/ 7 June 2012

Trading ego for emotional acumen

Nicky Newton-King says her new role is 'part strategic tea-leaf diviner and part cheerleader'.
Nicky Newton-King says her new role is 'part strategic tea-leaf diviner and part cheerleader'.

It seems such a long time ago that the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was a members-only old-boys club, a bit like a post-colonial gathering of mostly men, practising collective narcissism in an atmosphere of pleasant comradeship. The trading floor was not dissimilar to a fruit market with brokers bartering shares rather than bananas. It was a testosterone-infused network of “people you knew” and women were back-office, or enigmas if they actually made it as “club” members alongside their male counterparts.

But that all changed in 1996, when the trading floor was abolished in favour of the more sedate, less sweaty, screen-trading system and lawyer Nicky Newton-King joined the stock exchange team from legal firm Webber Wentzel Bowens to sort out an insider-trading scandal involving stockbroker Greg Blank. That was 16 years ago.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange is now a world-class modern company, having undergone a radical transformation from members-only “club” to a demutualised listed company with stringent regulations and technological innovations. It has also recently appointed Newton-King as its first woman chief executive.

Newton-King became the leader of Africa’s largest securities exchange in January, having been deputy to former chief executive and financial markets expert Russell Loubser for nine years. Though she plays down any significance of being a woman at the helm in the year 2012, when women chief executives are a more common occurrence, she is proud to say that half of her 13-person executive committee are women. “It is about diversity,” she says. “They are not just there for the skirt.

“I have not gone out to find women; I am just really proud that there were enough extraordinary women to fill such important positions,” Newton-King says.

Women in suits
But such is the dominance of women in suits – with Freda Evans as chief financial officer and Leanne Parsons as equity markets director – that it is not unusual in the stock exchange’s executive offices to hold all-women meetings where a man is sometimes a surprising participant. 

“Most of the people in my team are extremely well educated, highly motivated, with a can-do attitude and able to adapt to change,” Newton-King says, playing down the differences between the sexes. “I believe everyone is an individual and it really does not matter whether you are a man or a woman.”

Newton-King was the obvious candidate for the position of chief executive, having advised the stock exchange during her days as a lawyer and then spending 16 years closely involved in transforming the “club” into a company. But her appointment was not guaranteed and there was a rigorous selection process. “For me, she was the obvious choice; she is known and liked by many … and has built a profile in the financial markets,” says Loubser. “But we needed to go through a stringent process.” Newton-King knows she had “no divine right” to the job but was “exposed to all the responsibilities” over a period of time and knew she could do it. 

Loubser says she was appointed because she is so effective. “Some people are bright but they do not get things done. Nicky is both – she understands things quickly and is very hardworking and she makes things happen. She also has a nice way with people and ticked all the boxes necessary for a chief executive including intellect, ethics, morals, honesty and loyalty. And she wanted the job.”

Newton-King is obviously relishing her new role as “part strategic tea-leaf diviner and part cheerleader” which she tries to balance with some precision. “As a leader, you have to wield authority; your voice takes on a disproportionate sound. I am finding it quite a wonderful experience.”

Tea has taken over from Tanqueray
Does the profusion of women in a previously male-dominated environment mean that ego has been replaced by emotional intelligence and, over the years, tea has taken over from Tanqueray?

Newton-King believes she brings to her position a high level of emotional intelligence and a low sense of ego, and admits she is demanding. “But I try to be authentic to myself and consistent in my actions. I am quite forthright and quick to give people feedback. I try to wander around and find out what is going on. I like to be visible. And my door is always open.”

As an external communicator, Newton-King is clearly more comfortable than Loubser, who was slightly less patient with people such as those in the media, and she has an easy-going, enthusiastic attitude.

She has three law degrees and was selected for a fellowship at Yale University in the United States, where she spent five months, and completed a management development programme at Harvard.

“I believe an academic background is hugely important; law, for example gives you the ability to see things from multiple perspectives in a measured way.” She continually  updates her knowledge and reads diversely, talks to people about their experiences with issues with which she is involved, as well as having constant contact with other exchanges around the world.

Be able to read the tea leaves
One of her colleagues describes her as a great visionary with excellent leadership and technical kills, which she is able to use across all domains.

But word is out that if you cross her, you should be sure you have your facts right. “Nicky can be tough if she needs to be; she can look after herself. But she is very sensitive to people and does not have to throw her weight around,” Loubser says.

Newton-King’s tenure as chief executive has started as the world changes into a planet barely recognisable from just a few years ago, and at a faster pace than ever before. She will be required to dodge the shrapnel dispersed by the eurozone financial turmoil and its possible collapse, sidestep the ailing US economy and manoeuvre increasingly onerous financial market regulations and red tape. She will also have to adapt to the shifting of wealth to Brics countries from the JSE’s traditional clients in Europe and the US, explain and negotiate South Africa’s investor-unfriendly political climate and shift to shorter, crisper and clearer disclosure requirements, while ensuring the stock exchange remains the largest securities exchange in Africa and investors’ African exchange of choice.

“You have to be able to read the tea leaves, be well informed and be humble enough to know that things have to change,” she says.

“We have big issues to resolve and implement, such as back-office technology and a new trading system. We recognise that the world is changing faster than before and need to adapt to keep us ahead of the changes. But I have spent 16 years at the coalface re-engineering the stock exchange and I think we now are better able to handle the speed of change than we ever were in the past.”