It has been 20 years since I began working in finance. What advice would I offer someone starting out in the industry, based on my experience? I’ve spent a good few tube journeys pondering this question, and this is my best effort.
1) Treat the job as if you’re lucky to have it – you are
There are many wonderful people with brilliant minds who will never get the opportunity to sit in your seat yet, somehow, you are sitting here. This is an amazingly fabulous opportunity. Do something with it, and don’t waste it.
2) You can never truly know the mixture of luck and judgement attached to your results
This is a big deal, and will likely gnaw away at your insides if you are at all reflective, no matter how successful you are – if it doesn’t, check that you haven’t got Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Use this doubt to humble you, especially when things are going very well. Make sure that you do a really good job on the things that are absolutely within your control (the careful implementation of your investment process; well-prepared, respectful and unpatronising interactions with, and attitudes towards, clients; strong risk management, etc).
3) Learn quickly that every job is a sales job
This was an absolute shock to me on leaving university. It is worth recalling one of my boss’s mantras here: 90% of life is about managing expectations. You live with the consequences of your sale (to others and to yourself). By over-selling, you raise the bar that you must clear in order not to fail.
4) Pick a good boss
This is hard when you are starting out and literally know nothing about your boss or what makes a good boss. But while your first boss will be a bit pot luck, choose your second carefully. Think about the values you have and how these are reflected in your boss; think about the way your boss succeeds or doesn’t succeed. You absolutely don’t need to share the same political, social or religious views, but you must be able to respect them professionally. If your boss doesn’t get some core stuff (personal integrity, centrality of the client etc) then change your boss.
5) Don’t (over) job hop
You need a really good reason not to stick with your first job for at least two years. It is possible that you will be given mindlessly basic grunt work for two years. No biggie. You are being paid to learn: take every opportunity to do so. You may find an earnings or opportunity jump occurs each time you do change firms, but your ability to jump diminishes over time. No one will want to employ someone who has a history of not sticking around. Try moving internally rather than externally if it’s a role thing. Once you’ve spent a long stretch with one firm this doesn’t apply so much.
6) When you have worked out what you think, make sure that you take enough risk on your view
You have the potential to lose your job with every decision that you make (but don’t worry, you won’t be allowed to make many decisions until that time when you are competent to make them if you have a half-decent boss). However, it helps no-one if you make good judgements and their impact is insufficient to really make much difference.
7) There is a part of you that will become your job/profession
We don’t come out of the womb as accountants, psychiatrists, fund managers, journalists, etc. And we spend our formative years building an identity which may not ‘fit’ with our target profession. But after years of pretending to be the sort of person who is a finance professional you will find that you aren’t pretending anymore. If you can make peace with this early, you will have a better time of things.
8) Never ever say that we live in unprecedented times
Stuff happens all the time. And the incidence of stuff is no excuse for doing a bad job for your clients; in fact it is the successful navigation of these that will add value to your clients. In my 20 years the following stand out: the Asian crisis; the Russian default; LTCM; Brazilian depeg; dotcom boom/bust; the Argentina crisis; 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’; the Brazilian electoral crisis; Worldcom/Enron/Anderson client crisis; the Gulf War; everything related to the global financial crisis; the European sovereign debt crisis; the commodity meltdown/deflation; and the Anglo-Saxon populist electoral wave.
Each of these, and many others, felt like they could be fairly existential for markets on which I was professionally focused. Each was heralded as unprecedented. And each was. But navigating frequent unprecedented events is … er … the job. I don’t buy that the last 20 years has been particularly challenging in the broader sweep of history. If a particular couple of decades further back in time look relatively calm I would suggest that this probably signals a lack of curiosity of the past.
9) Don’t stop asking silly (but relevant) questions
The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, as the saying goes. Don’t be scared to question anything, but do try to work out where you can get away with asking.
10) Read books
My job involves reading a lot of documents. My downtime largely consists of reading documents that I don’t have time to read during work time but feel I should read, or think might be useful to read. I could fill every hour of every day doing this and not read all that I think I should read. The idea of squeezing in time to read some professionally irrelevant book is not always appealing. (In fact, there seems to be no time.) But make room for books. Books get inside your head, and great books will touch on themes that are recurrently relevant. There are people way more professionally successful than I will ever be who find time to fit in reading a book or two a week. I read at least 12 a year. It’s a start.