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27 September 2023

Nurturing Growth, Climate Consciousness, and Resilience in Uncertain Times

It’s Ruth Leas’s accent that gives her away immediately – and it’s exactly how she likes it. 

Ruth is CEO of Investec Bank in the United Kingdom, she’s also a South African who’s proudly retained her Joburg accent even having made London her home for the past 22 years. But Ruth has made straddling two worlds a kind of superpower – a way to hold more than one perspective in a world that’s desperate for fresh solutions but also in need of resilience that has more trusted roots.

Even when she was an undergrad student doing her Bachelor of Arts degree she unexpectedly had to bridge the two worlds of Wits East and West Campus. She says: “There was a lot of walking up and down between the two campuses because I was based on East Campus but took economics on West Campus. It was quite nice actually because I got to be with both populations – those studying business and those who were in the arts. Those were good days with great memories,” she says.

Fast forward to June this year. As she settles down for a video chat it’s a time of upheaval in the finance world with the fallout from bank collapses in the United States and Switzerland. In the United Kingdom there’s growing pressures with high inflation and higher interest rates. It’s new territory for the Brits who haven’t had the same sustained rounds of increases that South Africans have come to know only too well and have had to find ways to adapt to. She reflects on the differences, understanding both sets of circumstances but also the interconnectedness in a globalised world.

“It’s not so much the level of the increases in the UK but the speed with which we have moved from low interest rates to where we are today and that’s why it feels like seismic moves and this does result in impact. The fallout from what has happened to the likes of Silicon Valley Bank and Credit Suisse filters down to what people experience as food price inflation, rising energy cost and the continuation of massive income disparity.

But then perspective slots in again. Ruth says the truth is that there has hardly ever been a time when things in the world have not been marked by some degree of uncertainty. She says: “I can remember even as a student [in the politically turbulent years before the dawn of democracy] it was uncertain times. Even recently there’s been uncertainty with Covid-19 and in the UK it’s been about Brexit. In South Africa it’s been political change and now the impact of sustained power black-outs.

“I’ve come to accept that things are always uncertain – it’s the nature of life and the way the world is. What matters is how you respond and a key characteristic of a leader, or any person really, is to remain grounded; to build strong teams around your, to find your resilience and to practise graciousness under pressure,” she says.

For Ruth, part of facing uncertainty also comes down to taking action. She says jokingly that it’s a bit like heeding the “Keep calm and carry on” slogan from the World War II British morale boosting posters that found renewed appeal in the past few years.

It is an attitude that allowed her, as a young graduate, to be open to the advice and urging of her economics lecturer at Wits, Professor Peet Strydom, to study abroad as a way to step outside of her comfort zones; to spread her wings.

“It’s really the people at Wits who had the most impact on me. The lecturers who were engaged and were accessible and made the subjects come alive, that’s stayed with me,” she says.

She did leave South Africa to study further at Cambridge, having been awarded Gencor Chariman’s Scholarship. Ruth returned to South Africa from Cambridge to work at Gencor (then Billiton) then joined Investec in 1998.

Four years later, in 2002, she said yes to another major life shift: to take up a role that would include relocating to London. By 2004 she became the company’s co-head: US principal finance. Ruth has continued to push her limits, rising up the ranks of the company and the industry becoming today, just one of twelve female CEOs in the FTSE 250 index.

She has also served on the UK Finance Board, having just finished a three-year rotation on the board. She currently serves on the Cambridge Judge Business School Advisory Board. It’s packed commitments but Ruth still finds time though to mentor young women and men and stays engaged in programmes supporting entrepreneurial and upliftment projects, including ones in South Africa. She’s passionate about education and vocational training; she’s also a strong advocate for teaching models that are “more imaginative” in being able to enhance children’s individual strengths rather than to stick to a one-size-fits-all model.

These may seem like issues far from a CEO’s priorities but for Ruth staying tapped in matters. It’s those perspectives again; and it’s how she able to glimpse more facets in the world. It’s essential because the banks’ clients demand it, society too. After all, the businesses and banks that will thrive are the ones that recognise that they are part of an ecosystem.

And right now the ecosystem is buckling in places. The world grapples with polarisation and intolerance, gender inequality and wealth and opportunity gaps.  And underpinning it all is also the deeper climate crisis that will be indiscriminate in how it bears down on the planet.

“In the past young people I engaged with would maybe ask advice on how to further their careers but now they’re asking about issues what we are doing about climate change. It matters to our young people and what that translates as is that that we all have to play bigger roles,” she says, acknowledging that her own high-profile role puts her in the same room as people with massive influence, political power and money. And there’s a growing acknowledgement that this clout needs to be focused on where change must happen.

Ruth says she is encouraged that the agenda is shifting. She knows it’s still off target but the point is to start so the right momentum can build. Ruth’s own reflection sums it up when she says: “I wish I learnt earlier on in life that perfect is the enemy of good.”

It’s the kind of advice she is likely to give to her and her husband’s (who is also a Witsie) teenage children – who all have very British accents, she points out, with a chuckle. She might also remind them that an accent reveals only one part of a story, the fuller picture reveals itself when you are deliberate in making room to understand more.