07/19/2013 08:22 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

Embracing Diversity & Bucking Convention: The Story of Sarah McPhee, an American CEO in Sweden


How does an American woman propel to the top of the finance world in a foreign country?

If you're Sarah McPhee, a Stanford graduate who now runs one of the Nordic region's leading savings and insurance funds, Storebrand SPP, you embrace your diversity and refuse to be tied down by informal rules of "the way things have always been done."

After a stint with the United Nations in Mozambique, McPhee followed Swedish aid to Stockholm. She talked her way into the prestigious Stockholm School of Economics by literally knocking on the Dean's door, and taught herself Swedish while absorbing market microstructure and corporate finance classes.

Clearly, her strength of character and strict adherence to her own authenticity and personal values has allowed her to break barriers as a female and as a foreigner.

"A very big advantage is that I have rarely felt bound by Swedish convention or unspoken hierarchies. This has allowed me to ask questions or take decisions that Swedes wouldn't."

She is also not afraid of a word that has been occasionally tarred in today's modern dialogue: feminism. Sarah has been a catalytic voice in her company on gender equality. She understands that diversity in any form is a positive driver of corporate productivity, and that family skills can help build leadership skills.

Being a mother or parent is the most difficult leadership job you can have and I'm certain that every minute I have spent with my family has helped me to develop patience and distance as well as a sense of humor. I only hope that more men will gain that insight and take periods of part time, between job breaks and parental leave. I definitely see it as an asset in every employee who dares.

McPhee has found a fertile ground for women's development in Sweden, a country that she described as having a focus on a fundamental social hygiene: every person should be able to have a family, work and be financially self-sufficient regardless of civil status.

Sarah's story epitomizes the shared values between the United States and Sweden, and forms a springboard for the great things these two countries can do together. She is a symbol for the work the U.S. Embassy in Sweden is spearheading through a series called "Diversity Dialogues" in which my husband, the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, and his dynamic Embassy team bring together multifarious stake-holders from business, civil society, politics, media and more to share experiences on diversity and multiculturalism. Here is a YouTube example of a "Diversity Dialogue" the Embassy hosted with Professor Muhammad Yunus:

For me, speaking with Sarah has been one of the most eye-opening experiences I've had in Sweden and I wanted to share her inspiring narrative with you as a continuation of the women's leadership interview series I've begun with The Huffington Post.

Natalia Brzezinski: How is being an American in Sweden an asset in achieving your goals?

Sarah McPhee: On the whole, Swedes admire Americans' entrepreneurial spirit and our friendly, positive attitude. Many have been exchange students and almost all have watched un-dubbed American TV and films, so that they feel close to Americans. Swedes often believe that the cultural differences are small, whereas we Americans generally perceive the differences as substantial.

A very big advantage is that I have rarely felt bound by Swedish convention or unspoken hierarchies. This has allowed me to ask questions or take decisions that Swedes wouldn't. Once when I was working in a nomination committee for a quoted company I suggested to a well-known former Swedish CEO that I remove a Board member based on an evaluation. "Oh! That would be good, but it's so un-Swedish!"

How do you compare prospects for women's leadership in Sweden versus the United States? What are shared challenges and differing opportunities? How is the gender issue framed differently in Sweden and America?

Women have a strong leadership position in the public sector even if Sweden has not yet produced a female prime minister. Historically this was due to the public sector allowing for more life work balance and until the 1990s, the public sector at the higher levels had competitive salaries for women with university degrees.

Much of Swedish equality legislation has been tilted to providing women with a possibility to fully support themselves independently of a partner, and to enable women to join the work force back in the '70s when skilled labor was a scarce commodity. You might say that the focus has been on fundamental social hygiene: every person should be able to have a family, work and be financially self-sufficient regardless of civil status.

This approach is the background to the excellent day care system and the laws regarding parental leave and part-time employment for parents. The downside is that until a few years ago, Sweden had no service sector for support in the home, such that women aiming at a business or high level public career found it difficult to compete unless their partner were willing to stand back professionally. The progressive legislation also misled leaders in power to conclude that equality was "fixed" and we would see the results at levels of power within a decade. Unfortunately, discriminatory attitudes and traditions have persevered and the facts show that women have only advanced slightly where it counts, i.e. at the CEO level and on non-Executive Boards.

The Economist in a February 2013 cover story asked: what can the world learn from the Nordic business model? How do you respond to that question?

There is a great deal to be learned from the Nordics. Without question, their long-term approach to ownership is a great support, even when new family constellations appear, and they do. Family-owned, quoted investment companies are rule rather than the exception and this helps institutions to piggy back active management.

Nordic or at least Swedish adaptability is truly amazing. Imagine that Sweden has been a major forestry and mining country, a country of shipbuilders and textile manufacturers, then an automobile producer, then a forestry and mining country again, as well as staying in steel and infrastructure the entire 100 years. Somewhere in the 1980s, Sweden began to globalize the retail concepts of H&M and IKEA, and now Sweden globalizes IT, Spotify, Skype, Linux, just to name a few. Swedish business is very forward thinking.

Sweden has a global mentality in business, is cost conscious, and as leaders they are excellent at working in egalitarian groups. In fact, all the Nordics can sign up for this description.

Sweden is known as a pioneer for Corporate Social Responsibility. Can you describe how your company is taking CSR to the next level?

Storebrand/SPP has been listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 14 years and has had an in-house team of analysts dedicated to screening for international laws and conventions for the last eight years. We see pension savings and life insurance as a 60- to 80-year commitment to every customer. Thus it is important that we contribute to a better world in which to retire, by driving compliance with internationally-agreed conventions.

We differ from other institutional investors, especially pension funds, by eliminating from all assets, including those funds we source, the 10 percent worst companies in every risky sector, all companies that we perceive as violating conventions, and all companies dealing in tobacco. We also eliminate our own suppliers that do not conform or that are excluded from investment. Above all, the investment managers are subordinated to the sustainability analysts and they cannot alter their indices or remunerations or lobby to maintain a company in the portfolio for market reasons. Controversial decisions are taken by three members of executive management and investment considerations are never on the table.

Starting last year we have married this analysis with our conventional front office managers and work on singling out the MOST sustainable companies from an international convention standpoint but also from a financial standpoint. The 100 best companies are in our fund, Top 100, and these companies are reviewed annually. After six months, this fund has 120 million USD in assets and the pressure mounts to stay in the fund and use this stamp of quality in relations with other investors. That provides Storebrand/SPP with a sure spot at the dialogue.

Finally, we aim to help companies to qualify for our assets, and therefore we maintain in- house competence. We believe we can assist companies to understand better what compliance requires of them, and help them to create more sustainable business models. Better business models mean higher net worth and a better retirement for our customers.

What does it take to get a more equitable share of women in top management?

Very simply, make sure that you and your team just make up their minds that the only competent team is a team with both men and women. Leaders should have no more than 18 months to reshuffle their deck, and replace the dominant gender by a mixed group. Generally a culture of quasi-forced rotation is needed such that individuals understand that there is no shame in leaving an assignment for another.

Men need quite a bit of training in behavior and attitude differences between women and men. They expect women to be different socially, but then suddenly in the work place women should behave like a man, otherwise they are incompetent. Men need to get guidance in women's general values and learn to appreciate these values as a contribution to their management diversity.

What's been your greatest challenge professionally, and how did you overcome it?

I think my greatest challenge professionally has been to stop limiting myself in my goals, like I couldn't get that job or I couldn't reach that level, etc. That hesitation is projected onto others and constrains both employees and employers. The other challenge was to stop over achieving and to pay more attention to listening and building professional relationships. It's not about proving that you can do the work, it's about helping others to do the work. They will do it better than you!

Probably this question was directed to some professional situation that was difficult, but truly, I have always thrived on challenges like the most recent financial crisis. At times like this, one's focus is crystal clear and the rewards are tremendous, if you succeed. I guess my most difficult professional challenge was when I left GE to go the Fourth AP Fund in order to regain better life balance and let my children have a calmer life. It was important to go into that new assignment with commitment and energy, while restoring the home front. I had never tried "lagom" (Swedish for" just enough") before. Let's just say this was not my "most best" event, but I think I found that different paces can be applied, and you can grow in different ways.

How has being a mother shaped your career trajectory?

Like every woman, and an increasing number of men, I have had all the usual thoughts from the ticking biological clock, to the holding back to manage family life. I think I was at my best as a leader when my children were 0-12 because I had to delegate more and I also had to work a little less on margin. I also waited many years to start evening engagements and cultivating new friendships in order to have time just to be with the children.

I think I avoided some opportunities due to worries about the family and I think it would have helped to have more leg-up from colleagues and superiors. I try to push a little at talented people who hold back for family reasons, and remind them that they can quit if it doesn't work.

Ultimately, being a mother or parent is the most difficult leadership job you can have and I am certain that every minute I have spent with my family has helped me to develop patience and distance as well as a sense of humor. I only hope that more men will gain that insight and take periods of part time, between job breaks and parental leave. I definitely see it as an asset in every employee who dares.

What advice would you give to a young woman who wants to be like you and make it to the top ranks in the financial world?

1. Find sponsors and supporters and stay with them. Change jobs when you feel estranged or alienated in your working place. Do not tolerate working places (for long) that allow low life comments or treat you unfairly based on gender.

2. Be explicit to your superiors and to HR about your goals. Do not edit your goals, let them hold you back if they deem so.

3. Build one or two specialist competencies within the financial sector, but do not permanently let them relegate you to staff positions.

4. Find outside engagements that help you to build a network, anything from sports coaching, art circles or professional organizations. When the chips are down, you need other support groups, AND you need to get some perspective.

5. Get as much help in the home as you can manage. If your entire salary goes to help in the home initially, so be it. Do not let expensive holidays, cars, boats or renovations take precedence over help in the home.

Many successful people point to hard work and a lot of luck when identifying the source for their success. What's been the unexpected opportunity or stroke of luck that has led you to where you are today?

I started in 1986 at Coopers & Lybrand (PwC) as a treasury consultant in financial services. Within a few weeks I landed inside of one of Sweden's greatest financial scandals ever, Fermenta. During those months I met a great number of Sweden's leading business men, as well as a number of probable criminals, and my husband! This unexpected crisis gave me on the one hand, a broad network in business circles and on the other hand, exposure to fraudulent business behavior, both experiences were invaluable.

The other lucky opportunity was after much deliberation in our investment committee at my previous employer AMF, somebody showed me the bank credit monitor that shows whether credit requirements are tightening or loosening. In fact, we had been certain that the U.S. mortgage market should bust, but we had watched it continue to expand for several years.

Suddenly that little graph showed an extreme tightening of credit criteria. I didn't normally look at that graph, and an analyst showed it to me at the last minute. All this was in 2007. We sold out a substantial portion of the equities portfolio, and not without some opposition from The Board. That was a satisfying moment-after a while! Lesson to be learned: watch the little signals, everybody sees the waving signs!