Abby Johnson on life and money

Fidelity CEO Abby Johnson chats about women, careers, investing, and more.

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In a world where women are still under-represented in senior management positions, Abby Johnson stands out—Chairman, CEO, wife and mother, innovator, and passionate advocate for helping women make their money work harder for them. Personal finance expert and #hermoneypodcast host Jean Chatzky asked Abby to share some of her experiences and insights on careers, work-life balance, and how artificial intelligence is helping eradicate unconscious bias.

Here are some highlights of the far-reaching conversation.

Starting out at Fidelity

Jean Chatzky: Take me back a little bit and tell me about your background. You worked summers at Fidelity during college and you joined full time after you graduated from Harvard Business School. Was it always assumed that you'd go into the family business?

Abby Johnson: I was encouraged to explore lots of different avenues growing up, and to think that if I studied hard and worked hard, that I could do anything I wanted. I certainly had exposure to the business, because my father was completely obsessed with running the business during the time that I was growing up.

My grandfather was still involved in the business when I was growing up, although he was certainly not playing the active role that he had when I was very, very young. I would hear conversations between the 2 of them, and they both loved what they did and they loved to talk about it with me and my siblings and friends, to the extent that we wanted to. I probably did have an opportunity to get a little insight into investing, and into the world of running an investment business. It felt interesting to me. But other things were interesting too, and I probably wandered in and out of entertaining as many different options as anybody growing up ever did.

Chatzky: Let's talk about some other parts of your life. You are not just a CEO—you're a mom, you've got daughters, one of whom works at the company. Are you encouraging her to come up in this business?

Johnson: I'm encouraging her to learn and decide what she likes to do, and I think for young people it's also really important for them to understand what they don't want to do. I always encourage people to think about 'What is it that you don't like in a job?' Because avoiding what you don't like is just as important as seeking out what you like. Very often, I talk to young people and they're coming out of school and they just don't know what they want. So sometimes it's a little easier to think about it from the opposite perspective.

Managing work-life balance

Chatzky: Let's talk about stress. It's a health issue as much as a financial issue. I think you and I are a little bit similar in that we turn to physical fitness for our brains as much as for our bodies.

Johnson: Yes, everybody has their own ways of trying to manage stress. It helps me to get outside, to get exercise, and to make sure that while I'm working a lot that I'm trying to get enough rest every night. You need to pace yourself and have confidence in your team to help you out when you need it. It helps to make sure that you're focusing on doing the things that you need to do, not the things that can be done by other people, or should be done by other people.

There's no magic formula. Having some variety, too, is good. I try to make sure that I have time to read and reflect on the weekends, because I'm usually in meetings all week. So that balance is important too, in addition to the physical balance of getting some exertion to counterbalance the sitting time that I do during the week.

Women and investing – and investing in women

Chatzky: You're one of very few women in this country running a company with over 50,000 employees. What is it about investing in women that has clearly become so important to you?

Johnson: First of all, it's a huge unmet need and we're an industry that has been long dominated by men, and lots of things that even I never really thought about reflect that. When we organized our team to really delve deep into this, we started uncovering a lot of things, some inadvertent things, and a lot of little things that cumulatively led to the impact of women being turned off by the business.

For example, take our offices. Like most companies, we have a standard way of setting up our offices, which sort of spilled over into how we set up our customer-facing branch storefronts where we actually meet clients. We discovered that just without thinking about it, they reflected very male preferences and not female preferences. So that was one of the things that we fixed.

Then there are other more subtle, harder-to-describe things, like the way our financial products and services are presented or the way which we've addressed how women tend to learn about money matters. You see, many women want to have a more iterative process where they get financial and investing information—come back, get information, then come back. It's less of a straight line to a decision sometimes than what we're likely to see with men.

These are gross generalizations, but we did enough research to know that some of these trends are real. We needed to do more to make sure that our reps were trained to help somebody overcome a learning curve in an accommodating and iterative kind of way. We've tried a lot of different things in terms of getting people together in different kinds of groups, and sometimes doing women-only events, which some women prefer.

Chatzky: Is there one piece of advice that you have for women when it comes to investing their money?

Johnson: What it really comes down to is having an avenue for women to engage in personal finance and investing topics on the terms that they're comfortable with. Maybe I was lucky because my father and my grandfather were in the investing business, and as the oldest grandchild I got the opportunity to hear what they were talking about and have them talk to me. Maybe I just got over being intimidated at a young age, and that was helpful. But it's not that hard to understand finance if you just give it a little bit of time and have confidence in yourself.

Women need to know that they can be successful investors, and many of them are—we just need more of them out there.

Using new voice recognition technology to improve the customer experience

Chatzky: Lastly, can you talk a little about how you're using artificial intelligence to get rid of unconscious bias?

Johnson: In a world of cyberattacks, we need the kind of cybersecurity that can help prove who you are over the phone. We have some really good voice recognition technology; which customers say they like because it makes life so much easier. We need to make sure that this technology works as well with male voices and female voices, and people of different backgrounds.

We had a test case with an associate in our Albuquerque, New Mexico, office who was transitioning their gender. We tested the voice recognition software through that process, and proved to ourselves that it worked perfectly, through going from being female to male. So, that was a nice proof point to say that there wouldn't be any unconscious bias built into that technology.

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