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Inclusive, Authentic, Challenging and Ready to Change: The DNA of an Award-winning CEO

Awards

Marianna Sárközy

We asked BlackRock’s Melanie Seymour, the 2020 BBJ Expat CEO of the Year, to reflect on what winning the award means to her and her company.

Melanie Seymour, winner of the 2020 BBJ Expat CEO of the Year Award. Photo by Marianna Sárközy.

BBJ: Congratulations on winning the Expat CEO of the Year award. What does it mean for you?

Melanie Seymour: Thank you so much, and congratulations to the BBJ for another incredible event. It is a great honor to be recognized in this way for doing something I have thoroughly enjoyed and where I have been able to live my personal passion and purpose. When I took on this role, I was at a point in my career where I was driven by giving back as much as achieving more personally. The platform this role gave me enabled me to ensure I took full advantage of the opportunities to do both.

This award is not just about me, though. We chose Hungary primarily because of the talent and this is a validation of that decision. The incredible team I have built around me have enabled the success for BlackRock in Budapest. This award is also a recognition of our place in the business environment. In a relatively short space of time we have been able to develop a brand and be regarded alongside the most impactful employers in Hungary.

BBJ: What would you say characterizes your leadership philosophy?

MS: The two words that characterize my leadership are “inclusive” and “authentic”. I have been passionate about inclusion and diversity for many years and have always known inclusion is the harder of the two. In Budapest we had a deliberate strategy from day one to hire diversity of thought and behavior, with a high percentage of our employees not having any financial services experience. We also knew that this required us to build an inclusive environment where those diverse thoughts were listened too and acted upon. My first demonstration of this was the design of our office, where we have no individual offices (including me) and have different types of work spaces for different working preferences.

Authenticity is the other area that I believe is key for leaders. I strive to be real and show my vulnerabilities alongside my strengths. I have had a less than conventional career with many ups and downs and have always shared this with my teams to demonstrate that there isn’t a “normal” route to the top and anyone has the chance to achieve anything. Choosing to sit in the teams and move regularly gives everyone the opportunity to see me as a person and get to experience that I have many of the same struggles as they do.

BBJ: You are a woman with a family, and bringing BlackRock to Hungary in 2017 required not insignificant sacrifices from you. Do you see yourself as a role model to other women?

MS: Indeed, it was a hard decision that did require the support of my husband and children, as it impacted their lives just as much as mine. I try hard to be a role model to other women by demonstrating that having a family and a career is possible, although it does require compromises and sacrifices. I describe it as juggling where you have 57 balls to juggle at any one time and you therefore have to make conscious decisions to put some balls down or else you will drop them all. Those decisions will sometimes be home, sometimes be work and most often will be yourself.

Consciously making the decision and being honest about it to those it impacts helps take away some of the guilt we are all great at putting on ourselves. This advice is valid for men and women who have anything outside of work they are responsible for, not just for parents. A true role model is honest and open about this and doesn’t reinvent their journey once they reach the summit.

BBJ: When you came to Hungary, you said you wanted not just to take up a job, but to have an impact on the country. Are you happy with what you have achieved?

MS: As an over achieving perfectionist, the answer is obviously no! Seriously, though, I am very proud of what I have been able to achieve and the impact that BlackRock has been able to have. I came here with a vision to build something different for BlackRock and for Hungary and every time I walk around our office I am proud of what the team are delivering and the impact they are having.

My biggest legacy will be the “Return to Hungary” initiative and watching it grow beyond BlackRock, beyond London and beyond one industry. I am always humbled when I meet Hungarians who have been able to bring their families back together in the country they love because the opportunities for a career are growing here. I also like to believe that some of my refusal to accept the status quo and desire to always challenge and transform has rubbed off on other leaders in Hungary. I am definitely seeing more desire to change within the business community than when I first arrived.

BBJ: You now have a global role, but your team in Hungary means you will still visit regularly. What do you think are the greatest challenges and opportunities facing the country?

MS: I think the talent pool is both the greatest challenge as well as the greatest opportunity. As I said earlier, the talent was a key factor in our decision to build in Hungary. I like to call what we saw an “intellectual curiosity”, the ability to look beyond the norm for solutions and not be afraid to challenge the status quo. This is a natural behavior for many Hungarians and the key is harnessing that talent and providing an environment where it is recognized and rewarded.

The challenge is how do we create this environment both in education as well as in business. Lack of talent is always sighted as a challenge across businesses and a question for companies looking to invest or expand. I do not fully agree with this, as I do believe that with the right changes in education and different types of career opportunities being offered, the talent pool willing to work in Hungary is deeper than is thought. Hungary is at the right stage of maturity to develop a business environment that is more aligned with the new demographics and the desires and requirements of the next generation.

BBJ: What is next for BlackRock in Hungary?

MS: We are now moving into our next phase of maturity, where it is more about stabilization and delivering impact than pure growth. In practice this means we will be having an even stronger focus on developing long-term career paths for our people with deeper connectivity and collaboration across the whole of BlackRock. We have always been an integrated part of the operating model rather than a service center and as the employees become more experienced the impact they have increases. Our plan has always been to have a strong local leadership team and I look forward to having a Hungarian CEO of Budapest in the future.

BBJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?

MS: Whilst I have handed over my responsibilities for BlackRock Budapest, I will always have Hungary in my heart and be a little bit Hungarian. I am keen to ensure that I remain connected to the friends I have made and continue to be involved with Hungary in whatever ways I can. My personal vision is for Hungary to be the place that people choose to study, to work and to live and I hope I can remain a part of that ambition.

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