Tanja Tippett has over two decades of asset management experience, after starting her career with a master’s degree in applied mathematics, followed by obtaining her Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation while working. During her career, she became an expert in asset-liability management, including fixed income and credit securities, founding and leading a Liability Driven Investments boutique in South Africa. Now she uses her experience in the financial services industry to prepare postgraduate students from different backgrounds for professional working life. This is her story...
“My Asset Management journey started over 20 years ago on the swap desk of an investment bank! I had just finished my master’s degree in applied mathematics and found the transition from studying to working challenging. This was towards the end of the 90’s and the trading desk environment was still very harsh, male-dominated and cut-throat. I did not do well in that environment – I was drowning! My first inclination was to doubt myself and pursue a different career. Fortunately, I had good friends who knew me well and who wanted me to succeed, and they all urged me to apply for a different position at an asset manager. It took courage to apply for a new position so shortly after I started. I had to come to terms with the fact that some might view it as failure, but with hindsight it turned out to be a good decision.
I moved to the Fixed Income team at South Africa’s largest asset manager. I immediately felt more at home, even though I still had much to learn. I was fortunate to have had a great mentor and teacher in my immediate manager. He generously shared what he knew, and gently guided me towards more knowledge and confidence. I quickly realised that if I wanted to succeed and become a technical expert, I needed to close what I perceived as my financial knowledge gap: I had a real fear of interpreting and analysing financial statements. Being in a fixed income team, that attitude was not going to get me very far in terms of my goal to become a technical expert! I decided to study towards becoming a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) to close that gap.
Learning and demonstrating my skills
Shortly after I joined the team, the local government issued their first inflation-linked bond. It was a new instrument in the South African market and my team had to upskill themselves in this financial instrument’s pricing, valuation, etc. I used this as an opportunity to demonstrate my abilities and skills, going above-and-beyond in my analysis to show that I had considered this instrument from all possible angles.
A few months later the first listed corporate bond was issued in South Africa and I was afforded another opportunity to learn, analyse and demonstrate my skills.
I believe that these two events are what allowed me to establish myself as the technical expert in the team and demonstrated my value to the team. They became the foundation for my progress. Read more for further reflections on my career experiences to date…
Soon thereafter I became a portfolio manager of the ‘liability portfolios’, portfolios backing insurance commitments made to policyholders. This suited both my skills and temperament – a great combination! The developments in the fixed income market allowed me to question the way the portfolios were being managed at the time and suggest alternative approaches that I believed were better. However, it meant that I had to have discussions with the Chief Actuary and Finance Director of the biggest insurance company in the country – they were both financial experts steeped in liability valuation and actuarial assumptions, I was not; they had more than two decades of experience each, I had only two years; they were men, I was not. It was intimidating! Being very well prepared and practising with my mentor and team went some way to calm my nerves. I was given the green light and I started a process of “modernising” the management of the liability portfolios. This opportunity allowed me to become skilled in asset-liability management, fixed income, credit portfolio management and inflation.
We later decided to transform our asset-liability portfolio management capability into an asset management boutique focusing on Liability Driven Investing. Again, a wonderful opportunity but it required me to change, grow and learn. I had to learn about business plans, pitches, managing a team, leading a team, and strategy. Managing a business was exciting and daunting at the same time. I had two mentors and various coaching interventions during the first three years when I was establishing that boutique – and these relationships were invaluable. The mentors and coaches provided me with much needed guidance, advice, support, and insights.
Besides the thrill of seeing the business grow and attracting funds, I enjoyed growing and leading my team. Working together towards a common goal can be very powerful. I set a goal for myself, measuring success as reaching a ‘funds under management’ target. 10 years into our journey, we reached that milestone! It was time for another shift in career direction for me.
Serving the financial services industry
Whilst I had a great career in the financial services industry, not everyone did. I was concerned about the lack of transformation in the industry – gender, race, backgrounds and more... While I did what I could in my sphere of influence as leader of an investment boutique and member of the local CFA chapter, I felt that it was not enough and that I should be doing more...
This belief is what led me back to academia. I found an institute at the University of Cape Town that was focusing on exactly this issue: transforming the financial industry by ensuring we provide the graduates they need. Now I teach, mentor, and prepare young people from different backgrounds who seek a career in the financial industry. It gives me an immense sense of purpose.
Many of my university colleagues are from a pure academic background, which makes them excellent at technical knowledge and research techniques. Given my decades of industry experience, I bring a very necessary practitioner’s perspective as to what it’s really like in the working world (including for women), and what all the studying is for.
With the benefit of hindsight and some time to reflect, here are some lessons I've learnt that shaped me and prepared me for my next steps:
1) Spending time getting to know yourself is a great investment
Knowing yourself will allow you to work towards success by choosing the right opportunities for you and to demonstrate your unique value to your team, peers and managers. You will work more efficiently in teams and you will be able to navigate the corporate world better - all factors that will contribute to your career success.
2) The financial industry is vast and not all areas will necessarily suit you, and that’s okay
Everyone entering the financial industry expects to work hard, but when one has to work hard and it is not the right fit (like my first job!) it becomes stressful, draining and leads to self-doubt. Admit it is the wrong fit, and try something else. This is not failure, but adapting and learning.
3) Careers today demand lifelong learning
Adopt an attitude of learning. The pace of work is fast and innovations are happening all the time. If you want to stay relevant and work on opportunities that excite you and make you grow, you will have to keep learning. You should also learn not to fear change. Tap into resources that will support and guide you through the change, and make sure you are confident about the purpose of the change i.e. why change is necessary.
4) Support is immensely helpful as you grow
Make sure you have the right support for changes and challenges you accept. When I shifted from a specialist to a more generalist role when I started the investment boutique, I did not know everything I needed to know to be successful. But others did.
Ask for support and advice: help comes in many shapes and forms. It could be through professional mentoring or coaching. It could be that you need to study a bit more, like I decided to do when I pursued my CFA qualification. Make time to connect with your colleagues and peers and build networks - it will make asking for help easier. And remember to celebrate all the milestones and small wins along the way - this is a great source of motivation and energy, and it allows us the opportunity to reflect on our journey and re-focus on our goal.
5) Consciously build the team, the business, the organisation and the industry you’re proud to be part of
In all your roles, try to build something better for those who join later. There are many ways to do this but it will give you a sense of purpose. Think about what attracted you to the industry, reflect on your own experience and what you’d like improved, as well as what lasting change you want to leave behind. Consider the ways in which you can contribute to the improvements or change you want to see, and then consciously work towards that. This does take time and patience but it brings a great sense of fulfilment.”