When your heart is set on a career path and it doesn’t work out, it can be devastating. Turning that setback into an opportunity and making a success of it takes skill. As part of our ‘Lessons from Leaders’ series, we join Chand Chudasama, Strategy & Corporate Finance Partner at Price Bailey to hear his top ten lessons learned on the path to Partner.
10 Tips For A Successful Career In Corporate Finance and Strategy
1. Pursue a career you’re passionate about
When I was a kid, I hated jigsaws as I found them too easy to solve once you realised all you had to do was start from the corners and edges. I’ve always preferred puzzles without set ways of solving them.
As I grew up, I continued to look for those challenging puzzles and decided to join the army. I was in the Army Reserves and Cadets and flew through the ranks but when I was 17, I was so surprised when I failed the medical for the regular Army at selection; it really knocked me back.
I knew that I had to find another type of job where I could solve complex, unstructured problems. I learned that corporate finance and strategy advisory offers that kind of work – one side is very technical and numbers-driven, the other side is highly strategic.
Putting the two together is a great challenge. Even now, I describe my job as like doing three jigsaw puzzles at the same time, where all the pieces are all mixed up, there’s an unknown number of missing pieces and the pictures are changing at different speeds and against the clock! It wouldn’t be for everyone, but I find it really engaging.
10 Tips For A Successful Career In Corporate Finance and Strategy
2. Build up your technical knowledge quickly
Get the right qualifications… and then remember that it’s not enough on its own!
At the beginning of my career, my goal was to bank at least 300 hours of self-initiated study a year to build up my technical knowledge. In my 20s I probably spent more like 400 hours a year studying. Strategy & corporate finance isn’t like other roles where you might need to have a deep knowledge of a narrow area that you draw upon repetitively every day.
You’ll be required to have a good understanding of a vast range of topics. You might only need a piece of information once a year, but you need to be able to recall it at a moment’s notice. That ability only comes from hard study and thorough understanding of its practical application to solve a company’s problems or create value, and even then, study alone won’t be enough to do your job well. It’s quite tough to match theory with practice.
3. Be around good people
A big turning point in my career was undertaking my MBA at Newcastle University. I met a lot of great people there. The people who taught me and who learned alongside me expanded my understanding, as well as giving me the tools I needed to succeed in my job.
What I realised between the MBA and my first job afterwards, is that it’s all about the people. If the work is interesting, it’s the people you work alongside who make or break a job. Every career decision I’ve made since then has been because of the people I’ve worked with – both colleagues and clients. I’m lucky that I work for a great firm with incredible people; I wouldn’t want to work in an environment that didn’t prioritise that.
4. Ask for help
Promotions have challenged me to step up in terms of people management. Being made manager was the toughest change – it took me six months to understand what a manager was meant to be, and I’m still figuring out the shift I’ve made to Partner.
I’ve had to be honest with my team and ask for leeway as I learn the ropes. I’ve never been shy about asking questions, and I’ve been fortunate to work with peers who are never reluctant to give advice and support. It’s important to know your weaknesses as well as your strengths and not to pretend to have all the answers when you don’t. Nothing is more uninspiring to a team than a young leader without humility.
5. Treat your job like your own business
The hard yards in learning how to run a professional services business are done at grades where you are in the thick of the action – it is tough but you learn an awful lot and building strong relationships along the way, both in the firm and with externals is key. However, one of the biggest hurdles to progression is the shift in mindset, to go from working hard but still in the mindset of having a job, to having more of an ownership mentality and treating the business like it is your own.
I grew up in a small family business environment so, to an extent I never knew anything different, but I certainly now see those values and that attitude as key to progression.
6. Make friends and influence people
You’ve got to be able to deliver, and when you’re starting out, you can’t afford to make enemies. If you aspire to make Partner, try your hardest to deliver without being a git! You can do a good job whilst making friends.
A client recently said to me that when they reflect on the most successful people in their circle, every one of them had relationship building skills as one of their top assets.
As an advisor, you can’t be trusted to guide and influence decision making unless you are trusted – technical competence is part of that but lots of people are technically strong, what really matters is being trusted to be the voice guiding good decision making, especially when times are tough.
7. Work/life balance is a team effort
I count the times I manage to get home before 7pm. If I can manage it twice a week, I’m happy. I remember the impact hiring a new manager in my team had – there was probably a 4 month period where I only made it home three times before 7pm and then I was able to stop working at the weekend; it was incredible. As the firm grows that balance will always ebb and flow and, if I’m being honest, a lot of the time I’m working late because I just absolutely love what I do and time gets away from me!
Work/life balance means different things to different people. For me, time with my family and friends, adventurous holidays and time to go to the gym or for a swim give me that balance. However, I think the balance can only be struck if you have a great team around you who care about one another, who understand what’s going on and who share the workload. If the capacity and team ethos aren’t there, you can’t have work/life balance. Culturally, I think organisations should be encouraging all their staff to find ways to get the balance right, as Price Bailey has done.
8. Build strong relationships
The sign of a strong relationship is being able to have a tough conversation. If you want to work at a senior level, you need to build positive relationships with your colleagues to achieve this. Get to know people so you can work well together. It isn’t enough to be clever or make sales targets – it’s a given that you can do your job. Two characters have to get on, so focus on relationships that can collectively grow a company. If you can be honest about your individual and collective strengths and weaknesses, and find a constructive way forward, everyone will win – the clients, the staff, the firm and the Partners.
9. Focus on strategy, rather than transactions
Too often, people are focused on the next corporate transaction, and it’s usually because they’re working in a fee-driven culture or because of a lack of experience in higher-level advisory work. We have found that it’s far better to help a client create their strategy and to help them deliver it, joining them on their journey and helping to guide them.
Partnering strategically enables you to be braver and to point out when an idea doesn’t fit with the plan. It helps build credibility, particularly when you can walk away from a project if it’s the wrong thing to do, despite the value of the transaction. Focusing on strategy has benefitted our clients, it’s allowed the team to progress quickly, and it has underpinned my own career development.
10. Create client value to build your personal brand
First things first, if you live in the UK, don’t call it your personal brand! It’s not how we do things here – it exists, but it is not very British to talk about it! For me, it’s about knowing your unique role as a partner or senior individual and understanding what makes you different.
The best way to rise through the ranks is to create value for your clients. Find solutions for their problems. It’s beyond cross-selling. It’s about meeting client’s personal and corporate objectives that are beyond the scope of the work you’ve been asked to do; to know what’s really driving them and to deliver on that.
Corporate Finance is an incredibly competitive field, so to stand out you need to think beyond the question the client is asking. What they’re asking for may not be what they really need, or it may just be the tip of the iceberg. If you just give what they have asked for then you can’t be an adviser as you’re inherently stuck in the metaphor of the repetitive jigsaw puzzle!
This only works if the approach is supported by your firm, you have the remit to think critically and if you have a strong enough relationship with your client. It comes back to what I said about building relationships, trust, and a strategic partnership.
Keeping abreast of industry developments (see this article on the Future of Corporate Finance), market opportunities, regulatory change and the press, and bringing these insights to your conversations is also really valuable.
In summary, to be successful in Corporate Finance and Strategy, it takes hard study, strong relationships, integrity, teamwork and a strategic vision. What will make you stand out and get ahead is to do all of this in your own authentic way.Chand Chudasama, Strategy & Corporate Finance Partner at Price Bailey
If you feel ready to discuss your next career opportunity in Corporate Finance, or you’re looking for talent to fill a role in your organisation, please get in touch on + 44 (0) 020 3637 7808.
Read more in our lessons from leaders series in our Insights blog.