The Close Relationship Between Diversity and Diversification

The asset management industry lagged others in diversity and inclusion progress, but Legg Mason is jumping into it with both feet. Regina Curry explains why and how.

Regina Curry played the numbers three and four positions on the basketball court while on a full-ride academic scholarship at Northern Kentucky University. That may have led to her being the chief diversity officer at Legg Mason today, but you have to understand a little about basketball to know why.

The third position, also called the small forward, is played by the overall most versatile of the five women on the court. Quickness and strength are the chief assets. Position four—the power forward—usually goes to the team’s most versatile scorer, able to earn points close to the basket but also someone who can sink midrange jump shots up to eighteen feet away.

Regina Curry Legg Mason
Regina Curry, Legg Mason Photo: Aisha Butler

“Sports absolutely played a role in my development,” says Curry.  “It taught me discipline, teamwork, and humility.”

She applied those skills while working in different industries. Prior to Legg Mason, she served in similar and adjacent functions in consumer packaged goods (McCormick and Company Inc.) and chemical manufacturing (Millennium Chemicals). These are widely divergent workplaces serving very different customer/consumer markets. The business value of diversity and inclusion was adopted earlier in the CPG world because they recognized the demographic changes taking place and the increased buying power of diverse groups.

What’s noticeably different about her current position is that asset management is historically a homogenous place; the archetypal Wall Street investor is male and white. But growing awareness of the need for formal diversity efforts, together with recognition about the expectations of its clients, led Legg Mason CEO Joe Sullivan to create the chief diversity officer role. Curry was the first person to take the job.

“It’s true that consumer packaged goods companies are further ahead with this,” says Curry. “In asset management, we are catching up. It helps that the next generations entering the workforce are more diverse, and there’s broad consensus that diverse workplaces are positive.” In fact, she says that younger hires simply expect diversity and inclusion (D&I) as a matter of course.

In June 2017, Sullivan was one of more than 150 CEOs who signed up to support the creation of CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, founded by the US chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Tim Ryan. This business coalition is dedicated to advancing D&I in the workplace.

Curry, who joined the firm in early 2018, immediately set out to assist Legg Mason with a range of D&I initiatives, including addressing unconscious bias and engaging in CEO Action activities.

To fully appreciate what these efforts are about requires understanding what unconscious bias is. “It’s about shortcuts in the brain,” says Curry. “Unconscious bias creates blind spots as we unknowingly, over time, build perceptions (about people) to make decisions.” By way of example, she mentions how we categorically discuss different ethnicities in limiting ways and how any mention of transgender individuals oddly and immediately involves concerns about bathrooms.

Acknowledging bias and working to overcome it starts at the top, she says, and Legg Mason’s senior leadership is clearly helping accomplish that. “But while D&I is leader led, it’s carried out by the middle layers,” she adds. “They make the most day-to-day decisions, so having everyone on board is crucial.”

Curry says her role is to constantly communicate how bias is inherent and needs to be rooted out. The company is engaging in a multitude of new initiatives: developing D&I goals into actionable strategies; analyzing data to identify key levers for improvement; partnering with clients in D&I activities; and creating a D&I governance structure with an executive D&I council and an employee resource group steering committee, to name a few.

If anyone says this is about being good corporate citizens, the “right thing to do,” Curry is quick to amend such thinking.

“We need different kinds of talent to meet our business goals,” she says. “We need diverse perspectives at every level of the firm. While asset management has not been known for diversity, investment diversification has always been core to mitigating risk and creating value in the industry.”

It’s also about diversity in its customer offerings. The firm’s products—mutual funds, money market funds, 529 college savings plans, etc.—are designed for a broad cross-section of the population. Having a diverse employee base brings strength to those products and solutions. “Inclusion for us means growth,” says Curry.

As the financial services industry in general, and Legg Mason in particular, are dealing with a period of disruption, it’s no surprise that Curry is coaching the team through it. She knows how to win this game from experience.