Margaret “Marg” Franklin, CFA, assumed her role as president and CEO of CFA Institute in late 2019, during what turned out to be the waning days of the longest bull market ever recorded. As that bull market gave way to a black swan in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, a new and volatile period for the financial markets and global economy commenced.
Franklin has since described her early tenure as a “trial by fire,” one with challenges that were unanticipated in both nature and scale and thus without readily anticipated let alone readymade solutions.
I had the opportunity to speak with Franklin during her visit to India late last year. Our topic was global careers in wealth management. And while the world of finance and the career outlook therein looks and feels much different today than it did then, many of the themes we discussed, particularly those of lifelong learning and ethics and integrity, continue to resonate and can continue to inform both the present and the future.
Below is an edited and condensed reproduction of our conversation.
Abhishek Loonker, CFA: Can you take us through your career journey? Is there anything you would change?
Margaret “Marg” Franklin, CFA: I split my career into two equal halves and my career path sort of matches up with market trends.
I started out on the institutional side. My first job was with State Street Global Advisors. These were the very early days of indexers and quants, but they were all institutional participants. My role was completely investment centric and that really helped me improve my decision-making process. And indexing taught me a lot about cost-effective market exposure.
After spending the first 15 years on the institutional side, I switched things up and started to apply those institutional skills to the retail market. This was also during the rise of the consumer-focused market. This required more technical knowledge and gave me a completely different perspective. I still have those skills. But now we all know that behavioral insights are just as important as those technical skills.
My portfolio management work for a pension plan was especially formative. It taught me how to understand customer needs and how to communicate with customers in a language that they could understand.
So, all in all, a good 30-year career across institutional and retail markets.
Where do you see the opportunities for aspiring wealth managers today? What skillsets are most important?
The economic challenges today are the opportunities. The people who combine education with ethics and integrity will have the edge.
Ethics and integrity are the core, but in a low interest rate environment, having the knowledge and skills is absolutely essential. Curiosity is also critical.
Furthermore, we have not made the shift from the institutional to the individual. Even institutional business management can improve. Lots of rapid changes are happening in the industry. The switch from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans, for example, presents a lot of opportunities, too.
Certainly, those who take the CFA exam and earn their charter are a cut above. They show a distinct commitment that the industry today really requires. Of course, a commitment to lifelong learning is important regardless of the industry you belong to. But in finance today, it is an absolute requirement.
Are there any specific soft skills that you think are more essential than others?
In the early days of my career, I worked with people who were really good at what they did. Early on in your career, you don’t have enough experience. But you can watch the people around you who do and learn from them. Watching someone in action is itself a skill. We know that people’s attention spans are short, so we need to learn to hit the right notes early.
Self awareness is important. What are you missing? Where do you need help? The first thing is identifying those gaps. Which ones do you need to fill to achieve your career goals? You can then go after those.
What sort of career paths do you see for CFA charterholders and finance professionals today?
In the early part of your career, you have to acquire skills. The CFA charter is an important part of that phase. But there are soft skills, too — communication is a big one that can help you translate your technical skills in ways that clients can understand.
Younger people who get their charters, especially, should look at acquiring those soft skills to complement their technical ones.
In my own career, probably a half dozen times, learning opportunities lead to big leaps, from basic foundations, portfolio construction, talking with clients, leading teams, going to private wealth, to finally running a business. At each of these stages, I relied heavily on content and thought leadership from CFA Institute.
I sit on the Future of Finance Council. “Investment Professional of the Future” is an extraordinary piece of research. It answers two related questions: What should employees be thinking about? And what should employers be thinking about?
What sort of roles do you see in global wealth management today?
Global wealth management offers multiple roles. They focus on how much wealth needs to be managed and in which jurisdiction. Success in these roles is based on knowing how clients created their wealth and then following an objective-based investing approach.
It is very important for us to master the art of how we listen to clients and convert that to portfolio construction. People will abandon approaches even if they are very sensible. Understanding client needs and their portfolio is important.
We need to think differently about how we interact with clients. We definitely need technical skills but we need professional excellence as well.
What are some of the competitive pressures that you see today? How should we deal with them?
Lots of people are looking for jobs. To compete in that race, you have to be self-reflective. You need to be able to honestly identify what you’re good at. Along with that, you need to sharpen both your technical and soft skills. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. And you need to communicate well with employers and clients. Clients need to understand the value you bring to the table. Part of this is positioning yourself. The CFA Career Center has some great tools to help with that.
What about relationship alpha? How can wealth managers develop and maintain it?
Relationships cannot be algorithmic. They require something more, a desire within. To have relationship alpha, you have to be client centered. You need to understand that the client interest is your own interest. Millennials understand this and hence they aspire to more than just a job. They want to “be valued and provide value”.
Our mission addresses this. We are neutral. We look through the lens of investor outcomes. That’s the pivot point. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by commercial interests. But in the long term, commercial interests and investor interests converge.
Any advice for those of us trying to make our way in emerging countries like India?
I recommend that everyone unlearn one thing: shortcuts. There are none. They’re very easy to take and they give you instant gratification. But if you want to be competitive for the long haul, you have to avoid them.
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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.
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