"One of the best insights into a money manager I ever got," recalled Ms. Hewsenian in a recent interview, "was in the ladies' room," querying an administrative assistant of the firm she bumped into there.
"She was completely unguarded and I found out a lot," said Ms. Hewsenian, who's been vetting managers for more than four decades.
Looking at CEOs and chairmen of the board is an obvious place to start when assessing a money manager, but engaging employees in a conversation, "asking them how they're doing, what's on their minds, you learn things," just by being present, she said.
Going that extra mile could continue to come in handy after Ms. Hewsenian fulfills a pledge she made in 1979 — when she joined General Foods for her first job out of business school — to retire on Dec. 31, 2023, following what will be more than four decades in the workforce.
"My post-retirement plan is to serve on boards (where) I can bring to bear all that I've learned about management in the last 45 years … the hard way, through grit and experience," she said.
At present, Ms. Hewsenian serves on the board of OCIO firm Partners Capital Investment Group and "I'm under serious consideration for a second and I'd like a third," she said, adding that would be about all she could handle without "shortchanging anyone."
"I think that I have a lot to offer in that regard, primarily in the people management department (because) let's face it, most corporations don't fail because they don't have a great product … it's typically management and execution issues that cause companies to fail ... so you learn how to manage the people issues."
In order to do so, "a good board person will have a good relationship not only with the CEO" but with all of the senior people at the firm, which allows you to triangulate information — getting a sense of the challenges facing the company and how to overcome them, Ms. Hewsenian said.
She pointed to "soft skills" — the ability of board members to exercise their obligation to speak up at meetings in a way that's constructive and appropriate, supportive and professional — as both underappreciated and increasingly important to making boards work effectively, particularly as an ever-greater focus on diversity brings people together who are very different from each other. That is in contrast to 50 years ago when the norm was all-white boards whose members went to the same schools or belonged to the same clubs, she said.
At the end of the day, there's as much art as science to effective board work or due diligence, said Ms. Hewsenian, conceding "I've been surprised and I've made mistakes."
"You're making a judgment about the people" — with the CEO or managing partner being the most critical because they set the tone and the culture for the rest of the organization — and on that score, Ms. Hewsenian says she believes she's gotten pretty good at distinguishing between "fully formed adults" serving on a board for the right reasons and board members more concerned about themselves than their organizations.
Ms. Hewsenian said the biggest change in the industry since she joined Wilshire roughly 40 years ago has been how readily available information — a sought-after commodity earlier in her career — has become.
Today, "you can get all the information you want from almost any source so deciding what's important and the speed with which you have to make the decision" are key.
"Everything has increased in terms of momentum … so decisions that we might spend weeks working on, we might only now have a couple of days" to satisfy a business community demanding faster answers, Ms. Hewsenian said.
And that, in turn, places a premium on developing "a really good gut instinct," she said. "You'll never have the time to get to 100% analysis to get to the decision. That last 10% you've got to be able to get to on your own through your own gut," she said.