Transitions Techniques

From back-office roles to a decision-making roles

How to make a transition from a back-office, support role to a decision-making role in investment management was the topic of discussion on November 18th for a panel with real experiences in making just such a career move. Moderated by Eric Schweitzer, vice president at Challenger Gray & Christmas, the panel featured three charterholder members of our society:

  • Vincent Baxter, CFA – Associate Equity Portfolio Manager, Northern Trust Asset Management
  • Jackson Finks, CFA – Analyst, Dearborn Partners
  • Oday Tillawi – Associate/Desk Analyst – Investment Grade Credit, Allstate Investments

To begin, Schweitzer asked the panelists to describe both their current roles and the support positions they had transitioned away from. Finks joined Dearborn Partners in 2013 after a year in trust operations at US Bank. His first role at Dearborn was in trade support and operations, but after a year he was able to move up to analyst in support of the firm’s rising dividend strategies.

Tillawi began at Allstate in the Financial Planning and Analysis team responsible for the financial planning and reporting for the business unit. He shifted from there onto the fixed income portfolio management team within the past year where he both assists the senior portfolio managers directly and conducts fundamental research on investment grade credits. He passed the Level III of the CFA exam this year.

Baxter, has been a portfolio manager for tax-aware quantitative equity strategies at Northern Trust Asset Management for the past year. He moved into that position in stages, from back office, and middle-office roles supporting asset management.

Schweitzer then dove into the meat of the discussion by asking the panelists to focus in turn on three steps to the transition process: Preparation, Targeting, and Interviewing. Although they might not have been aware of these steps, of necessity they had to proceed through them to reach their goals.

Preparation

Finks led off by saying he realized very quickly that his introductory position in trust operations would not lead to something he aspired to. The positions of higher responsibility he would be able to advance into from his starting point held no allure for him. So, he immediately enrolled in the CFA exam series and began networking at other firms. One such networking meeting led to a job offer in trade support at Dearborn.  While this was a lateral move in terms of the role and responsibilities, he saw a better chance at advancing into a more desirable role at the smaller firm than he could see at US Bank.

Tillawi also relied on the CFA program to open doors for him. Inside Allstate, the competition for openings in asset management was high, so he realized he would need to be aggressive from the start, and working toward a charter fit the bill. He also sought out a mentor on the team he was targeting and found that not only did that relationship help him get recognized when an investment-related position opened, it also was beneficial in studying for the exams.  He made a habit of writing a summary of each meeting with his mentor to have a record of his suggestions.

Regarding mentoring, Baxter mentioned that while in his middle office role he was seated in close proximity to the portfolio managers he supported. That allowed for opportunities to educate himself by questioning the experts he supported, effectively making them unofficial mentors. Tillawi recommended being assertive and asking respected people to serve as a mentor, especially if working at a firm without a formal mentoring program. In his experience, many people are very willing to mentor a junior colleague who shows initiative. He also suggested preparing a career development plan as an aid to maximizing the benefits of a mentor.

In response to Schweitzer’s question about skills the panelists developed to enhance their chances for advancement, Finks and Baxter agreed that enhanced communication skills were critical keys to success in their new roles where they had to communicate regularly with sales and client service professionals and sometimes clients. Finks strongly endorsed networking skills. All three panelists strongly supported enhancing Excel skills. Even in a world of ever more prevalent modeling and analytical systems, Excel remains a prime tool in asset management and many people do not know how to use its full potential.   Finks said he became the “go to” authority on Excel in his office and provided assistance to colleagues, which only enhanced his chances for advancement.

Targeting

As two of the panelists had transitioned internally, only Finks could provide comments on the second step of Targeting. He cast a large net while networking because he needed to change firms to improve his chances at his hoped-for position. He employed personal and business contacts to land an introduction at Dearborn Partners. He advised people to maintain strong contacts with anyone in their networks who are most likely to be influential in hiring and promoting in the areas one aspires to join. 

In response to Schweitzer’s question about the importance of company culture, Finks thought that he was too early in his career to give that much importance. He was more concerned in the role first. However, Tillawi, also early in his career, pointed out that we typically spend half our waking hours at work so getting the correct cultural fit, at least at some point, will be critical to career success as well as personal happiness.

As for networking, which Schweitzer considered a part of targeting, all three panelists had pointed observations. Baxter noted that it’s easier to do in a large company, simply because of the larger pool of co-workers, but he recommended making a personal connection with new contacts to make yourself more easily remembered.  Finks and Tillawi both recommended attendance at the Society’s events for easy, and well-targeted networking. Tillawi said he had success sending cold e-mails to people he thought would be especially helpful. Social media, especially LinkedIn, can be an invaluable tool. Schweitzer pointed out that it is now the first screening tool used in candidate searches, and also that research at Challenger has shown that new hires are most frequently second-degree connections with the key decision makers in the search.

Interviewing

Schweitzer then moved on to the final step, Interviewing. Baxter had perhaps the most insightful comment to make on interviewing. As a candidate seeking to move from the middle office into a front office investment role, he assumed he would not have the best qualifications on paper relative to other candidates already within the investment decision making chain. He made up for that by demonstrating his passion for investment management. That paid off for him in time. Tillawi was surprised at how little he was asked in interviews about technical information. Rather, he described more of the questions as situational or behavioral. Others with the same aspirations should be prepared for them.

In final wrap-up comments, Finks advised patience. Recognize that the transition process will play out slowly and take longer than expected. Baxter said having a definite idea of the target role is critical, while Tillawi added it should be a goal that one can write down to help maintain focus.

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