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Standard Life CFO on how she made it to top finance role

Michelle Perry | April 24, 2012
Few people will tell you frankly -- and many would struggle to even acknowledge - their regrets, weaknesses or strengths, especially those sitting on the executive boards of the UK's top companies. But then Jackie Hunt, chief financial officer of FTSE 100 insurer Standard Life, is an exception in many senses.

Hunt points to a growing body of research that suggests "if you ask a man to do a job and he can do 80 percent of it and he'll say 'yes I can do it', but if you ask a woman the same thing and she can do 80 percent, she'll talk about the 20 percent she can't do. And it's culturally consistent. It's a female issue."

Aware of this failing in women in general, she has always been conscious to focus on her abilities rather than her failings. That said, she's keenly away of her limitations. "It's not that I'm not thinking about the things I can't do, but I'm focusing on my strengths rather than my weaknesses."

She also put her success down to people taking a gamble on her. "There's no question that some people have taken chances on me and there's no question that if it hadn't worked they would have come up for criticism that they probably wouldn't have come under had I frankly been male."

Of the current push to hire more women to British boardroom, she is highly supportive but she is fervently against quotas. What does however worry Hunt is that the current debate has been "skewed too much" to getting more women on boards, when the "real issue" is the lack of pipeline of women coming through.

"I worry that we'll win the battle and frankly lose the war. And what we'll see is diverse boards but an increasing lack of diversity at the executive and senior management levels of corporates," she says.

These issues, although a concern for her, are less pressing than Hunt's central focus over the past few years -- the stewardship of Standard Life. As CFO, Hunt has had to not only manage the legacy of her boss -- Hunt is CEO David Nish's successor - but help implement far-reaching changes at a time of great economic upheaval and uncertainty.

Hunt joined Standard Life in 2009. By the following year the board agreed a three-year transformation programme which involved her taking a pivotal role in helping design the strategy and "taking along" all stakeholders with that change of direction. As chairman of the company's strategic investment committee it falls to Hunt to make sure investments are consistent with the strategy and that they meet the financial goals.

"I'm involved in all investor relations. I front that alongside the CEO and I don't think you can differentiate the role that I and finance play from the role that business play more generally, because we are more integrated."

Prior to Hunt's arrival the FTSE 100 life insurer had been "derisking" the business and it is a policy which has picked up momentum under Hunt. The company has moved away from capital-heavy products where Standard Life's balance sheet is "put on the line" to what she calls "capital-lite" products like unit-linked contracts -- "the sort of products that have little risk to us", she explains.


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