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Sovereign CEO receives UN Award for leadership

Sovereign CEO receives UN Award for leadership

Sovereign CEO Symon Brewis-Weston has become one of only five CEOs around the world to be recognised in 2015 by the United Nations (UN) for his progressive approach to workplace diversity and community engagement.

Brewis-Weston, who is only the second New Zealand CEO ever chosen for the honour, received the 2015Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP) CEO Leadership Award at the UN headquarters in New York City on March 10 (March 11 NZT), where Hilary Clinton provided the keynote address.

“While it’s humbling to have won this award, the truth is that I never set out to purposely create a diverse workforce. What I always want to achieve is a team that represents our customers, our community and has the skills to deliver amazing work,” says Sovereign CEO Symon Brewis-Weston.

The WEP is a joint initiative of UN Women and the UN Global Compact aimed at empowering women to participate fully in economic life across all sectors. The awards recognise global business leaders who have demonstrated leadership on gender equality through the WEP.

“This year’s competition included extremely strong nominations from a substantial number of companies implementing strategic and innovative strategies to realise gender equality. The competitive nominations made the assessment process very challenging. The nominations came from all regions of the world, representing diverse sectors and business sizes,” says WEP Special Advisor Joan Libby Hawk.

Brewis-Weston joined Sovereign in March 2013 with a clear purpose to “shake up the insurance industry in New Zealand” by growing the market, making a more meaningful difference to the lives of customers and achieving greater impact in the community.

Over the past two years, he has addressed diversity and gender imbalance, which was reflective of the male dominated financial services industry, by initiating a programme of change that has included re-setting organisational structures, communicating a compelling vision: ‘Being the difference in life’s moments of truth’, introducing innovative leadership training and championing flexible working hours.

This resulted in a reduction of the gender pay gap, which is now sitting at 4% (compared to the national average of 9.9%[1]), and an increase in female representation on the executive leadership team, which grew from 18% in 2010 to 45% in 2014.

“The reality is that there are some societal groups that are generally under-represented, especially within the financial services sector. For businesses that are struggling to achieve the right levels, quotas are a good option. It takes a lot of work and forward planning to put the right succession plans in place and unless you have to do something, you don’t do it,” says Brewis-Weston.

“Change is simply not happening fast enough. When the majority of New Zealand’s university graduates are women but only 14% hold directorships in the country’s top 100 companies there is something very wrong.”

Sovereign Chairperson Gavin Walker says Brewis-Weston proves that harnessing a diverse workforce is good for business.

“As our diversity has increased we’ve enjoyed the benefits of new skills, competencies and experience. We’ve got fresh perspectives that increase our ability to innovate and I’ve seen us become more adaptable and ready for change as a result. The financial services industry is traditional and slow to change. We are showing what is possible by making our workplace more reflective of the real world in terms of age, gender, experience and culture.”

In his nomination, Brewis-Weston was also recognised for the importance he places on leadership training and personal development of staff, including an innovative New Zealand-first collaboration with The Hunger Project.

Together with The Hunger Project, Sovereign is developing a pioneering cultural leadership programme that will drive transformational leadership. Over three years, 10% of Sovereign’s staff will travel to India where they will learn from women who have empowered themselves in the face of adversity to create positive change for their communities.

“The learnings we gain from these women will help us become leaders with true authenticity and inspire others. It is about showing what is possible from leading courageously,” says Brewis-Weston. “In India, where female leaders are a minority, the local councils introduced quotas and the communities have been transformed. It’s inspiring to see how well it’s worked.”

Brewis-Weston is also an advocate of flexible working hours, placing more value on performance, collaboration and teamwork rather than “who stays the latest”.

He also established a committee to lead diversity and inclusion initiatives focused on gender balance, cultural diversity, generational diversity, flexible working and support for the LGBTI community.

However, Sovereign is not the first organisation where Brewis-Weston has worked hard to ensure gender balance. He was Executive General Manager at Sovereign’s parent company Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) where he established Women In Focus. Now in its fifth year, and with more than 10,000 active members, the network empowers business women to grow their organisations and achieve professional and personal goals.

“Throughout my career, CBA has provided me with a platform to do things differently and try new things - not every organisation will allow you to do that.”

As part of his trip to the UN, Brewis-Weston also took part in a milestone discussion about the essential role business can play in realising gender equality along with leaders from business, government and the UN.


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