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5 Minutes with Nicky Newton-King

The building of the JSE’s deep sense of diversity across their staff base was a conscious decision started by her predecessor, says Nicky Newton-King, the current CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. “Once you start to build diversity (both racial and gender diversity), it becomes a place where it is known that you can perform and be accepted just as you are,” says Newton-King, who recently announced her resignation.

She continues that by the time she became deputy CEO the exchange already had several strong women in the organisation. And when she became CEO, she didn’t consciously go out to employ other women, but purely because there were numerous incredible women in the organisation, and they wanted to work with the JSE. It was a no-brainer to hire and retain them.

“You get to a tipping point,” Newton-King comments. “I’m not sure statistically what that tipping point is, but once you’ve got more than a number of women, then people believe this is a place I’d   quite like to be in and we’ve managed to accelerate that,” she says. The women the JSE hired under Newton-King were in very senior positions, she recalls. “My CFO, the head of Post-Trade who in fact is going to be my successor, the head of Capital Markets… I wasn’t only hiring women in support functions.”

On Diversity as a Competitive Advantage

“There’s a push and a pull factor,” Newton-King admits. The pull factor, she says, lies in the fact that to some extent company boards need to actively want to embrace diversity and to make a proper effort to encourage diversity, by making sure that an extra effort to find people that are diverse to the current incumbents, has been made. She goes as far as saying that the JSE, in a bid to continue being a diverse organisation, often try to find men to fill positions because there are already so many women working there.

“You have to make a conscious decision that diversity is a competitive advantage and a conscious analysis of where you are and whether or not you think that that is sufficiently diverse,” she says. She admits that it’s become a lot easier for the JSE to attract the right candidates, “because people know us, know me and my colleagues, and people want to come and work at this organisation, because we have this type of diversity that is properly on display and properly at the front end of the business and it becomes an aspirational place to work in.”

If a company has made the decision to become increasingly diverse, it must consciously test whether there are individuals from a diverse pool that can be brought into the business, Newton-King suggests. This sometimes means that a business would take longer than necessary to fill positions.

“The other side of this is that once you’ve said you want more diversity and you’ve challenged yourself on your hiring strategy, then actually making sure that your environment is conducive to retaining the diverse talent that you’ve hired is also important,” she adds. “You can’t say “I’m committed to diversity” and then suddenly hire one person that is different. You’ve really got to make a proper effort to build deep diversity in all its facets – so age, race, gender, qualifications, backgrounds, the whole lot becomes important.” She adds that the JSE is already emphasising diversity where company boards are concerned from a Listing Requirements perspective.

On Women’s Day

For Newton-King, Women’s Day is an opportunity for women to recognise, as leaders who may be near the top of the ladder, that they have a responsibility to model what leadership is and the possibility of leadership can be for everybody, but in particular for women. She also sees it as an opportunity to remember and remind oneself that their journey might not have had the sort of challenges others have, and to contemplate what steps are being taken to make those journeys easier for others.

“In Women’s Month, I will accept one or two speaking engagements, just as an opportunity for people to ask me the questions they never get a chance to ask,” she says. “Some people never see me; they’ll see me only in the newspaper or on television or hear me on the radio, and they have questions all the way from: ‘what was your life like’ to ‘were you always going to be a CEO’ to ‘what does your day look like’. These questions are not things you read in a newspaper, but once you are available as a female leader to answer those types of questions, it becomes aspirational for others. You break down the barriers. It’s not only aspirational, it’s an attainable aspiration. People see that there’s a person there – that person has done the following things to do that, and that person’s life feels and looks like the following…”

On Mentorship

Mentorship is imperative, according to Newton-King. Mentorship properly executed is a very formal relationship, for which there’s a space, but there’s also space for informal, less-structured engagements with senior women, she acknowledges. “And I would say to senior women in business, that we have a responsibility to be available from time-to-time, for people just to be able to understand what it’s like to do what we do,” she says. Hence the commitment to speaking and other engagements she takes on during Women’s Month.

There’s a difference between formal and informal mentorship, both are important. Even if one is not a formal mentor, as a woman in leadership, there is a significant responsibility to be an informal mentor, Newton-King says.

On Her Decision to Retire

“I have spent 23 years at the JSE, eight years as deputy CEO, eight years as CEO, and I’ve loved every part of what I do here, except when we’ve had to retrench people which is a terrible thing to have to do,” she says. “But I really love this place. My fingerprint is on almost every part of the DNA of the JSE, and there’s a time in an institution when you need a new energy to drive it and for me that time is now.”

Newton-King says she’s extremely happy with her successor, who she announced is the current Head of Post-Trade, Dr. Leila Fourie.

On Her Future Plans

“I’m going to spend some time with my family, hopefully they want to spend some time with me,” Newton-King jokes. She adds that she’ll be taking a “gap year.” “One of the things that I’ve found unique here at the JSE is the opportunity to make a difference to the country, and I’m going to spend the time figuring out how I can make a difference, in a different way, in this country.”

August 13,2015.Nicky Newton-King,CEO of JSE at the JSE Head offices in Sandton.Picture:FREDDY MAVUNDA © Business Day