7 career secrets from a 25-year investment banker

Monday 25 July, 2016

When looking for career advice, it’s best to seek it from someone with over 25 years of experience in their industry. Perhaps someone who is a Managing Director, Head of Corporate Finance and Capital Markets for Australia and NZ for a company like CITIC CLSA Capital Markets Limited, Asia’s largest and the world’s 5th largest investment bank. Wide experience in fields like private equity, telecommunications, media and technology, and cross-border takeovers wouldn’t go astray either.

Lucky for the Wednesday Formal Dinner guests on 1 June 2016, that is exactly what Mark Dorney is – not to mention the holder of past executive appointments such as Executive Director of Macquarie Group Limited,  CEO of ASX-listed Southern Cross Austereo (then Macquarie Media Group) and Head of Equity Capital Markets for N.M.Rothschild where he advised on Australia’s largest privatisations.

He was kind enough to share seven lessons from his career, both practical and philosophical:

 “Choose your alma mater [first employer] wisely”

Dorney’s starting tip to graduates was to choose a first employer wisely. An alma mater is a brand that stays with them, for a few reasons. For one, it’s foundational: it’s where they learn their ‘trade’ and refine their professional skills. This is why, if possible, a big brand is a good place to start – one that will both provide a good education and be looked on approvingly by future employers.

A careful choice of first employer could also determine whether you find a great mentor - someone who could be a source of advice then and down the track. It’s also vital to think of it as a place for developing alliances and future business contacts.

Another point brought up was that many young people these days want to be their own boss straightaway rather than take on a corporate job. Dorney said that’s a good end goal, but that it’s important to be a little humble and learn first in the professional world. Employers filter out the people who think they already know all the answers – graduates should want to get in and learn before starting on their own.

“You need to have a competitive spirit; and you need to be prepared to step up”

As an employer, Dorney knows one thing for sure: bosses are looking for people with hunger; with fire in their belly - often people like themselves. They want employees with a competitive spirit rather than employees who just show up. After all, they want their businesses to succeed!

A lot of people aren’t willing to step-up, those who are will stand-out and create opportunities for themselves. Of course, stepping up is different from being pushy or compromising principles, which isn’t respected. Stepping up could be doing longer hours, taking the initiative to get to know clients, or volunteering to do more – things that set you apart from others with the same qualifications. As he said, “It’s like rugby: when you see that gap, move into it”.

Dorney also said that part of having that hunger is a willingness to take risks. Not every risk will pay off, but often they will - and either way they’ll definitely provide a learning curve. He mentioned the example in his career of moving from his initial globally diversified employer (after he had done his training) to build a new division (using his acquired skills) at a specialist independent firm  as it was a quicker path to where he wanted to be.

“Versatility and agility”

Tip number three from Dorney was about having a ‘portfolio career’.

He talked about the fact that we’re operating in a fast moving, technologically changing and international world. It’s a context where one is highly unlikely to start and finish a career with the same employer, or even continue doing the same type of thing. Versatility and agility are necessary to build a career over time; as is learning to look out for opportunities and lean into them. Employers look for someone who can build on skills to try new roles, and for people who are willing to look for a new challenge instead of staying in a role they find stale.

 “Failing to success”

Dorney was straight to the point about setbacks and failures: they’re guaranteed. But he also made it clear that this is not a bad thing – because how a person responds to them is what makes all the difference.

Did you know that in the US, some of the strongest venture capital funds will not invest in an entrepreneur unless that entrepreneur has been bankrupt twice? Dorney pointed this out because it’s taken as proof that these people have had a go, and there’s an expectation that they’ve learnt from it. In other words - look for challenges, they’re a chance to grow!

Dorney spoke about one of his own big challenges – dealing with 104 newspapers which Macquarie Media Group had acquired in the USA prior to the Global Financial Crisis, and subsequently needing to significantly rationalise their cost base and restructure their borrowings when the US economy hit a severe recession. In times like this, Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” proved a source of solace for him. It was a reminder not to panic and keep your head when challenges inevitably come -  as Winston Churchill said ‘keep calm and carry on’.

 Setbacks cultivate professional resilience. Getting denied the promotion or rejected for a new role are opportunities to learn – to take on feedback and use it to grow. And after all, as Dorney pointed out, the people who provide feedback are the people who actually care. Plus, how a person responds to feedback could be what makes or breaks them – Dorney mentioned how people with all the right qualities on paper, have sometimes left or else been “let go” where they couldn’t learn from constructive criticism.

At the core: “Back to Basics”

Dorney’s fifth tip was about the core of the job – in his line of work, something he calls “back to banking.”

This is about keeping the focus on core skills, no matter how actual job roles may change or evolve. The core skills are those that hold a person in good stead: they’re the reason that they started in a particular profession.

Basically, a person is in the right job when they’d do it (or at least the best parts of it) for free. Maintaining enjoyment and passion for a profession is a key to career fulfilment – after all, a job is where a person spends most of their time.

“Go for growth”

Dorney’s sixth tip is all things practical: don’t get caught in a declining industry. Go for sectors that are growing and become expert in those sectors.

Growth sectors are always in demand. Something like dreaming of a career as a postman is probably not the best idea in a world that is slowing getting rid of snail mail! Stay ahead of the curve: ride tomorrow’s wave (e.g. Asia, technology, healthcare etc) instead of yesterday’s wave.

The bigger journey

Dorney finished on the big picture, saying that education is not limited to a vocational degree and certainly doesn’t end there.

He stressed how important it is to develop broader interests and contribute beyond professional life, whether it’s reading philosophy, theology or learning about history and culture. He encourages family and friends to learn a bit about:
- Classical liberal democracy: George Orwell ‘s 1984
- Civil society: Great think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies 
- Faith: some of the writers he enjoyed reading as a student or now are G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, John Henry Newman and Thomas Merton

Why take-on these broader interests? To become a better thinker, become a more interesting person, and open up opportunities. A person with broader interests is someone who is appealing to clients.

For example, so many jobs these days include liaising with people overseas: knowing something of their history and culture would be key in this situation. Developing personal relationships is a big part of most professions, and having knowledge and ideas outside of the job helps to do this - to connect with them in other ways.

As Dorney put it: “Have a view. Don’t be narrow, don’t be boring”

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