Most Powerful Women in Finance: No. 20, Aon's Cary Grace

Register now

CEO, Global Retirement and Investment, Aon

A pivotal moment in Cary Grace’s career came in her early 30s, when a colleague at Bank of America offered this simple advice: Be yourself.

Grace grew up in Columbia, Md., a planned community outside of Baltimore created in the late 1960s as a place where people of all races and religions could come together to live, work and play. It was a community, Grace said, where opinions mattered, diversity of thought was celebrated and she was always encouraged to be her “best self.”

Yet when Grace entered the workforce in 1990, all she wanted to do was fit in. Even as she was rising through the ranks at First Chicago and BofA, she often found herself mimicking the behaviors, and even the clothing choices, of her more experienced colleagues. “I had my share of navy and gray suits from Brooks Brothers,” she said.

Then one day a co-worker told Grace that her value to the firm was her uniqueness, not her sameness, and it changed her approach to leadership. She realized that she was putting so much effort into conforming that she wasn’t letting others be their best selves.

“When you have permission to be yourself, you just bring yourself more wholly to the game,” Grace said. “All that energy I was spending trying to fit in, I now spend trying to encourage others to bring their points of view to the table.”

Grace is the CEO of global retirement and investment at Aon, a London-based firm that provides a broad range of risk, retirement and health consulting services to clients across the globe.

She joined the firm in 2011 as president of client services and solutions after 14 years with BofA, where she ran several institutional and private banking businesses. She was promoted to head of the Chicago-based retirement solutions group, Aon’s second-largest business unit, in 2016, and now oversees 7,500 employees and assets under management of more than $151 billion. Last year, the group generated $1.9 billion of revenue, or 17% of Aon’s total revenues.

See the most recent rankings:
· Most Powerful Women in Banking
· Women to Watch
· Most Powerful Women in Finance

In addition to running the retirement solutions business, Grace is in charge of the integration of all acquisitions, including last year’s purchase of the Townsend Group, an investment advisory firm that specializes in real estate. She also chairs the board of directors at Aon Trust Co., an Illinois-chartered firm established in 2015 to accept and execute trusts and provide investment services to businesses.

As she’s gained more stature in the asset management ranks, Grace has emerged as a prominent voice for gender and racial equality in the workplace.

Aon has made a strong commitment to putting more women and minorities in senior roles, and Grace sponsors several women’s networking groups, helped launch a sponsorship program that matches high-potential black colleagues with senior leaders across the company and organized an international women’s day in which she brought in prominent executives from other companies to discuss how to create a gender-balanced world.

Outside of Aon, she serves on the board of the Chicago Network, a 40-year-old executive women’s networking group that recently developed a set of principles to encourage Chicago-area companies to aim for full gender equity in leadership by 2030. More than 70 firms, including Aon, have pledged to do so.
Grace is also on the CEO Advisory Council of the Diversity Project North America, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting diversity in asset management.

Grace says that companies need to put more energy behind sponsorship if they are really committed to diversifying their leadership ranks.

Mentorship is important, but Grace said it is sponsorship — where senior leaders not just coach lower-level colleagues and but actively recommend them for new roles — that drives outcomes.

Grace points to her own experience as example of sponsorship in action. She was just 28 when she was named head of investor relations at First Chicago, largely because she had a sponsor who believed she was ready for the role.

The difference between mentorship and sponsorship is “that you are putting your credibility on the line and taking a chance on somebody when it’s not certain what the outcomes are,” Grace said. “You don’t put someone who is 28 years old talking to your biggest investors, your analysts and your specialists if you don’t have sponsorship.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.