One Of The Most Powerful Women In Finance Shares Her Secrets To Success

10 min read

Shooting the breeze with the most powerful woman in finance had me belly laughing so hard that I almost fell off my chair (almost). Not only does Marisa Drew (52) have the knack for putting you at ease, she’s also living proof that style, intelligence and success are not mutually exclusive. Unapologetically feminine, she explains, “I am a believer that you express yourself (within reason) through what you wear and I don’t mind a bit of self-expression. I’m quite passionate about fashion.”

Introducing Marisa Drew

Marisa Drew started her finance career as an analyst in 1986 in New York, before rising through the ranks to Managing Director at Merrill Lynch. She joined Credit Suisse in London in 2003 to head up a new group focusing on the leveraged finance corporate market before progressing within the bank to ultimately be appointed Co-Head of EMEA Investment Banking and Capital Markets in 2013.

Marisa Drew, the new CEO of Credit Suisse’s Impact Advisory and Finance department

A week ago, it was announced that Marisa Drew has been promoted to become the inaugural CEO of Credit Suisse’s new Impact Advisory and Finance department. “The IAF will sit above all the existing divisions and will harness, direct and set strategy for everything relating to impact investing within the bank. This is anything that creates measurable socio-economic or environmental change while generating a financial return. This role will essentially allow me to be an entrepreneur within the bank, to leverage our existing activities in this sector, build a business around them and hopefully make a significant impact in the world, which is a fantastic opportunity,” she says.

A trailblazer in financial services

Before finding her niche in finance, Marisa Drew’s career path was a case study in trial and error. “People used to say when I was young that I was a person with lots of energy and little direction and a short attention span,” she explains.

28 years later these traits have served her well: “her prolific fundraising has helped convert a whole continent to more-daring options for corporate finance,” explains Charles Bracken of Liberty Global, for whom Marisa Drew has raised over US$50 billion over the last 20 years (yes, that’s a ‘B’). Globally, she has raised well over US$100 billion (another ‘B’) to develop mobile and cable businesses and media infrastructure. Marisa Drew has received multiple awards including the Women in Banking and Finance Annual Achievement in Finance Award and she continues to blaze a trail as a thought leader in the male dominated financial services industry.

Marisa Drew and I chatted about how she overcame imposter syndrome, her eclectic “rap to disco” taste in music, why she’s a “frustrated creative in a banker’s body” and the secret to her success. This is billion-dollar advice, which will make you sit up and listen.

Marisa Drew husband steve
Marisa Drew, the new CEO of the Impact Advisory and Finance department at Credit Suisse – Marisa Drew talks career success
What’s your best opening line at a networking event?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve never thought about it as an opening line. I do always start by finding a connection point that has nothing to do with the business at hand. It’s that ‘door-opener’ that someone is passionate about – it might be music or their children or sport. When you find that connection point, the dynamic changes, immediately: you become a person and not a sales pitch.

Do you have a strict morning routine?

I wish I could say yes! I need to get better at exercising in the morning. I desperately try to put exercise into my diary – that is the goal. I am notoriously bad at sticking to it, so I have blocked it out in my calendar in capital letters “DO NOT BOOK.” Invariably, someone wants to have a breakfast meeting and I say, ‘oh, OK’. That’s something I need to work on.

If you could own one amazing asset, what would it be?

I already own it! I have a little vineyard in South Africa, which is my passion project. I’m making cabernet wine down there and it is a really, really happy thing for me. It’s so different to my day job: I can get my hands dirty and it’s creative – from the artwork on the label to how to market the wine, to blending the grapes. I’m clearly a frustrated creative in a banker’s body!

Many women don’t believe that they deserve the role they’re in. They should reach for more.

What advice would you give to women wanting to thrive in a male-dominated industry?
  1. Cut yourself some slack. Assume that you are in the role for a reason and that you deserve to be there every bit as much as your male colleagues. Allow yourself to believe that. That’s a big head start.
  2. Find a way to have a professional, collegial relationship with your male colleagues, which doesn’t set you apart. So, if someone is dismissive, talks over you or is inappropriate, there are two ways to approach this. One is to ‘get up into someone’s face’ and say you’re offended by the behaviour–although one is perfectly entitled to do that, it becomes a polarising uncomfortable conversation. On the otherhand, if you feel compelled to address the situation, consider using humour to get the message across. For example, if someone uses offensive language you could say with a cheeky smile, ‘Would your mother really want to hear that coming out of her perfect child’s mouth?’ You’ve made your point, you have hopefully kept heat and emotion out of the discussion and you haven’t put the other person in a corner which is difficult to bridge.
  3. Don’t personalise things. An extreme example might be that you’re walking down the hallway one morning past your boss and she/he looks right past you and doesn’t say ‘Hi’. You immediately go into a negative spiral and think, ‘ Oh no, what have I done wrong? Did I offend him/her?, Did I make a mistake somewhere? It must be my fault, I am doomed. My career is over!’ Of course it’s probably the case that your boss was just distracted or was having a bad morning… In these circumstances, try to resist the urge to take it personally, check yourself in the moment and ask: ‘Is this really something which is an indicator that I’ve done something wrong or that I don’t fit into the organization, or is it something in my psyche rather than a reality? Easier said than done by the way…we are all susceptible to this–last week I got a call from my CEO and I can tell you that one doesn’t often get a call out of the blue from the CEO of a 40,000-person company. My first thought was, ‘Uh oh,what did I do wrong?’ Funnily enough, my CEO even remarked when I returned his call , ‘I bet you thought I was calling because you’ve done something wrong.’
What would you say is your secret to success?

Without question, a love and a passion for the business. I really, really believe that you have got to find the thing that is your passion. By definition, you will be a success because you will naturally give it your all and it won’t seem like work. The days will fly by and you’ll be happy and self-actualised.

What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced during your career?

I would say probably getting out of my own way and finding that place where I had the confidence to know that I was as good as or, in some cases, better than my male colleagues. I see it happen so often; many women don’t believe that they deserve the role they’re in. They should reach for more.

How did you get out of your own way?

I had an epiphany, back in the day as a junior banker.

I was struggling to work my way through the covenant structure for non-investment grade credits and I went into my mentor’s office completely distraught and said, ‘I’m never going to get this!” It was a meltdown, of sorts.

He sat back in his chair with a big smile on his face. I said, ‘What are you laughing about!?’ He said ‘I’m chuckling because, not more than half an hour ago, [the guy in the office next store to me, let’s call him “Bob”] was in my office wretching and said the exact same thing.’  I nearly fell of my chair because Bob was a strong personality with a very self-confident demeanour who walked down the halls acting like he knew it all. What I realised that day to my complete surprise was that he didn’t ‘get it’, just as much as I didn’t ‘get it’ but he was acting like he did so we all gave him the benefit of the doubt.  It was a freeing moment.

The Telegraph UK referred to you as one of the most powerful women in investment banking and one of 11 most important women in finance, globally. Do you feel powerful?

The platform and the role provides an element of power. My level of seniority in my organization allows me to mobilise resources and get things done without a great deal of resistence, and that is a positive thing.

If you could be guaranteed success in another profession/role, what would you be?

I love what I do: I’m happy and completely engaged, so I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather be doing at this moment which would give me the same satisfaction, joy and pleasure.

Every six months, I check in with myself to consider whether what I put into the role and my job is in balance with what I’m getting out of it.  If the answer were to be no, then I would look to do something else because life is too short to have regrets, but I’ve been going through this exercise now for about 30 years and I’ve never reached a point where I think the scales aren’t in balance.

You sit on a number of committees which support women in finance. When did you first become involved?

My journey started 20-odd years ago, when I moved to the UK with my former firm. I set about getting to know the other women in the organisation by asking each of them what we could do to bring us all together. I floated the idea of a women’s network, which I know now sounds ridiculous, but there weren’t many women’s networks in banks back then.

They all said, ‘Yes!’ So I held the first women’s network meeting. But, only one or two people showed up.  I realised afterwards that, even though many of the women wanted to participate, they were reluctant to because as one woman said to me, the meeting was seen by her boss as ‘just a knitting circle that was taking her away from her desk’– he used those actual words with her which signifies how culturally different those times were..

I explained to them that they should view the network as a career tool and they should take advantage of the opportunity to develop a support infrastructure within the bank just like the men were doing via informal networks. Slowly but surely the women’s network at that firm grew into an active group of well over 100 women.

You must have seen a few people burnout in your line of work – what are the tell-tale signs of impending burnout and how would you recommend avoiding it?

Be attune to the markers which indicate that the stress is getting to you. Some of these might be that you feel you have a constant weight on your shoulders; you’re not sleeping well; you wake up and dread going to work; a project seems endless; you’re not enjoying working with your colleagues; or you no longer possess the drive to perform for your boss.

You need to check in every few months and ask yourself: ‘Are you taking joy from life and in your job.’ If the answer is ‘No,’ that means you’re heading in the wrong direction.

What are you wearing today?

I’m wearing a pair of Max Mara trousers, a Faith Connexion blouse and a pair of killer Jimmy Choo’s. My new favourite place to shop is FarFetch – they are brilliant at what they do; they have a great connection with emerging designers and they make shopping so easy.

What are your go-to brands for work? Do you have a few that you adore?

I do! I love the Swiss brand Akris led by Albert Kriemler. If he wasn’t a fashion designer, he’d be an architect: there are a lot of architectural elements in his designs that I love. The quality of their clothing is stunning and there is always a little flair in his designs. For household brand names, I do a little shopping at MaxMara and a little here and there at Louis Vuitton and Prada.

And, you will always find me with a studded handbag by MCM — I have a closet full of fabulous MCM handbags!

I saw an MCM puppy dog hand bag yesterday, do you have one of those?

They are so cute! I don’t have one, but I do have one of those animals that clip on to your bag with the MCM logo on it. They are great!

Do you attend fashion week?

I do, I do. I belong to the British Fashion Trust, which is a public/private collaboration with the British Fashion Council offering financial and business support to British-based designers. I am also a huge believer in designers who are uniquely British or who were trained and are headquartered here– people like Emelia Wickstead and Roksanda.

Very dear friends of mine are the most dynamic duo, Ralf & Russo. I make a point of supporting their shows each season at haute couture week in Paris.
What is a song you’re embarrassed to love?

Wow. That’s a funny question.

It’s that song which makes you dance around the kitchen on a Sunday morning.

My musical tastes are all over the place. So anything from rap to disco, indie to jazz to classical. There’s probably nothing I’m embarrassed by, because I love it all.

What’s your pet hate?

Being stuck in traffic, for sure. Since I’m impatient, I can’t stand to go places slowly.

What is your secret indulgence?

It would definitely have to be shoes – I channel Imelda Marcos, for sure.

Who is someone you admire, and why?

There are a million people I admire.

But, a female business leader who I admire greatly is my friend Sungjoo Kim. She owns and is the visionary behind MCM. She has always stuck to her principles when conducting business and it is not always easy operating as a prominent woman in Asia, (and Korea in particular), which is incredibly male dominated.  After facing a lot of obstacles, she has stuck with it.

She is a real ground breaker: in a very competitive world where she has had to compete against giants like LVMH who have tremendous marketing budgets and clout–she has figured out how to carve out a unique niche and scale up to be a serious player in the luxury good sector.

What do you like most about being the age you are now?

The wisdom to take things less seriously and enjoy the moment. Once you get to this age, you have accomplished a lot in your career so the question, ‘Am I going to make it?’ dissipates, and you get to enjoy the moment a little bit more. That, I love. 

Who do you think I should interview next for the Interview Series?

A woman named Noreen Doyle who is a pioneer in our industry. She is the Chairman of the British Bankers Association, the first woman in its 96-year history. She is also the Chair of the Credit Suisse UK legal entity board and the Chairman of the Board of a mining company (it doesn’t get more male dominated than this sector).

She also spent five years as the most senior woman in European financial services running a big part of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, amongst her other many accomplishments.

Are you curious about how to make bankers behave, the importance of gender diversity in financial services, why public targets in senior management are a necessity and how the finance industry is initiating positive change? It’s your lucky day: Marisa Drew shares her thoughts on all of the above, right here.

Marisa Drew On Finance, Fashion & Billion Dollar Career Advice You Can’t Ignore

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