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Which skills are critical for advancing to the C-suite? In this article, several accomplished executives share their experiences as well as their advice for those who want to reach the top.


Key Points

  • Career histories of people who successfully reached the executive level show that professionals can take a variety of paths to the C-suite.
  • Aspiring executives should develop broad professional knowledge and a variety of skills and experiences to gain a big-picture view and avoid being defined too narrowly.
  • With financial technology transforming many aspects of the financial services industry, a solid understanding of technology and its potential applications will be critical for future executives.

"Discipline and Fortitude"

Mental strength is more important than intellectual brilliance, according to Greg Silberman, CFA, who has served as the chief investment officer of ACG Wealth (recently rebranded from Atlanta Capital Group) in Atlanta, Georgia, since June 2014. “You need mental discipline and fortitude,” he says.

The career of Silberman, raised and educated in South Africa, shows that with the proper discipline, even a long, winding road can lead to the executive level.

Silberman originally pursued a career as a chartered accountant. He earned a college degree in accounting and finance and then took a year off to explore his options before pursuing his chartered accountant certification. Following the break, after two years working in Johannesburg at independent accounting firm Grant Thornton, he moved to London. In September 1998, Silberman earned his CFA charter, which gave him an internationally recognized designation.

He worked as a structured derivatives analyst with JP Morgan from 1998 until 2000, handling derivatives-related complex structuring and modeling payoffs and cash flows. “I went to JP Morgan during the ’90s Internet boom in order to step into the investment side of the business,” he says.

In 2001, Silberman moved to the US to work in management consulting. In 2005, he moved to Australia to work as a structured-products investment analyst at Perpetual Limited in Sydney. In early 2008, Silberman returned to the US at the height of hedge fund mania and took a job as the director of alternative investments at Wilmington Trust in Atlanta. Six years later, a fellow South African he knew called him and offered him the position as ACG’s chief investment officer.

Always trying to be a better investor has proven to be a valuable trait for him. “That takes character, especially when you take a [view] that’s not popular,” says Silberman. As chair of his firm’s six-person investment committee, he tells his committee members, “I don’t care how you view the market, but when you show me something, be sure it’s backed up with hard data.”

Of course, discipline is most meaningful when you’re focused on a specific goal. “The earlier you know what you want to do, it gives you a leg up on everyone else,” Silberman says.

"A Bit of a Departure"

Being intensely focused doesn’t mean being closed off to unexpected opportunities. Diverse interests and openness to going in new directions shaped the career of Tammira Philippe, CFA, who has been president of Bridgeway Capital Management in Houston, Texas, since March 2016.

Philippe’s undergraduate college degree was in computer science. In 1995, she began her career as a business analyst in the Houston office of management consulting firm McKinsey. “I wanted a business career but wanted to combine my technology skillset with my business tool kit at McKinsey,” she says.

Philippe left McKinsey after two years to work as a business-planning manager at a global communications company because “I wanted to get industry experience at a company.” Three years later, she pursued an MBA at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. She then returned to McKinsey for another three-year stint as a strategy consultant, but she was always thinking about her technical and leadership competencies and trying to decide where she wanted to go.

“Some people know that they want to be a doctor from the age of four,” says Philippe. “But I liked a lot of things, and I didn’t want to pick just one thing.” Philippe finally chose the investment industry after looking for opportunities that would allow her to use a variety of skills and help build a business. That path led her to Bridgeway in 2005, which provided a turning point in her career.

“Up to that point, I was on a traditional career path to the C-suite,” she says. Bridgeway was a bit of a departure because, according to her, the firm is very “non-traditional, very entrepreneurial.” She let go of her original vision in favor of continuing to learn everything she could about the investment business and work alongside those who knew it best. “That was a big decision,” says Philippe. “Sometimes in your career you have to let go of things you can’t control.”

After five years as a strategy and operations lead with responsibility for mutual fund administration, finance, strategic planning, human resources, and investment operations, she was asked to head up the marketing and client service team. Following another six years and a nationwide search, Philippe was appointed president of Bridgeway in 2016 to guide the firm’s strategic direction and oversee operations. Her journey taught her that to be a successful top executive, you must be either the asset management investment leader at an investment firm or the one building the client roster.

Part of that journey included earning her CFA charter in 2011. “That was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done but was critical to where I’ve gone in my career, with benefits to my firm,” says Philippe. She admits to failing Level II of the exam on her first try. Having been very academically inclined and a strong test taker, she found the need to retake Level II a very humbling experience.

Philippe believes finding a cultural fit with a company is vital. “I’ve been very fortunate to come to a company where integrity and stewardship are core and matched with what I found important,” she says. In her view, the CFA Program’s curriculum reinforces the integrity component. “It’s easy for people to get off track on this,” she adds.

Philippe believes today’s C-suite executives need technical competencies, a service orientation that starts with focusing on the true importance of clients, and the ability to see the potential for future disruptive technologies. She also counsels that professionals eyeing the C-suite must remember those around them. “As you gain seniority, you must focus more on acknowledging and listening to others,” she says. “Be sure to solicit the expertise of others while showing your expertise.”

"Avoid Being Typecast"

Scott E. Couto, CFA, is now taking some much-earned time off following 26 years in the investment management industry. After graduating from Babson College with a degree in finance/investments, he has worked in the investment business since 1991, earning his CFA charter in 2003.

Couto most recently served as president of the institutional asset management division at Fidelity Investments, which provides distribution and client services to financial advisers, consultants, and myriad institutional investors. After joining Fidelity in 2009 as an executive vice president of investment product management, he steadily rose through the ranks. Before Fidelity, Couto worked for 19 years in senior-vice-president roles for two Boston-based investment management firms, Columbia Management and Evergreen Investments.

One of the themes of Couto’s career has been continuous learning. “I’ve made it a point to find those people I can learn from and be a lifelong student of the business,” he says. “I’ve had great and not-so-great bosses, but I learned from both about leadership styles, which was critical to my success.” Couto also took full advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves, often recognizing them where others might have seen obstacles. While at Wachovia (which had acquired Evergreen) and then its successor Wells Fargo, he found himself suddenly reporting to the risk management department when his boss left. Instead of feeling lost, Couto learned about the company and fund accounting from the team with which he was now co-located. “I saw it as a great opportunity to learn and build my knowledge,” he says.

Couto suggests that those aspiring to the C-suite learn to communicate effectively, develop a sustainable communications style, and acquire the ability to distill complex issues. However, he cautions, “Don’t get bogged down with too many details.” Couto also recommends you become comfortable being around the table with powerful people in the organization. In addition, if you’ve been in a similar role for a while, he suggests, “Avoid being typecast and be a great multidisciplinary leader.”

Another necessary skill for reaching the C-suite, according to Couto, is being fluent in technology. In his opinion, a leader needs to be out with clients as much as possible, leveraging both their technology and time management skills while on the road. “A desk is a dangerous place to be,” he quips. Couto also believes that the art of delegation is key. Take the time to hire the right people, get to really know them, and assess what each person does best.

Among the challenges he faced was earning the CFA charter, which he chose over pursuing an MBA. “It was one of the most important and most difficult things I have done,” he says. “I carry the designation proudly.”

"What Makes People Stand Out"

Leah R. Bennett, CFA, echoes Couto’s advice to keep your skillset broad. In her opinion, an ideal portfolio includes an information technology background and ample soft skills. “That’s what makes people stand out,” she says.

Bennett realized early on in life that she really liked numbers. She later built on that enthusiasm in her professional career. Now chief operating officer at Westwood Trust, part of Westwood Holdings Group in Houston, Texas, Bennett oversees investment and corporate operations.

She initially signed on with Westwood as a vice president in June 2016 and became COO seven months later. In her current role, Bennett helps solve problems and has already facilitated the acquisition of a company. With additional offices in Dallas and Omaha, Bennett leads a team that is offering a key new investment strategy to Westwood Trust clients.

“I’ve learned a lot,” she notes. “I found that I think creatively and I like to problem-solve.” Because Bennett also strongly believes that no one ever really succeeds individually, she embraced mentoring, leadership, and providing guidance, helping to co-found the CFA Institute Women in Investment Management Initiative in October 2013.

After graduating from Texas A&M University with an economics degree, she began her career in 1992 as a fixed-income analyst with American Funds, the Capital Group Companies mutual fund unit based in Los Angeles, California. “I was intrigued by analysis and why companies were worth what they were worth,” Bennett says. “But I also liked to write and talk to clients.”

In 1995, she moved back to Houston and accepted a job as an equity analyst and then as chief investment officer at King Investment Advisors. That job allowed her to think creatively and focus more on the risk that was appropriate for clients. “It builds confidence to have a different view and helped our portfolio management to be stronger,” she says. She earned her CFA charter in 1999.

After 18 years at King Investment Advisors, Bennett transitioned to South Texas Money Management in San Antonio as its co-chief investment officer. “The firm saw that I was good at management and talking to clients,” she says. “It broadened my horizons.”

Bennett recommends avoiding predetermined roles as you figure out what you are good at, and she encourages up-and-coming professionals to try different things to see where their strengths lie. “I often see people who try to force themselves into a role,” she says.

Those eyeing the C-suite should never be afraid to be the weakest person in the room, according to Bennett. “You have to be humble and recognize that others are often stronger and then learn from them,” she says.

Aspiring leaders need to be intellectually curious and continue to ask questions, according to Bennett. Don’t let portfolio management practices become so ingrained that you cannot respond to change.

"Take a Big-Picture View"

A traditional career track can lead to unexpected places. That has been the story of Jack Brown, CFA, chief investment officer at Aviance Capital Partners in Naples, Florida. “I always had the mindset to get into the banking/financial services industry,” he says. Brown graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1993 with a degree in economics, and in 1997 he earned his MBA from Drexel University.

He took a job in 1995 as an analyst at CDA/Wiesenberger (which later became Thomson Reuters), allowing him to learn how to combine data and technology for sell-side research analysts. After three years, Brown took a job as a sell-side research analyst at UBS. Then he was hired by a former client (then Salomon Smith Barney in Wilmington, Delaware) to work on closed-end funds and manage a due-diligence team.

While at Smith Barney, Brown earned his CFA charter in 2003. “I thought it was exactly the information that I needed,” he says. With a desire to move closer to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he accepted a job at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey, as the director for the firm’s strategic investment research group in 2004.

Brown wanted to manage money himself. In 2005, he decided to start his own solo practice in Naples, Florida, which he dubbed Laureola Asset Management. “I knew that I wanted to work with clients to provide successful strategies and be compliant with the CFA Institute GIPS standards,” he says. In his new capacity, he managed the portfolios of successful retail clients. In 2011, his firm merged with Aviance Capital Partners. Brown became partner and investment manager of the combined firm with “a handful of investment guys and operations folks.” Although “not huge,” the firm has developed a good following. According to Brown, leading a smaller firm allows you “to be more nimble and decide which way to steer the car.”

In January 2017, leveraging his due-diligence background, Brown officially took the reins as Aviance Capital’s chief investment officer.

“I’ve always felt there was a need, besides strict compliance, for a chief investments person to look across clients and make sense of the strategies used,” Brown says. “It’s important to take a big-picture view and make sure it all makes sense for clients. There should be some philosophy behind each decision to justify what you’re doing.” He adds, “Remember that there’s a client on the other side of every decision you make.”

Brown further suggests leaning into your job, being careful not to overstep your place but being sure to get involved and really participate. “Don’t be afraid to speak up about operations or client strategies; it pays off,” he adds. “Sometimes, the most important ideas are really common sense.” He also cautions people eyeing the C-suite to not become unduly comfortable in any one particular niche. In his view, “It’s always good to look at the artificial walls you’ve built up” and then plan a way around them.

Brown believes that a top executive must act like one. “You need to manage your behavior, be professional and even-keeled, help others,” he says.

"Positioned for Changes"

If your career leads you into uncharted territory, the trip can have surprising benefits. For Daniel Tammas-Hastings, CFA, such a detour ended up meshing perfectly with his interests and talents. Now co-founder and CEO of RiskSave Technologies, an online portfolio solutions provider (or robo-adviser) based in London, he took a roundabout path to his present position.

After earning his degree in mathematics and economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2003, Tammas-Hastings went on to acquire his masters in mathematical trading and finance from Cass Business School in 2004. Subsequently, he signed on as a risk analyst at Hypo Real Estate Bank International in Dublin. For nearly a year, Tammas-Hastings shadowed the global head of risk management, learning front- and back-office systems and risk analysis for credit and interest-rate risk products.

“Credit derivatives was a hot area back then; everyone wanted to work in exotic derivatives,” he says. “It was difficult to hire someone with the experience and who was cheap.”

He then moved to trading several types of exotic derivatives and developing proprietary risk management systems within the credit portfolio and risk management area of hedge fund Solent Capital in London, spending two years there. While at Solent, Tammas-Hastings earned his CFA charter in 2006. “That was a big thing for my career progression,” he says. “It was an insurance policy. I had the broad skills and expertise, but without the CFA charter, I don’t think I would have gotten a job.”

Shortly thereafter, Tammas-Hastings applied for jobs trading interest-rate and foreign-exchange derivatives. Sensing that the credit derivatives party was over, he wanted to move on before the sector imploded. After that, just before the global credit crunch reared its head, he became a sovereign and interest-rate-derivatives trader at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, where he worked for six years. Upon leaving Merrill Lynch, he took a year off and went to business school at the University of Cambridge. In 2014, the self-proclaimed “finance geek” leveraged his enthusiasm for technology to co-found RiskSave.

Why take such a big career risk and become an entrepreneur? “I left banking because I was tired of working 70-hour weeks,” he said. “It was a toxic culture, and I didn’t want to put in the hours any longer.” Tammas-Hastings founded the firm with a partner from Ireland and then brought on one other executive, a former Google employee. The trio has worked to automate a lot of the back-office and investment processes to add value for clients. “Technology is making things much cheaper for the end user, from the traditional 1%–2% down to about 30 basis points—80% cheaper,” he says. That’s important because he believes the industry is transitioning toward “financial inclusion” and no longer excluding those individuals who previously could not afford asset management. “The financial gap of investment management is shrinking,” he says.

In the process, Tammas-Hastings learned some valuable knowledge about founding a firm. “I learned that most of my time isn’t spent on investing but on operations and regulatory issues,” he says. He recognizes that as you become more senior in your career, soft skills become more important, as does understanding every part of the investment process. “In 2007, as a trader, I only traded, but I didn’t see operations or sales. That market has changed considerably in the last 10 years,” he notes.

Tammas-Hastings believes that top executives don’t need to be techno-wizards, but they do need to “be sure the company is positioned for changes and how digital investment advice is impacting the future of asset management.”

"Make Your Own Luck"

Carol Morley, CFA, took an unusual career path to become founder and CEO of the Imprint Group in New York City, an investment management/leadership counseling firm. She did not begin her professional life in the investment management industry, however, initially pursuing a career in consulting.

After graduating in 1990 from Georgetown University with a degree in finance and a minor in psychology, Morley spent three years as a senior consultant at Accenture. Next, she became a director at BARRA RogersCasey Strategic Consulting (now known as Casey Quirk by Deloitte), and then she worked for three years as a partner at consulting firm The Highland Group. Along the way, she earned her CFA charter in 1998.

A few years later in 2001, sensing a big push in executive hiring, Morley left the consulting firm to co-found Jamesbeck Global Partners, a boutique executive search firm dedicated to the asset management industry, where she also held the position of managing director. Five years later, she co-founded Defineum, a professional training and coaching firm. In April 2013, Morley founded her third startup, the Imprint Group, where she is currently CEO. “I was going to be the one to propel my career forward and not wait for anyone else,” she says. “Passion has played a part in my career, but I believe you make your own luck.”

One of the highlights of Morley’s career was meeting John Casey, then chairman of BARRA RogersCasey Strategic Consulting. His influence was profound. “Meeting mentors became key to me, and he introduced me to others and management teams,” she says. “Aligning with someone as a mentor who appreciates young talent is important.”

Morley’s previous focus on leadership development was motivated in part by seeing an opportunity in the marketplace. “I believed leadership development was underserved, and I wanted to help the asset management industry,” she says. With many chief executive officers and chief operating officers today moving toward the later stages of their careers and considering passing the baton, the leadership market is changing. “What got you there isn’t going to get you there anymore,” says Morley. “Leadership is a credential that should be aggressively developed. There’s an underappreciation that leadership is an art, not a science.”

As CEO of the Imprint Group, she believes C-suite executives must “surround themselves with the very best leadership team, mobilize talent, and place people in the right roles, making sure they are firing on all cylinders and that they all collaborate and work well together.”

Another critical skill for those entering the C-suite is the ability to be decisive and make tough decisions (such as layoffs). Morley also believes C-suite executives must bring innovation and creativity to the job. But in her view, real management skills, such as the pure ability to get the job done and follow through on tracking the metrics used to measure progress, are very necessary. “People who are able to execute flawlessly will be the winners,” she says.

Morley counsels new C-suite entrants to spend ample time understanding the organization internally while also listening to clients externally. Leaders should invest the time to gauge what employees are feeling, what they are saying, and what they need.

About the Author

Lori Pizzani

Lori Pizzani is an independent business and financial journalist based in Brewster, New York.