Speaking as part of Investment Week‘s recent Women in Investment Career Booster webinar on How to Progress in Sales and Distribution, in partnership with HSBC Asset Management, the panel shared lessons learnt from their own experiences working in the asset management industry.
In particular, they were keen to encourage women to step outside their comfort zones, embrace new opportunities and be proactive in finding the support they need, especially when considering sales and distribution roles for the first time.
Honor Solomon, head of retail for EMEA at AllianceBernstein (formerly head of retail, EMEA at LGIM), commented: “Probably the most crucial part of my journey has been those amazing partners I have had in my career who have really supported me.
“So the first practical tip I would give is be honest with yourself about what stage you are at in your career journey. Then look around you in the industry at who is able to support you the most at that point, then seek them out and ask for their advice and support.
“The second point is to be very honest with yourself on what your capabilities are based on where you are life journey- wise. Be as open as you feel confident to be with your managers and those around you as to what you are able to do, so you can fill any gaps.”
Smera Ashraf, head of group and IFA distribution, UK, at HSBC Asset Management, shared her experiences of moving into sales a couple of years ago, having built her career working for various CEOs in business management strategy functions.
“I was nervous of moving into sales because I didn’t think I was a salesperson but I really enjoy it,” she said. “For me, sales is working with people and finding solutions, which were things that I did in my previous role, so those skills were very transferable. However, as Honor was saying, if I hadn’t had good mentors and supporters around me who were guiding me, I probably wouldn’t have thought of this direction.
“I would also say have an open mind and be hungry to learn if people want you to get involved in stuff that may not seem like a natural fit. I went with it and I think it has been really good for me.”
Selina Tyler, who joined the discussion from maternity leave, during which time she also started a new job as head of UK wholesale at Lombard Odier Investment Managers, agreed it is important for women to take opportunities that come their way.
“It can often seem like a really scary thing, stepping into the unknown, particularly where there aren’t many people that you think are like you in those roles. Clearly, you can’t just take every opportunity blindly but do the appropriate research and talk to people in those roles about their experiences, even if they are not women or they aren’t at the same stage of their career.
“Be brave without being foolish. Typically, I think if you are positive and you work hard, you can make good of any situation, even if it doesn’t play out the way that you initially expected.”
Meeting changing client needs
The panellists were also keen to discuss the evolution of sales and distribution roles in recent years, especially since the implementation of the Retail Distribution Review (RDR), and how having a diverse team can help meet changing client needs.
HSBC AM’s Smera Ashraf said: “From our perspective as a team, we are growing and becoming diverse and that diversity brings out conversations with clients and keeps us honest as a team.
“But I think the client demographic is changing as well. We have got a lot of advisers that have got Muslim clients, for example. So that is an example that is very personal to me and my journey, where [having a diverse team] is seen as a huge benefit.”
Selina Tyler said she has seen changes, even though they are happening slowly, on the client side and she observed what they are seeking from a sales person is very different from previously.
“The client side are hiring different people because obviously they need different skillsets so there are definitely more women coming through, but I don’t feel at the moment that the sales side has responded and matched it,” she said.
“Equally, I think there are now changes on the distribution function within asset management businesses; it is not like when I started when it was very much about sales and marketing. It is about distribution now and all the elements that go into that. I think there is a place for so many different skillsets and types of individuals within that very holistic process.
“I would love to see us as an industry on our side of the table responding appropriately to those changes.”
Attracting diverse talent
The panellists also gave their views on what they look for when hiring people for their sales and distribution teams and how the industry can encourage more women to consider these roles.
Honor Solomon said she looks for authenticity when interviewing prospective candidates, as well as someone who is willing to go the extra mile for clients and other team members and has a variety of skills.
“I think the market has become increasingly technical since RDR in terms of making sure that funds are understood from all aspects,” she said. “So I think qualifications, as many that are valuable as people feel able to do, add to that merit and capability. I also look for languages, particularly following Brexit. Then there is ease of making and maintaining relationships, which is really important for a sales person.”
Smera Ashraf added: “One of the things that I really look for is an interest and a desire to do well, or a passion.
“There is also probably a misconception that sales is quite individual. But in the environments where I have worked, it is very much a team performance. I think if the whole team is working well together, you really see the benefits of doing well in a sales environment. So I think finding someone who works well in a team and brings the team together is key.”
The panel also responded to a question about how the industry can attract more diverse talent into sales and distribution roles. Selina Tyler noted there is a difference here between senior and junior roles: “If we take the former, it is very difficult to replace experience and networks as it takes time.
“But in terms of more junior people coming through, I think we need to rewrite the job specs. Have they been looked at for sales people? What sorts of people are we asking for? What does the new client base look like? What do they need and want? I think that if we can really tune into that, the people coming through would be from a much more level playing field.
“We are always asking ourselves as women what can we do differently so we can get that role? Actually, I think it is great that we have got this question on what people can do to attract those great candidates. I would say exams, a different interview process, psychometric testing, new job specs, and even role playing and seeing how people network as part of the interview process.”
Honor Solomon highlighted it is also important to work closely with recruiters to help firms attract diverse talent: “I would say I would ask for a diverse candidate on every shortlist and I would ask to meet them no matter what happens. Having a diverse interviewer on the panel is also important as people need to see mirrors of who they want to be, or who they are, in order to feel that connection.”
Meanwhile, the panel gave their opinions on how managers can help women progress to more senior levels in sales and distribution roles and how women can develop their own skills.
Offering some advice to managers, Solomon said: “I would say for men and women, know your people well. So understand where they are lacking confidence, where they need support, how you can help them, and who you can put them in touch with.”
She also offered a couple of tips she has always found useful when trying to think about her own development.
“After meetings, if you have been presenting or with a client and someone else has been there, ask them for feedback on what your strengths have been and what you should work on and then act on it.
“Secondly, I am a big observer, so I like to watch and feel a room. Observe those around you and see what is differentiating them and if it is something [you can do]. If it is a technical skill, learn it. If it is a client skill, what authentically would feel comfortable for you, so you could do something similar as you are looking to grow.”
HSBC AM’s Smera Ashraf also highlighted the role that building wider networks across the industry, including with clients, can play in helping women succeed in distribution roles.
She said: “I think you can build networks within your organisation, within the industry with peers doing similar jobs, but also with your clients as well. I have seen that work really successfully when you have a good relationship with your clients and you are listening and trying to find a solution for them and you understand their business.
“Meanwhile, I think for managers, it is taking the risk and providing those real tangible opportunities in a safe environment and also investing in your people.”
Selina Tyler said staying on top of product knowledge is key for progression, while feedback within the team is always helpful. She also thinks getting more junior women to as many events as possible “is another really critical part of our industry”.
Meanwhile, she suggested managers could help new starters doing cold calling if they are feeling uneasy around an established team by giving them a room to use and blocking out a couple of hours.
“Then there are lots of external companies that you can bring in too to get that independent view,” she added. “I have done Toastmasters in the past, which gives you the opportunity to do public speaking around topics completely outside the industry. I think that really helped build my confidence.
“Smera also talked about team building earlier. You are not going to succeed if you feel like the rest of your team are against you. I think businesses have moved more to a team approach and team targets since RDR, but you need to have that team spirit. You need to support each other and step in when people are away. I would say those things help build that female presence.”
You can watch the full webinar on demand here.