The unkept secret behind sustained career success.
Courtesy of Keith Starling - Senior Portfolio Advisor at Big Society Capital
Back when I started working, Deloitte was known for offering really good business training. In addition to laying the foundation for all the accounting skills used throughout my career, Deloitte gave me a comprehensive education into the commercial world of business and finance. As auditors, we weren’t stuck doing just the technical aspects of the job, but we were engaged in discussions with the commercial teams to understand how our clients across different industries worked.
Of all the clients I worked with, asset managers were the ones I enjoyed working with the most. I found them to be extremely invigorating and dynamic but maintain a pace that wasn’t as fast as banks. They were almost tailor-made for me, and it was simply a matter of waiting until the right job came along. That job would ultimately be with Mercury Asset Management, one of the largest asset managers (per assets under management) at the time of joining them. As such, it felt to me like a really good place to learn about the asset management sector as with most firms with strong reputations.
Mercury at the time was home to some well-known fund managers such as David Price and Carol Galley and offered me a great learning pad under the leadership of David Causer, who was finance director and my direct report at the time. However, it was at Gartmore where I probably learnt the most in part because that was where I first became a Chief Financial Officer (CFO).
I spent the first five years there focused on improving our people and accounting systems, while the next five years were dominated by one corporate transaction after the other, from a management buyout to the refinancing of debt. Although these transactions placed a huge strain on the finance team, laying a foundation of good accounting systems and skills in the previous five years made us ready to tackle each corporate deal that followed.
Within those four-to-ten-year spans each spent at Mercury, Credit Suisse and Gartmore, there was also a fair amount of change that kept me invigorated. For instance, at Mercury, I was able to work in at least three different roles whereas at Credit Suisse I started as head of the UK finance team and eventually became European CFO. With respect to Gartmore, the business was going through so much change that with each role transitioning so quickly, there was always a new set of challenges to tackle. Thus, even though I remained with each employer for several years, there were avenues to dig out opportunities every two to three years such that there was a new lease of life every time it happened. One of the advantages of working for a larger firm is the number of different opportunities to continue growing and learning.
Being able to maximise those opportunities, however, requires you to have a strong reputation characterised by hard work, consistency and trustworthiness. Only when can you demonstrate that you’re someone that people can rely on will you be able to position yourself well enough for when others in the firm eventually decide to move on.
Why do people decide to move on? Sometimes, it is due to a sense of boredom or a desire for a new challenge. There might be a growing frustration in a person’s daily responsibilities, especially in finance where everything is done on a rolling basis, and that could even make you easily irritable when dealing with colleagues at work. At that stage, the question to ask yourself is whether there’s an opportunity to quell that hunger for something different without having to switch employers. Once you’re ready for a change and can’t see any role satisfying that desire in the same place of work, then it’s time to go.
As with all manner of change, there’s always a level of risk in moving firms irrespective of how much due diligence has been done or how many interviews have been attended. My approach has been to do as much due diligence as is possible including reading about the business, meeting as many different people as I can and, if possible, spending a day in the office before agreeing to join. If you have this nagging feeling that there might be something wrong, the best thing is to trust those instincts because they’re probably right.
Also, be very thoughtful about what you want in the short, medium and long term. Talk to people that you trust because it’s quite important that when you reach the middle of your career you have a coherent story as to why you moved from one place to the other. Some career moves are forced on you and are out of your hands, but you can be at least thoughtful as to what to do subsequently.
That was what happened when Gartmore was sold to Henderson Group at the latter end of my time there. Following its sale, a number of senior individuals at Gartmore including myself left the firm, and I decided to take a short break after a five-year stretch in which we tackled one corporate transaction after another. At that stage, I decided to look for a role within the charity sector to be able to do something that was more about helping people and less so about making money. I found that process honestly quite difficult because the charity sector can be fairly distrustful of people with my sort of commercial background.
Fortunately, a job opened up at Big Society Capital, which was and still is the perfect blend of the investment management world I’d been in and the charity world I was eager to join. As the firm’s first finance director, it was quite interesting having to set up the necessary systems and conduct the hiring process for the rest of the finance team. It was also the first time I had ever joined a start-up and so, I was initially anxious about taking that step.
What put me at ease was the fact that Big Society Capital didn’t necessarily have a ‘small company’ feel to it when I joined. With quite a few people with strong experience from large private organisations, one could sense that Big Society Capital was going to become a household name within impact investment, and we are very much at the centre of the UK charity sector now.
Significantly, the charity sector has a sizable number of quality people that are already working in it, particularly young people coming into that sector. That reflects more the values that young people have now - seeking more meaningful employment - compared to my generation of working professionals. Furthermore, an increased sense of responsibility as to how people spend their time and money, coupled with pressure from finance professionals seeking change in how their firms invest money, has created a surge around responsible investing which larger institutions are responding to.
The challenge of creating a social return as well as a financial return makes impact investing quite possibly more difficult than traditional investing, where one is simply looking at the risk and return of an investment. Aside from that, working in impact investment has opened my eyes to the very sharp end of enterprise where many of the organisations we invest in are managing cash from month to month while each building a very small team.
Working in the charity sector helps you to see some of the social problems that people face on a daily basis. Maybe a surprising point is how much a relatively little investment could help someone tap into their potential. For example, one investment involved work with some long-term unemployed young people, where spending a small amount of time with a coach discussing their talents and abilities could make a massive difference to each of them.
My experience so far at Big Society Capital has been the most interesting, rewarding and challenging part of my career. Although that will continue to be the central part of my work, an additional focus I have is to develop at the non-executive level. The role of a non-executive director involves attempting to influence a business without getting too involved in the details. It also means having a limited amount of time to provide oversight and support for the firm’s leadership because you’re not there every day. Therefore, over the next few years, I plan to spend more time learning how to help people discover their best selves, partly by using my own experience.
Keith Starling - Senior Portfolio Advisor at Big Society Capital