Meeting with Isabelle Cohen Solal

Jun 9, 2022

Transcribed from the original interview, produced by Femmes Leaders by Bilan Posted: 18.05.2022

“Bringing diversity is a committed act”

Increased gender equality entails more women in representative and managerial bodies. To this end, Femmes Leaders by Bilan offers you a monthly meeting with a woman member of a board of directors. What will inspire new candidates

This week’s meeting is with Isabelle Cohen Solal, expert in sustainable finance, member of the Board of the Center Neuchâtelois de Psychiatrie, president of its Finance Committee, and member of the Advisory Board of Bouygues Energies & Service. Isabelle is also a member of the Committee of the Cercle Suisse des Administratrices.

How did you become a board member? Please describe in a few lines the main stages of your journey that allowed you to become a nonexecutive director.

After studying business in England and obtaining a master’s degree in finance in France, I became the youngest female fund manager of a sustainable fund in the financial center of Paris, France. In 2000, I moved to Geneva and joined a private bank. In 2006, I managed the fund selection team for a foreign bank in Switzerland. I then joined Swisscanto to ensure the efficient management of the Romandie entity. Following the takeover by Zürcher Kantonalbank, I became vice president and the head of banking relations for Romandie and Ticino, which allowed me to participate in numerous management committees on strategy and business transformation. Since 2019, I have carried out specific missions for institutions and have supported start-ups in the various fields of sustainable finance, real estate, and strategic business development. These transversal experiences and my international background have allowed me to become involved with several boards of directors.

What interests you the most in this role?

I have always assumed important responsibilities in my various positions. After analyzing information, clear choices must be made to allow for efficient implementation. Solidarity with shareholders motivates me in a context of trust and collective intelligence. Communication is key in this process. I am excited by my decision-making impact and long-term vision.

What are the key skills and the added value that you bring to the board?

First, I bring transversality; I have a unique ability to understand situations via acute analysis, acquired throughout several years of management. Finance, sustainability, compliance, and governance are key skills embedded in my work and way of thinking. My curiosity leads me to take an interest in everything, including technology. I admit to having a “geek” side that pushes me toward an interest in cybersecurity. Thus, I bring a different angle as I seek other approaches to problem solving.

What are the difficulties of this function, the challenges you have encountered?

Difficulties in many social organizations include a lack of active listening, empathy, and communication; this can often complicate the process. The heterogeneity of motivation, knowledge, and recognition is also a pitfall that should be addressed by the Board of Directors. The roles of an effective board member include providing perspective and an overall vision to general management. The right balance is essential—both maintaining a long-term vision while understanding and addressing daily management concerns. Additionally, it is necessary to display benevolence, support, and availability.

What is your best practice in terms of getting a Conseil d’Administration mandate?

Authenticity in the approach is paramount. I act voluntarily, I am motivated, and I want to be seen as such from my first contact. I offer skills that correspond to the needs of the Board. It is essential to be able to devote necessary time to the study of files and discussions between board members. Regularly informing my network of activities is a fundamental asset in obtaining a mandate. To obtain my last two mandates, I was contacted on recommendation by individuals who know and value what I can bring to a board because they have seen me in action. Subsequently, the classic evaluation interview process went well.

What are the current major concerns of corporate strategic bodies?

Current events dictate the agenda. This year, it is a question of managing the post-COVID-19 period as if it never existed, including resuming projects that had been suspended during lockdown, continuing the digitization of various activities, promoting people, and above all, sustainability at all levels. For example, a recent visit to the premises of an entity for which I am a board member demonstrated how direct contact, without a technological intermediary, has valued spontaneous exchanges, as recognition of the importance of each employee. This reminds board members that in emergency management there are many stages—from preparation beforehand to the event and beyond.

What is missing for the Boards of Swiss companies to include more women?

Women are competent, ready, and convincing—even if they are hesitant by habit. Current board chairs must have the courage to appoint them. Society’s collective unconscious bias continues to cause us to believe that it takes additional risk to appoint a woman to a position of power. However, bringing forth gender diversity is a committed act that brings with it much richness and intelligence. Auditors and strategic advisors around the world have proven this through studies of all kinds. We must question things that have always been done a certain way; nothing is more essential than understanding the reasoning for particular decisions and appointments.

Chairperson | Board Member | Sustainability Expert | Chair of 100 Women in Finance Geneva | Business Consultant, on a mission

Isabelle Cohen Solal is the founder of COHerence&SOLutions, a business consulting company for Swiss and international institutions. As a banking and finance professional, Solal engages as a member of several boards. She supports start-ups and carries out specific assignments for institutions in the various fields of sustainable finance, real estate, and strategic business development.