A Purposeful Professional
Growing into impact.
Courtesy of Marisa Hall - Co-Head of the Thinking Ahead Institute & Senior Director, Investments at Willis Towers Watson; 2020 Woman of the Year recipient at the Women in Finance Summit & Awards Series
Like most things in life, there’s an element of serendipity but also that of following the footprints of people that have gone before you. When I was growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, I was always one of those kids that liked subjects like Maths and Economics, and when I got to sixth form my mum asked me whether I had thought of becoming an actuary.
At the time, there weren’t that many actuaries on the island where I grew up, but as I did more research into it, I realised that it would be so nice to have that profession supporting me throughout my career. I followed that path and moved to London for a year where I did a post-graduate degree in Actuarial Science and applied for a graduate job at the company I currently work for i.e. Willis Towers Watson.
I remember reaching the final stage of the interview process for my graduate job where one of the interviewers asked me how I would feel about working in the investment practice. He said so because it appeared to him that I had the interpersonal skills as well as the technical background suited for that department. As a recent graduate, I was absolutely interested in the role; however, he then mentioned that it would be located in a place called Leeds, which I had never heard of before in my life. Normally, growing up in the Caribbean you hear of Manchester because of Manchester United Football Club and, obviously, London but not Leeds.
Nevertheless, I decided to still take the job because I was training myself very early on to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s something people who know me quite well will tell you that I’m accustomed to being. I think that without an element of discomfort you’re not challenging yourself. When you think about where you want your career and life to progress to, there’s an element where it’s good to be uncomfortable because it means that you’re learning new skills and can move on to the next level.
In my early years within the industry, that was a part of my journey. Apart from adapting to a culture of new expressions and faces, I was also tasked with passing my actuarial exams and learning about the investment industry and the technicalities of my job. Although learning the technical side of the role was challenging, I found the acquisition of ‘soft skills’ much harder during my career. While one can look inwards and learn the technical parts of a job, it’s much harder to learn those soft skills that everybody needs - flexibility, resilience, planning etc. Also, without learning about teamwork and understanding how to build interpersonal relationships, you really can’t move forward in your career.
In trying to acquire these skills, there’s a mimicking that happens. Using me as an example, I’ve got two mentors who are just phenomenal at modelling what it’s like to be human. One, in particular, has amazing people skills and emotional intelligence, and I love the servant leadership that he practices including being the first person in and the last person out. A servant leader needs to be the person that underpins your team. They are the ones people feel comfortable pointing to and saying, “The buck stops with them.”
That’s a model that I try and follow with the people that I work with and manage. Apart from looking to implement the above, I also ask them to tell me the things that they want to do. It can’t always be a job list of things that I want them to do because that doesn’t give them autonomy nor make them fulfilled as a professional.
As you go through your career, being a purposeful professional becomes very important. The reason being that you can do any number of different jobs but find yourself asking how much of what you’re doing matters to you and makes a difference. In my case, I have the opportunity to make a difference through the Thinking Ahead Institute at Willis Towers Watson. I’m able to talk about the importance of sustainability, culture and understanding our societal licence to operate as an industry, and that truly gives my work meaning.
I think it’s a very natural progression as you move within your career to transition from thoughts relating to your ability to pay the rent to how you’re having an impact with your career and how you’re giving back. It’s definitely a difficult balance with work being relentless, but I think that we need to view our careers as a portfolio of activities that we’re doing and not just in terms of the jobs that we have. One’s actual job is part of that portfolio and a very important part of it, but so is self-actualisation.
In addition to leaving a legacy of helping people find fulfilment within the investment industry, I also want to help make this industry a place where people feel welcome. I remember very much how lots of people were trying to define me and put their finger on who I was when I first started my career. Anytime I would go to a meeting, people would look at me and ask, “So, where do you come from?” because I wasn’t a face that looked familiar to them. That’s why diversity is such an important issue and cannot just be a blip on the calendar. Rather, we need to figure out how it translates into the people that a firm hires, the mentoring programmes that it develops and the leadership positions it creates.
That’s why I work with a number of organisations outside the Thinking Ahead Institute. For example, a really important role for me is serving on the board of Investment 20/20, which is designed to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds find out more about the investment industry and help them attain jobs within it.
I’m also on the steering committee of an organisation called #Talkaboutblack, which is tasked with addressing the specific taboo around race within our industry. As part of our work, we’ve set up an initiative called the Catalyst After-School Programme with the City of London. The purpose of that is to connect school kids in Years 10 and 11 with firms in the investment industry so they can learn more about it.
Doing things like that as well as a fair bit of mentoring to me is just part of a value system that involves having compassion for individuals and genuinely caring that people feel comfortable in our industry and are able to give their best. When you strip away all of the exterior, what remains is the connection you have with individuals and their minds. As such, I think leaving a legacy that it’s okay to be yourself is quite important because the key element is what you bring to the table.
In closing, it’s important to note that you may get purpose from your personal life, your work life or other things that you do. What really matters is that you find something that is meaningful to you and is linked to a positive societal cause because that is what we need.
Marisa Hall - Co-Head of the Thinking Ahead Institute & Senior Director, Investments at Willis Towers Watson; 2020 Woman of the Year recipient at the Women in Finance Summit & Awards Series