other people. You need to have sponsors. In companies, there should be female networks and mentors but you also need a sponsor. The difference between a mentor and sponsor is that you can talk about anything to a mentor whereas a sponsor is out there selling you and thereby creating new opportunities for you. Somebody who is not necessarily in your team but like your personal PR agent, providing advice as to whom you should speak to.
I have been called “aggressive” in the past. How would you react to that?
A boss should never use that word. Any boss using that word has a few learnings to do about the power of words. It probably means that you are “assertive”; which is fine. Many men are not used to seeing an assertive woman. How would I react in such a situation? That is very difficult. I might bring up the point that men are never called aggressive. There are certain words that only women are called.
“Women have this school attitude: We sit quietly and do our work/exam and as long as we do well, everything will be fine.”
Looking back on your career as headhunter, what is something you did not know when you started?
My business partner and I had one plan for where Robinson Hambro should go. Where the firm has gone in the end is very different. I would say it is important to realize that whatever your plan is, it will turn out differently. Your first plan does not have to be perfect either. Men are often very confident about their plan, finances etc. I think it is ok to say “This is where I am going. I plan to make a success out of it, it may become different but I can guarantee that it will be a success whatever form it takes”.
“Men are never called aggressive. There are certain words that only women are called.”
Tell us about the routine and skills of a headhunter! What do you like about being a headhunter?
The headhunting we do is for boards and directors; it makes up around 40% of our business. Normal headhunters spend their whole day pitching, going to companies, making contacts, thinking naturally who might fit in what job. The chair of a company tells us what they need e.g. someone with pharmaceutical experience. I then look at pharmaceutical companies, for instance. But I also look at the board and the skills that are missing there. Furthermore, it is about chemistry. In the end, you can put forward the best candidate but if (s)he does not fit into the board it won’t be a great fit after all.
We also do “CEO advisory”. We are on retainer with a few CEOs at companies and advise them on strategic issues that arise, from PR to board issues, business development, etc. Our opinion does not necessarily tie in with the views of the company. We rather seek to provide objective advice. That is our value.
Is it difficult to find female board members? Do we need quotas?
Not difficult at all. I think what has happened is: Before, requirements were for people with very linear careers, which women often don’t have because they take maternity leave. You just have to make the Chair understand that (s)he should focus on the skill rather than something that looks on the page very linear and easy but will actually not bring new thinking. All industries are disrupted. If you can’t have people on the board that are ready to do things differently, you will be more complacent and will become less relevant.
When I was 20, I was horrified at the idea of quotas; at 30 I started to think that maybe we need something and now that I am in my mid 50s, I know that we need quotas because everything is changing too slowly.
You mentioned that many women work in HR and Marketing. Do you think this is natural or are there external factors that force women into these areas?
I think it’s a bit of both; some women just naturally will like being in HR and marketing. But it starts off in school. I give you an example: WISE is a non-profit looking at science from school to recruitment to companies. It shows that from before six years of age onwards there is a stereotype that it is not sexy for young girls and women to pursue careers in STEM. This prevents many girls from pursuing a path they love.
Do you have any habits and routines that are essential in your life?
Being interested in people. I am not sure if that is something one can reproduce – either you are or you are not. What I do is to try to learn about others. As a journalist, you are naturally curious. I guess this is why I chose my career in the first place.
What is something that used to be challenging for you and what is a tool you used to overcome it?
Going into a room full of men, all talking to each other happened to me a lot – working in the financial city of London. I still find it intimidating. What strategy do I use? I just get on with it and tell myself it is part of my job. I will never like it, nevertheless. I like small dinners and coffees where I find out things about people.
With regard to your appearance; do you make a conscious effort to influence your first impression?
No, I always wear very bright clothes – this has always been me. As long as you have a certain elegance and professionalism, anything is ok. Nowadays, women are much more flexible in what they wear. There is no longer the need to wear black suits – even in London. The city used to be very conservative in that sense.
“I once came home from a dinner party and told my aunt how boring it had been. She responded that it was my own fault, that I had not managed to figure out what made the persons who I talked to tick.”
Is there any crucial moment in your life that has changed your perspective on things?
As you get older, you realize how precious personal relationships are and how important it is to help others. I think it is the sense of mortality that brings that about. I was not that different before, but over time you understand why you do things. Let’s be honest: When you get older, gravity is a terrible thing! But you do get wiser and that makes up for it.
I once came home from a dinner party and told my aunt how boring it had been. She responded that it was my own fault, that I had not managed to figure out what made the persons who I talked to tick. That was a very good lesson about always trying to find out something more about people.
Do you have a book to recommend?
There are three books: ‘Lean in’; ‘A good time to be a Girl’ by Helena Morrissey because it is the opposite of ‘Lean in’. It is about changing the system. She says women are who they are and they cannot turn into a man. Thirdly, ‘The double X-Factor’ by Alison Woolf about how working women are creating a new society.
What is your personal advice to combine working life and personal life?
One of the things Helena points out is that the idea of having to be at work is not necessary. One should be measured by the outcome, after all. You should be able to work in a much more non-location specific way. To make that happen, the company must change otherwise women will continue to drop out at a certain age. You need to get men on board to get those changes as well. The younger men I meet feel like they should spend more time with their kids. If both men and women say they need more flexibility, then the change can be achieved.
You were a financial journalist. Why are there so few women engaged is investment and finance issues?
I give you an example: there is a group called Broadminded which was founded by four girls in their late twenties. They noticed that their friends were dropping out of work because they couldn’t cope with it all. Some of the things they do is have people come in and talk about investing. There is a lot of lingo around that topic. Some people still say it’s not a girly thing. However, being in charge of your own money is one of the most important things in your life both for yourself and your family.
Thank you for the interview, Karina!
Karina Robinson is the CEO of Robinson Hambro Ltd. The firm provides Chairman/CEO Advisory services and Board Search. It was part of the Advisory Group to Lord Davies’s Women on Boards.
Karina sits on the Court of Governors of the London School of Economics and is a member of the Finance Committee. She sits on the Advisory Board of the Global Female Leaders Summit. Additionally, she chairs a chapter of the Kilfinan Group which mentors CEOs of charities.
In the City, she is Chair of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal Advisory Board, which groups together the CEOs/Chairs of major City institutions, as well as a Trustee of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal and Middle Warden of the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.
In 2010, Karina co-led the Board Practice at boutique search firm Saxton Bampfylde. Most of her career was spent as a journalist covering international financial issues. She was Senior Editor of The Banker magazine for eight years and the International Herald Tribune’s banking columnist. Her eponymous interviews with heads of state and CEOs was syndicated in the IHT. Karina was formerly Political & Economic Correspondent at Bloomberg/TV and began her career at merchant bank Morgan Grenfell as the Spanish Equity Analyst. She was educated in Madrid, at the Hotchkiss School in the US and at the London School of Economics where she studied economics and international relations. She is fluent in four languages.
Karina writes a column on finance and international affairs entitled Karina’s Column.