The Bigger Picture
Let your value be greater than your seat.
Courtesy of Osas Idubor-Williams - Harvard Business School MBA Candidate & Ex-Vice President of Sub-Saharan Africa Sales at J.P. Morgan.
I consider myself as being of dual heritage. I was born in England, attended secondary school in Nigeria whilst my primary, sixth form and university education took place in the UK. Living in Nigeria was a transformative experience for me. In Nigeria, I wasn’t “one of only” because nearly everyone was black, from the people I passed on the street to the President. Additionally, 1 in 5 board members in Nigeria is female, which beats the world average. This meant that I grew up understanding that I should not have limits on myself based on the colour of my skin or my gender.
When I returned to the UK, however, I realised that this mindset wasn’t as popular there as it was in Nigeria. It made me very conscious of the fact that I needed to excel not only for myself but also for those coming after me. I believe representation is important because it shapes how people are viewed by society and also how people view themselves and the things they can achieve.
That sense of awareness made my decision to leave my Vice President position at J.P. Morgan to pursue business school harder than I expected. There aren’t enough people who look like me in investment banking, particularly in the front office. And although I am just one individual, one is a significant number when compared to a small sample size. By leaving, I knew that I would be reducing the amount of visibility and representation that was available for other people who were hoping to get to where I was fortunate to go.
The other hard part for me was that I’d worked at J.P. Morgan since I graduated from university, and I loved my team, my mentors and the work that I was doing. What got me into sales and trading was the intellectual challenge, the steep learning curve and the fact that I love playing with numbers. What kept me there for 6 years was the sense of pride I felt knowing that my work impacted companies and governments. There was also the excitement that what we did on the trading floor influenced the news and, in my view, the fact that I was part of the best team in the building.
To be successful in Sales, you need to be technically sound and have great interpersonal skills. Your technical skills are what will enable you to do your job well and avoid costly mistakes. More often than not, as a salesperson, you will be dealing with clients and traders with more financial experience than you have. Yet, even as an analyst, you will be expected to keep up, to challenge and to lead.
Interpersonal skills are just as key to your success. If no one knows you’re great at what you do, if you can’t influence others or if no one trusts or wants to work with you, your success will be limited. For example, if you have a great voice (which I don’t!), just singing in the shower isn’t going to get you a record deal. You need to be visible, to put your music out there and negotiate for what you need to succeed in the music industry, however you define success.
Two pieces of advice stuck with me throughout my career in sales. The first was to remember that I am the best version of me that has ever and will ever exist! When I first started on the trading floor, I would listen to my boss, traders and fellow salespeople to understand how they structured products and communicated with internal and external stakeholders. Yet I recognised that my skillset and the way I communicate is unique to me. So, as I got more confident and more senior, I would take best practices and find a way to align them with the way I naturally think about numbers, structure products and build relationships. This made it easier for me to excel in an authentic manner.
The second piece of advice I received early on in my career was to make sure that I delivered more value than the desk I sat on. Initially, I would call and doors would open simply because of the company I worked for. However, what would keep those doors open and make people think of me for future opportunities, was me – the value I bring both professionally and personally. To be blunt, the corporate world can be cutthroat. When someone leaves, they generally get replaced pretty quickly. My goal is to make sure that whenever I leave an organisation, I am not forgotten.
Despite enjoying my role, I wanted to gain experience outside of investment banking and to be honest, I’d always been curious about what living in the US would feel like. This led me to apply to a few MBA programmes before accepting a place at Harvard Business School (HBS).
Being at HBS has given me time to fully invest in myself. By taking a pause from climbing the career ladder, I have had to stop and think about what I want to do with my life, why I want to do it and how. I am better able to separate the expectations I have for myself from the expectations other people have for me. It has also offered me the chance to do something I love to do: meet new people.
My MBA class is made up of 720 people, all of whom come from different backgrounds, experiences and ways of thinking. My friends like to joke that I love a good networking opportunity, and business school is the perfect place to network! The MBA is also teaching me how to say “no” more often, which is a very undervalued skill. I believe the term “FOMO” (‘fear of missing out’) was coined at HBS, and I am not surprised. In a single afternoon, you can find yourself having to juggle a recruitment session, club activity, an interesting panel discussion, a social event, sleep, working out, prepping for tomorrow’s case study, calling family and trying out Chick-fil-A for the first time.
The other side of juggling an MBA schedule is exploring the various professional opportunities available. Harvard partners with a wide array of companies to help students get recruited and start businesses across industries and geographies. Many student clubs also send out the resumés of all their members to companies that align with their activity. Up until graduation, it’s common for MBAs to still be navigating all the information we receive, narrowing down what we want to explore and dedicate time to doing so.
I am only halfway through my MBA but I believe that I will always be a student, even when I return to the professional world. It might sound cliché but I intend to create positive impact in the world (even if it’s just my little pocket of it). To do that, I will need to keep learning, adapting, challenging the status quo and surrounding myself with people who will help refine my thinking as I accomplish my personal and career goals.
Osas Idubor-Williams - MBA Candidate at Harvard Business School & Ex-Vice President of Sub-Saharan Africa Sales at J.P. Morgan.
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