Alison Telfer began her professional career as a lawyer. However, in school, she had aspired to be a judge, teacher or artist. “Where I got to was becoming an intellectual property lawyer who might teach at University and then go on to be a judge,” she said. Ms Telfer is the current Country Head for Australia & NZ at UBS Asset Management. She has 20 years of experience in financial services, having spent eight years at BlackRock as Chief Operating Officer, General Counsel, and Head of Public Policy for Australasia.
“I’m passionate about financial services. Building better financial outcomes is fundamental to people’s lives and outcomes. Access to education is another huge point for me,” said Ms Telfer, who spoke with Nick Wailes, Deputy Dean and Director AGSM @ UNSW Business School, as part of a recent AGSM Director’s Lunch. During the event, Ms Telfer answered questions from attendees about her views on leadership, how to build a successful career, network, and cultivate a more connected experience in the workplace.
So how did Ms Telfer leap from art school to asset management, and what key lessons did she learn along the way?
How Alison Telfer forged a career path in asset management
Before joining her first law firm, King & Wood Mallesons, Ms Telfer took a few years off from the corporate world to study art in Florence, which didn’t turn out as she’d hoped. “When I went to art school in Florence, I first learned humility because I was not as talented as the people I was with. It also taught me not to judge a book by its cover; just because you love something, know enough about it, or have an opportunity does not mean it’s the right thing for your career,” she said.
So, she went to law school and, alongside her law degree, studied print journalism and internet design. As luck would have it, once she became an associate, her expertise and knowledge of the internet (at the dawn of the digital age) came in handy. Eventually, she found herself advising institutional and retail-facing fund manager clients on various online and business issues, which created the perfect segue for a career in financial services. “I did not think that that was a place I would enjoy. I loved tax and financial services, and this was a surprise,” she explained.
This was another critical learning: be open to new experiences and let yourself be surprised. “I thought the intellectual property would be creative and interesting. In fact, in many cases, it is creative and interesting people for whom you do quite uninteresting work. But, on the flip side, financial services and tax, which sounds dry to me, was very creative and entrepreneurial,” she said.
So, leaving law, she ventured into the world of financial services and spent the next decade honing her leadership skills in asset management. Here are five skills in leadership that she said will help accelerate your career:
1. Mentors are everywhere – take note
One key learning that Ms Telfer discussed was the myth that you can’t succeed without a star mentor. When Ms Telfer embarked on a career in financial services, she was dismayed at the idea of not having a mentor since it looked like anyone successful had a particular “magical unicorn person” who would take them under their wing.
“I always felt enormous pressure when I was young,” she said. “And I would listen to people talk about the fabulous mentor they found. In my case, it was often a woman talking about this male champion who identified her and took her career into his arms and has just been this powerhouse, and I would sit there thinking, ‘I don’t have a mentor… I’m never going to make it.'”
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“But then someone asked me, ‘Alison, what’s the best advice you’ve ever had?’ And at that point in my career, the best advice I’d ever had was from a bus conductor (when such things existed). I had asked him, ‘Excuse me, sir, my bus didn’t come, and now there’s an all stops. Do you think I should wait for the express bus or get on the all stops?’ (I was coming from uni). So, he said, ‘Sweetheart, the smart commuter takes the first available option’ – that was mentorship,” she said. “I’ll never see that person again, but 25 years later, I still call that out of my head, and it stops me from procrastinating.”
So, mentorship can come in small, unpredictable ways, anytime, from anyone. However, the key to harnessing the power of these moments will rely on your ability to write them down, take notes, reflect, and apply the lessons in your own life. “Be open to those little ‘ding’ moments. Collect them,” said Ms Telfer.
2. Communicate and signal ambition early
Ambition is another critical leadership skill, according to Ms Telfer. “Mentorship takes chemistry. It takes luck. But it’s all over the place. Sponsorship is different. Sponsorship is critical,” she said. “Sponsorship requires ambition: signaling skills, strengths, knowing what you want, and then asking for it.”
Is there anything you can do to increase your chances of becoming sponsored? “Signal ambition. Signal that you are open and ambitious for more. Indicate what you think your strengths are, where you can grow, and how you can help the company grow,” explained Ms Telfer, who recommended signaling you have skills that can contribute to the part of the business that interests you most.
Finally, be enthusiastic about giving something a go. “I think people forget again and again about this simple message. It resonates enormously when you sit in a leadership position with hundreds of staff, and someone speaks to you like that,” said Ms Telfer. “It’s like a ray of sunshine, and immediately, you create a sponsorship opportunity,” she said.
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3. Framing is critical
But to signal ambition early, you’ll have to learn how to ‘frame’. “There is typically a huge underestimation of the need to frame,” said Ms Telfer. Framing is the difference between saying, “here are all the things I did” versus explaining why you did them. It also provides ‘counterparts’ with your context, or the drivers for informing your viewpoint. It is the ‘why’ behind what you do, said Ms Telfer. “Introduce the points and remind people why they should listen to you, what it means, and why you’re saying it. If you’re not going to do something, say why,” she added.
Framing was a skill Ms Telfer had to re-learn while at Blackrock, managing thousands of staff globally as Chief Operating Officer and Head of Public Policy. “I thought that I had a grasp on this, and then when I joined Blackrock with many thousands of staff around the world, I had to influence a huge number of people. So, I re-learned framing and re-learned translating my message into different countries’ cultures and experiences. And I realised I should have been doing it to that level all along,” she said.
Signaling ambition and framing the reasons why it would be good for you and the business, being enthusiastic but humble about what you can bring, are vital skills that can help put you on the right path toward achieving your career goals.
4. Patience and knowing when to move on
But careful career planning also requires patience since the path may not always be clear from the beginning. “A good job isn’t something you go out and discover – it’s something you discover while you are working,” said Ms Telfer, borrowing a quote from Chinese business magnate Jack Ma. “And I love that because this has happened to me many times,” she said.
Knowing when to change jobs or careers is a powerful tool and one that can help accelerate your career. But knowing when to stay is just as powerful. Ms Telfer explained: “It’s easy to sit around and think that your job isn’t carrying you where you want to go. Maybe it isn’t the answer, and you’re quite possibly right, but is always leaving the right thing to do? It’s hard to change jobs: [there’s] networks, trust, reliance, familiarity… these are [also] very powerful tools in our careers. So, I think to be willing to change, but don’t be hasty.”
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5. Be a positive role model
As well as changing how we work, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how leaders and managers need to operate, with a stronger focus on role modeling. “We [leaders] got a little complacent on role modeling,” said Ms Telfer.
“I traveled recently, and people said, ‘oh, when you didn’t come in, no one came in, and now you’re back, everyone’s in.’ That’s a lot of pressure on leaders. But it’s true… role modeling is back with force,” she said.
But being a good role model also entails empowering others to lead. If you spread responsibilities and expectations around, you are more likely to get consistency, empowerment and ownership, said Ms Telfer. “If you don’t have those things in your culture, I don’t think your culture will succeed.”
To be a good role model, you should also aim to be solutions-oriented. Ms Telfer explained: “If you have a problem, bring a solution to it… try to avoid bringing problems in group settings if you can first find a solution more privately offline. Don’t underestimate how defensive or paranoid people can feel.”
And finally, try not to take feedback personally – that is a big mistake Ms Telfer has witnessed repeatedly. “Feedback is a kindness. It’s uncomfortable for everybody. I’m not going to spend time telling you how I think you can do better unless I believe you can. If I think you can’t, I will not talk to you,” she said. “I actually remind people of that, and I also overtly let them know it’s uncomfortable for me too.” And if you’re the one giving feedback, she suggested testing yourself on whether it is truly constructive. “You can’t just vent,” she concluded.