With a foundation in corporate law and 30 years of experience in global capital markets, Anna El-Erian has served as an independent director of multiple publicly listed companies. She is currently a director of Altius Minerals, Altius Renewable Royalties, Entrée Resources, Gabriel Resources, and Sabina Gold & Silver. Anna serves on the Fraser Institute, a Canadian public policy think tank, as one of the first women to be invited to join the organization. As a board director, Anna leads with a global perspective gained from living and working in South Africa, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S., helping companies develop strategies that position them for growth and success. Anna is a champion of diversity and inclusion with a profound understanding of the critical importance of environmental, social, and governance policies not only on a company’s fiscal health, but on society as a whole. For her skill and dedication as a leader, she received the Global Excellence Award in 2019 from Acquisition International-Influential Female Director 2019, Mining, and the Business Woman of the Year Award in 2019 and 2020 from CEO Today.
Anna began her career in corporate law with Webber Wentzel Attorneys in South Africa. She then joined Investec Merchant Bank Limited, where she specialized in risk management and gained extensive experience in the areas of corporate finance, structured finance, and M&A. Ten years later, she took her experience and skill to serve as a director of public companies. We had the privilege of talking with Anna about what it means to participate as a director of these organizations and hear her views on the importance of diversity on boards, corporate governance, and ESG, and the responsibility of leaders to have a global perspective and to be responsible crisis managers.
As an independent director of companies, what does your work entail?
Corporate boards have responsibility for many stakeholders. There are ongoing conversations around strategy, and working with companies to prepare for the anticipated and unanticipated challenges we face in today’s business and global environment. Previously unanticipated risks, COVID-19 being the most obvious one, require that we build resilience within our companies to support the individuals that run the company and, more importantly, those who work within them. Resilience is now embedded within these discussions around sustainable growth, but we must be mindful not to lose our flexibility. Professor Adam Grant, in his must-read new book Think Again, eloquently demonstrates why each of us needs to keep an open mind and embrace new ideas and perspectives. It outlines how critical it is to reexamine old assumptions and opinions as we make important decisions.
What led you to transition from a career as a corporate leader to the director of multiple corporate boards?
My transition started after about 10 years as an investment banker working on the forefront of structured and corporate finance. A mining company approached me to help navigate complicated structural problems the firm was facing. I helped them unravel the situation they were in, and a few years later they invited me to join their board. The company became successful and was subsequently acquired, and since then, I have had the opportunity to serve on multiple boards in the mining industry. My personal and professional background has enabled me to look broadly at strategy, growth, and risk and contribute in a meaningful way to the institutions I work with.
Let’s talk about environmental, social, and governance criteria. Why is it important that corporations adopt ESG?
When looking to invest, responsible capital is very mindful of the long-term sustainability of the company in all three parts of ESG. In my experience, a meaningful commitment to ESG has a positive impact on companies—it strengthens their growth capacity, the companies are healthy, and, in the long run, do much better. Ultimately, this influences their share price, which means that the shareholders are happy. If companies follow ESG guidelines, they are responsible, diverse, and are committed to acting mindfully about climate change and good business practices. In turn, the capital providers believe their investment is safe and that it’s been allocated to the right stewards.
Diversity in the workplace and on corporate boards is an important issue for you. Why is diversity important in these settings, and how are you helping to foster it?
The need for greater diversity is one of the critical and most immediately actionable aspects of what we were just discussing with ESG. We need both greater gender and ethnic diversity, from the boardroom to every room within a company. Diversity comes with different value systems and visibility into blind spots you were not aware you possessed—and it’s also how companies can thrive and grow.
As boards and as leaders, we need to have that balance of diversity because that is what changes values and attitudes and provides the backstop so you can start right-sizing income and opportunity equality for all. It’s for us, the leaders, to always be mindful of how we can do better. Companies like Goldman Sachs now have a commitment to diversity as one of their core values, demanding diversity on boards of companies before they take them public.
Why is it important for boards to be effective crisis managers, in general, and especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic?
First and foremost, when you are managing companies through a once-in-a-generation crisis, you’ve got to make sure that the companies survive. In addition, you also need to make sure the company does its utmost for its employees, customers, capital structure, so that it can actually successfully navigate the crisis. The priority always has to be protecting your business and the people who make it possible—this is a non-negotiable.
We have all seen how a global crisis, like the COVID pandemic, has exacerbated levels of already significant inequality and people who were already only just getting by have become even more worse off. I feel that, as boards and leaders, we have responsibility to join the battle against what is a great unequalizer, and not just of income and wealth but also opportunity. It is not just a social priority but also an economic and institutional one.
Having lived and worked in multiple countries, you have global perspective. Why is it important for boards to have a global perspective?
Simply put, so they can manage risk and grow sustainably. Despite the ongoing trend of deglobalization, we still live in an interconnected world. With that comes levels of risk and that we, as the board, have to understand in order to ensure the company is being steered in the right direction.
You are a director of a policy think tank for the Fraser Institute. What types of issues do you work on as part of this group?
The institute is a Canadian public policy think tank, and its mission is to improve the quality of life for Canadians. We study and measure the effect of government policies on the well-being of Canadians, looking at the most important things that affect quality of life—health, education, or economic freedom. It really focusses the conversation on what’s important to our individual day-to-day, and the institute’s work has for many years resulted in positive changes in policy.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love that it keeps me engaged, and that I get to help and give back. I am very fortunate that when I get up in the morning, I worry about how I can help today and where I can add value. We all have different strengths and experiences; for me, it is in setting the strategy, governance and guiding with a macro and global view.
As a female business leader and board director, what advice would you give to young women just starting their careers?
Trust yourself, and trust what you know. Value your contribution and never undermine what you do. To quote Dr. Dambisa Moyo, a good friend, economist, and global thinker, “In business, progress is never linear, success is never inevitable.” This is also true on a personal level and it is something we don’t teach. We need to identify and embrace obstacles and failures and think of them as opportunities to get better.
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