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It's not all in the mind

Published on Friday, 02 Dec 2011
Recent MBA graduate Olly Arthey believes that his qualification will help him secure more senior roles.
Photo: Berton Chang
Simon Davies
Photo: Berton Chang

It's no secret: Working in the financial services sector can be a lucrative endeavour, if not the road to early retirement. As for landing a job in the field, or climbing the corporate ladder once you do, two factors continue to dominate the decision-making criteria among hiring managers - education and experience.

Clearly, the same can be said for most any profession. But with the rewards of success in finance being as high as they are, a great number of the city's professionals spend a fair amount of time and effort and money pruning themselves for high-paid banking jobs by way of part-time education programmes.

But how much can such programmes genuinely contribute to an individual's skill set and career prospects? According to Simon Davies, executive chairman at investment management firm Threadneedle Investments, a fair bit

As far as analysing past data is concerned, a solid education is critical, especially when it comes to creating financial models, he says.

"In some ways, investment management is just a giant research project," he explains. "And if you've done this sort of thing at university and have been trained to do it right, you're probably going to be better at it than others. This is where education favours you."

Nevertheless, the seasoned financial executive expresses grave concerns about over-relianc on book smarts.

"There is a worrying tendency in the investment industry to think purely about financial analysis - a notion that the numbers will always give you the answers," Davies says. "Ultimately, quantitative models always blow up. In fact, all models based purely on analysis of quantitative data usually only work until they get money under management - then they blow up."

Another issue Davies warns of is that of the growing "obsession" with detail and spreadsheet models. "People become so bogged down in the details that they don't actually think about what's going on in the company that they're analysing," he says. "That's something that experience will help you overcome."

Having said that, the investment manager goes on to say that experience too has its limits and, in some cases, may even be detrimental. As an example, he refers to some former colleagues who, after working through tough market conditions in the early '70s, went on to become overly pessimistic through the '80s, causing them to miss out on some key opportunities.

In terms of gaining experience, or, more specifically, learning from experience, Davies suggests reading up on financial history, noting that on-the-job encounters are by no means the only way of acquiring the judgment needed to make better decisions.

For Olly Arthey, a recent graduate of the University of Hong Kong's MBA programme, accruing first-hand experience was not a problem. Shortly after commencing his studies, he was hired in an equity-trading capacity at JP Morgan, making him one of the many who now pursue education and experience simultaneously.

Naturally, it was far from easy, he notes. "Normally, the MBA takes about two years part-time. But once I joined JP [Morgan], I needed to focus on my job. Because of this, I extended it to four-and-a-half years," Arthey says.

As for the career benefits of his new qualification, the maths major maintains that while it might have helped him gain a better understanding of accounting principles, he doesn't expect it to drastically benefit his career immediately. He does however feel that having an MBA is likely to give him an edge when it comes to pursuing a more senior role down the road.

Levina Poon, director of the banking, financial services and legal at Hudson, concurs with this perspective.

"Top-notch investment banks often request MBA graduates for certain roles," she says, noting that those eyeing middle management positions would be well served by having such qualifications. For junior titles, Poon stresses the importance of a relevant bachelor's degree from a good institution, while for senior roles, she says to focus on acquiring the right experience and connections.

Regarding specialist education courses, such as the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Program, the recruitment executive explains that these tend to be more relevant to investment management rather than investment banking jobs.

Ultimately, Poon notes, "while education and experience are important, personality and soft skills are all too often the real differentiators when it comes to finding work." 

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