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Women in Investment Management - Olga Hancock, Head of Responsible Investment, Church Commissioners for England

Institutional Investor • 4 December 2023

Elevating Diversity, Social Justice, and Sustainability Across the Investment Management Industry 

At the Church Commissioners for England, Olga Hancock brings a legal background to her role as Head of Responsible Investment. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the University of Sydney, where she studied geography, she spent 15 years in the legal industry. Her work at big law firms includes environmental litigation at King & Wood Mallesons and Norton Rose Fulbright; leading the global pro bono practice at Simmons & Simmons; and acting as a legal advisor in the UN Climate Change negotiations for the Paris Agreement and Rulebook, advising delegations from least developed and climate vulnerable countries.
She joined the Church Commissioners for England in September 2019, focusing on ESG engagement, before assuming the role of Deputy Head of Responsible Investment to develop and deliver responsible and ethical investment policies. In her current role as Managing Director and Head of Responsible Investment, she represents the £10.3 billion ($12.6 billion) endowment of the Church of England, to manage the fund responsibly, implement and integrate responsible investment processes, and maintain its track record of 10.2% annualized return over the last 10 years.
As part of our series 'Women in Investment Management,' we spoke to Olga about her current role, challenges she’s faced, and her experience as a woman.
The following has been edited for clarity.

It would be great if you’d give us a bit of background into your role and the Church Commissioners

My role involves ensuring the integration of responsible investment policies and ethical investment policies across the entire portfolio of the Church Commissioners. The current value of the fund is £10.3 billion at the end of 2022. I lead a team of six people, and we work across all the asset classes held by the Church Commissioners on a range of different ESG issues – primarily biodiversity, social inequality, and climate change. The Church Commissioners has been around for about 300 years, so it’s a very long-term institutional investor.
We’ve got a large allocation (around 20%) to real assets. Some of that is land that we’ve held for a very long time – commercial, residential, farmland, forestry, et cetera — and we’ve got securities, and public and private markets in a range of different areas. We apply ethical investment policies, which are advised by a group called the Ethical Investment Advisory Group, a group of theologians and businesspeople who look at the ethics behind investment — and then we implement those policies within the fund internally. I do a lot of external-facing work to ensure we’re not just creating a net-zero fund – we need to see a net-zero world – and to enable that, we engage externally with companies and also with policymakers.

How did you transfer from the legal profession to finance and investing?

I entered the workforce about 20 years ago. My undergraduate degree was in Geography, so I was focused on environmental issues, social justice, et cetera, and I went into the big law firms: I originally worked at Mallesons in Sydney in environmental law and was doing a lot of work in the New South Wales Land and Environmental court. Then, my role before this one for almost a decade was at Simmons & Simmons, leading the global pro bono practice. In that role, I had a huge focus on human rights and also working in UN climate change negotiations, advising the least-developed-country group.
Simmons & Simmons is a finance-sector-focused firm, and when I was looking at what I would do next, I felt like financial markets and financial institutions wanted to understand issues that I was working on in my pro bono work: Modern slavery was being picked up in the corporate department, ESG was being picked up, and we had the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR). I initially joined the Church Commissioners as a Senior Engagement Analyst, primarily interfacing with companies on a wide range of ESG issues and across a wide range of sectors, and I’m now leading the team across this variety of different issues as Head of Responsible Investment.

What is your proudest accomplishment in the work that you’re doing?

I think we’re doing a lot of work at the forefront of biodiversity, so that’s particularly exciting. Climate change is not well established in that the money, policy, and companies need to move further, but the infrastructure around what investors do is incredibly sophisticated and well thought through: There’s a lot of guidelines and investor networks that enable that.
Over the last 18 months, deforestation has been a new frontier, so that the Church Commissioners have been really involved in that; I co-chair the Investor Policy Dialogue on Deforestation (IPDD) Indonesia workstream, where we’re engaging with sovereigns and engaging on a policy front, and looking at these key systemic risks and deforestation as being critical to the biodiversity piece, but also to the climate change piece.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced throughout your career that you’ve managed to overcome?

Coming from the legal profession, where a lot of the systems have been in place for up to thousands of years, coming into the investment field has been quite exciting but also quite a challenge.
When you’re working in client-facing roles or roles with complex internal politics or you need to create internal change, it’s always political issues, and that ends up being about people.

What more can the industry do to promote this equitable distribution of parental leave empowering women within the industry?

It’s about empowering and encouraging men to take parental leave, and I think it needs to come from the top: Enabling policies need to be put in to ensure that men can take that initial parental leave when the baby’s born and can take that equal-care role, so that there’s a better partnering in the home, but also in the workforce. You do feel things are more balanced when one of your male colleagues says, “At 5, I’ve got to get the kids now,” and that empowers women to be able to feel more comfortable about doing that too.

If you were to give one piece of advice to women entering the industry today, what would it be?

My advice is always to read a lot because it’s such a comprehensive field. You’ve always got to be ahead on things – and you need to be bold and to be able to speak up on issues – but if you really understand those issues and can critically analyze them, confidence makes a huge difference.

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