Although a two-year track record is short in the investing world, a coaching program designed to develop and retain female and ethnically diverse VPs at AllianceBernstein is showing promise. And judged against the high turnover rates among professionals in finance and almost every business sector in the U.S. during the pandemic, the numbers are even more impressive.
As of the end of September, 95 percent of all participants in the Career Catalyst program — an initiative that pairs women and minority VPs with coaches who are senior VPs — are still with AllianceBernstein. Seventy-two percent of the firm’s female VP’s participated in the program. Of those employees promoted to senior VP over the last two years, 67 percent have been women. Ethnically diverse employees — Black, Hispanic, and Asian American VPs — make up 44 percent of the total participants in Career Catalyst.
“We are particularly pleased to see that we’ve been able to retain 95 percent of this key population for the firm — VPs of color and our female VPs — during Covid and the reckoning on race that has taken place in this country and around the world,” said Janessa Cox-Irvin, global head of diversity & inclusion at the $759 billion-in-assets firm.
The firm started Career Catalyst after observing discrepancies in the level of engagement between male and female employees.
Cox-Irvin said that like companies everywhere, AllianceBernstein has been monitoring the effects of the so-called “Great Resignation,” the recent tidal wave of resignations that followed the pandemic. “Our attrition rate is relatively low and steady, but I do think we have a preventative role to play here,” she said. “We are acknowledging the fact that people are reassessing their career choices, and we’re being proactive in what engagement and development opportunities we offer.”
Livia Ramirez, a senior VP and a 13-year veteran who rejoined the firm in 2018 after a seven-year stint as COO at a registered investment advisor, is part of the inaugural class of the six-month coaching program, which was started in 2019. “I’m a first generation in this country, and that has affected my approach to my career, [which has been] that hard work would just be recognized and acknowledged,” said Ramirez. “This program made me realize that I needed to also think about personal branding, and how to be a better self-advocate. I don’t have that family scaffolding to understand how to navigate corporate America.”
Ramirez started as an administrative assistant at the firm, then became a management consultant, and then joined the legal and compliance department. She left for better work-life balance, trading her hour-plus commute to AB for a 10-minute one to the RIA. “Self-advocacy means being more comfortable with owning the opportunities that are being presented and being comfortable in taking credit for the work. That’s something that as a first generation, but also as a woman, we struggle with at times,” she told Institutional Investor.
Like many asset managers, AllianceBernstein has been investing in a host of programs to increase the diversity in its rank-and-file employees and among its leadership. Cox-Irvin said new recruits, such as millennials, for example, want more than just money. They want a sense of belonging and a firm with a purpose. Diversity is part of that. Asset managers’ diversity efforts, which gained urgency during the pandemic, come at a time when allocators, particularly public pensions, endowments, and foundations, increasingly demand that their managers develop strategies to diversify their ranks and report on progress. Diversity is also correlated with higher returns.
According to statistics posted on its website, Asian Americans represent 10 percent of executives, 15 percent of managers, and 26 percent of professionals. Black/African Americans represented 5 percent of executives, 2 percent of managers, and 7 percent of professionals. African Americans are only 6 percent of all employees. No executives were Latino or Hispanic, but this group made up 4 percent of managers, 11 percent of professionals, and 9 percent of the total workforce. When it comes to gender diversity, men represented 76 percent of executives (women are 24 percent), 71 percent of managers (women are 29 percent), and 63 percent of professionals (women are 37 percent). Overall, women represent 37 percent of all employees.
Cox-Irvin acknowledges that the Career Catalyst program is still small, with 94 participants, and says that based on feedback from participants, a number of tweaks will be coming, including adding more formal structures around one-on-one coaching meetings. The program had intentionally been kept unstructured, she explained, because the firm wanted the onus to be on the VPs to get what they wanted out of the program. “Over time, we have recognized that some participants may want more direction, like idea starters to kick off insightful monthly conversations with their coaches.”
In the future, the firm would like to better measure nuances around career mobility, such as when an employee’s role has been expanded, even if the formal title hasn’t changed. It also wants to expand the program globally. “We’re trying to bridge a gap. Given the makeup of the industry, the majority of SVPs who step in as coaches are white men, but what’s been great are the personal relationships that have been formed,” Cox-Irvin said. “If a middle-aged straight white male coach is paired with an Asian, Black or Hispanic woman, it changes the conversation. Their advocates and table-pounders are now people who don’t look like them, which has historically been difficult to find. I want to see more of us being able to bridge that gap, specifically for women of color, so there is a better understanding of the nuanced challenges they face.”
Ramirez says the program has helped her flip her thinking. “Now if I walk into a conference room or meeting and I’m the only woman or ethnically diverse colleague, I think to myself, I’m needed here! I don’t want to blend in, and I’m encouraged by my firm not to blend in.”