“In the past jobs were about muscles, now they’re about brains, but in future they’ll be about the heart.”

I first came across this quote in Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead. It struck me and stuck with me, because it echoes a lot of what I’m seeing in my work in the world of personal productivity.

When I looked into this quote, I discovered Minouche Shafik. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Nemat Talaat Shafik, known by her childhood nickname of Minouche, and her family fled the regime of General Nasser when she was four to start a new life in America, returning later when she was a teenager.

Her father was a scientist and a wealthy land-owner, whose property was nationalised during the revolution. “It taught me that you can go from having a lot to having nothing overnight and you can’t get too attached to stuff because you can lose it.”

Her background fueled her interest in politics and social problems, ranging from poverty to conflict to inequality, and she found that the roots of these issues were often in economics.

“When you live in a poor country, you’re surrounded by poverty, and so that natural interest in why some people have, and other people don’t have, is always there”.

After studying for her BSc in economics and politics at the University of Massachusetts, USA, she took an MSc at the London School of Economics, before completing a DPhil in economics at the University of Oxford.

At the age of 36, she became the youngest ever vice-president at the World Bank, before serving as Permanent Secretary of the British Government’s Department for International Development, then Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. Just weeks into this job, her boss, the chief of the IMF at the time, was arrested on allegations of sexual assault, and she effectively stepped into the top role at a high-stakes summit at the height of the eurozone crisis.

Later, she joined the Bank of England as its first Deputy Governor on Markets and Banking and led the Bank’s Fair and Effective Markets review to tackle misconduct in financial markets, which earned her the moniker “Sheriff of the Markets”

She is currently the director of the London School of Economics, the first woman in the history of the school to hold this position.

She has been awarded a number of accolades, including “Woman of the Year” for Global Leadership and Global Diversity in 2009, one of Forbes 100 most powerful women in 2015, 100 Women in Finance European Industry Leaders Award in 2019 as well as Dame Commander of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2015. She became a crossbench peer in the House of Lords in 2020.

Hope and future

Talking on the future of work and skills, Shafik strikes me as an economist who puts people at the heart of the conversation. When asked about social inequality and the impact of technology and globalisation, she doesn’t just talk about figures, she talks about feelings. People need to feel that they have a future, and that their children have a future. With technology driving changes in the workplace, accelerated by globalisation, people begin to worry whether they have the skills to succeed in the economy of the future. Education, both in early years, especially for disadvantaged children, as well as ongoing access to skills and training throughout a career, is key to giving people flexibility and security as the nature of work continues to change.

A fairer society

Social impact has always been the driving purpose behind her work.

“It is motivated by a desire to heal the big divisions we see within and between many countries. I think these divisions are rooted in a lack of economic opportunity and tensions about identity. I have been thinking and writing about these issues recently, including how building a better welfare state and improving social mobility might be part of the solution.”

With her upcoming book ‘What Do We Owe Each Other? Social Contracts for the 21st Century’ Shafik suggests that the old social contract is broken, and while the Covid-19 crisis reveals “deep flaws in our societies that have been festering for decades”, it also gives us the “chance to use this crisis to define what a new social contract, fairer to all, might look like.”

Sticky doors

When asked about being a woman in a male-dominated field of economics, Shafik prefers the term ‘sticky door’ to ‘glass ceiling’.

A glass ceiling implies that when one woman breaks through, everyone else can follow. Sticky doors imply a more two-way relationship. You need to be willing to give it a nudge (or a firm push) to get it open, but it’s also easier when someone on the other side is pulling for you.

Openness and collaboration

At LSE she champions the school’s tradition of intellectual rigour and evidence to get to the root cause of things, as well as an open ‘community of ideas’ and public purpose: “it doesn’t matter where you come from – it is the coming together around learning and ideas that brings people together… I love the fact that the School was set up with the explicit purpose of not being an ivory tower. It is in the heart of London, one of the most global cities in the world, and our faculty and students are from everywhere and actively engaged in the issues of the day.”

Greatest achievement

When asked which accomplishment she is most proud of in her career path, she shines the light, not on herself, but on her teams and what they have achieved.

“I am most proud of the teams I assembled around me. In each place, I have worked with highly talented people who went on to do great things after I left. Building institutional and human capability is the most lasting legacy one can leave.”

Reflective Leadership Questions

  1. Minouche recognised that leading through uncertain times means recognising and attending to people’s fears and feelings. Whose fears and feelings do you need to attend to?
  2. What legacy are you building beyond yourself? Who are you investing in, who will go on to do great things after you’ve left?
  3. Which doors have been sticky for you? What did it take for you to push through, and who helped to pull for you from the other side? Who can you also pull the door for?