The secret to plan sponsor success

In naming her the 2010 Most Influential Plan Sponsor, Josephine Marks’ peers may have sought to recognize her individual efforts. But if you ask Marks, any influence she has been able to wield in the industry can be directly attributed to her employer.

Marks, managing director, pension assets, with Scotiabank in Toronto, joined the bank in 2008, at the peak of the financial crisis and at a time when pensions and retirement income became a hot topic. But she says a huge part of Scotiabank’s ability to stand out in the pension landscape—and, subsequently, her ability to stand out as a plan sponsor—stems from the fact that the bank has always viewed the pension plan as a vital financial vehicle.

“Despite the fact that the bank has many other priorities and challenges, the pension plan is an area that senior people at the bank, all the way to the top, offer their support and guidance to. I think it makes it easier to have a level of influence when you’ve got that support from the organization.”

Marks says that the input from Scotiabank’s management team brings a level of creativity to managing the plan. Everyone on the team is willing to bring forward new ideas to address plan challenges, while also realizing that one-size-fits-all isn’t the ideal approach.

“I think we’re fairly pragmatic. We find applications that work for us, which I think is very important in the pension world. Some people jump on every new bandwagon, without thinking through whether it’s right for them. The approach we’ve taken is very much customized to the level of governance, resources and infrastructure we have,” says Marks. “We’ve had feedback from our providers that they enjoy working with us because of that. And we challenge them, too. If they come to us with a new product, we don’t just say, ‘Sure, where do we sign up?’ We ask them the tough questions, too.”

With 25 years of experience in the pension industry—including previous positions with the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan, Maritime Life and Sun Life Financial—Marks’ nomination for this award obviously came from peers who’ve come to know her well as a colleague. And judging by the comments left by nominators—including “strong thought leader” and “known for leadership in all areas of pension investing”—she has clearly developed a reputation for her ability to lead.

Marks says a good leader is some-one who is not afraid to change and adapt—especially important in the highly volatile world of financial markets. She also cites listening to others and determining what drives them as key attributes. “Sometimes people think leadership is pounding your fists on the table and saying, ‘Do it my way because I’m the boss.’ In my experience, you have to lead by winning people over rather than by just telling them what to do.”

Marks believes leading in the pension industry—both institutionally and individually—also involves realizing that pensions are long-term financial vehicles requiring a long-term, forward-thinking approach. This has become especially apparent over the past year, when a period of double-digit returns has given way to slower growth and a level of uncertainty.

Marks says she will continue to forge a path of listening, creative problem solving and effective leadership to ensure continued success in the pension world—both for herself and for those who follow in her footsteps.

“You build on the shoulders of those who were there before you,” she says. “You build by bringing people together and getting pieces of ideas from here and there.” BC

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Neil Faba is associate editor of Benefits Canada.

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© Copyright 2010 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the December 2010 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.