“We look at each candidate and say, “How you approach this interview, is how we assume you’re going to approach your job.” So, in this day and age of the Internet, of social networking, there’s absolutely no excuse not to know as much as possible about the position that you are interviewing for. And it’s always a big surprise at how few people take the time to do that. When a candidate comes prepared, that is a clue to us that they have some of the key attributes that we look for.”
Elissa Sangster: Welcome to part one of our three-part series on careers at BlackRock. BlackRock is the largest asset management firm in the world with more than $3 trillion in assets under management. Over the course of this series we’re going to hear from women in different phases of their careers at BlackRock. We’ll talk about what drew them to financial services, how they built their careers over time, and their tips for interviewing and preparing for a job in this sector. Today we’re going to start with Kate Jonas, managing director in BlackRock’s global client group, about landing a job and managing a career over time. Kate leads a team of 21 people providing asset management services to clients in the southern United States. She’s been at BlackRock for about 10 years. We started by asking Kate what she looks for in a job candidate.
Kate Jonas: We are very fortunate at BlackRock to interview very talented, very bright, very highly motivated individuals so we see some terrific people. The real key, and something that sets people apart is really preparation for the interview. How prepared is someone? How much do they know about BlackRock? How much do they know about the position they’re interviewing for? We look at each candidate and say, “How you approach this interview, is how we assume you’re going to approach your job.” So, in this day and age of the Internet, of social networking, there’s absolutely no excuse not to know as much as possible about the position that you are interviewing for. And it’s always a big surprise at how few people take the time to do that. When a candidate comes prepared, that is a clue to us that they have some of the key attributes that we look for.
Are you a self-starter? Are you a problem solver? Do you have a strong work ethic? Are you curious? And the last thing I’d say, is that preparation also leads you to ask good questions, and we often judge candidates more on the questions they ask us than the answers they provide us. If a 24, 25, 26-year-old comes in and asked about the strategic direction of BlackRock or the next acquisition, that’s interesting, but that doesn’t really show me that they want to know, “What does it take to succeed in the role I’m interviewing for? What skills do I need? If I’m very good in one position what is the next likely position for me?” Those people who, through their questions, show an understanding of what they’re interviewing for. If they asked specifically, “What asset classes would I learn about? Will I learn about stocks? Will I learn about bonds?” Really, things that are very specific to the position that they are applying for.
We look for a very strong work ethic. We see a lot of high achievers. Not all high achievers have a very strong work ethic. People who have a sense of pride in what they do, whether they are making a copy of something, or whether they are doing a very intense analysis, people who really want to deliver an excellent finished product and who take every aspect of the job seriously. That’s important to us. We’re looking for people who are curious. We are in a knowledge business; you need to be curious about the world around you, about not only the products that we sell but the organization. We’re looking for people who feel like they want to make things better, people who have initiative and people who know how to think and apply that knowledge. All these are very intangible but that’s really what we’re trying to seek.
Elissa: We asked Kate to share some of the questions she asks candidates.
Kate: One of the very important questions I ask and I’m continually surprised that people are unprepared for this question is, what are the top three skills, actual skills, that you bring to a job, that you bring to an organization? People tend to think of themselves as an economics major from the University of Michigan or an A student or a high achiever, but we’re really looking for … Do you have great project management skills? Are you fantastic with building models in Excel? Are you a great writer? What is your attention to detail like? Lots of people come in and say, “I have great people skills.” What does that really mean? Have you rallied a group of people to get something done? Have you motivated people to solve a tough problem? That seems like a very basic question.
I think that when you interview for a job, you have to put yourself in the place of the person interviewing you. They are looking for a series of skills and you need to understand the skills you have and how that applies to the job that we’re looking to fill. Also, just two other questions I would add that again, get to how people think and that aspect of: will you work well in a knowledge-based industry? Often times we make an assumption, and it’s very important to us to find people who are very interested in the work that we do here. So I often ask people, “Are you interested in capital markets? If so, how does that manifest? How do you follow what’s going on in the markets?” I used to ask, “What newspaper you read?” but no longer. “How do you get your information and what is something that you’re following right now? What is of interest to you right now? What are you thinking about?”
And then again, in terms of analytical and thought processes, what is it that you expect to get out of this job? How are you going to analyze whether this position is right for you? You have to visit the BlackRock website. You have to understand the business we’re in. You have to understand we’re in the asset management business, we’re not an investment bank. What does investment management mean? You then can look at very specifically, the products BlackRock offers. You can look at the global client group and see what is the function of that group. I think that it’s very easy for young people today to network into organizations, to talk to someone who’s doing the job, to come in and say, “I talked to … ” so-and-so or “Three people from my school or three people from my former firm work here.” There are many, many ways to understand what it is you’re positioning yourself for.
Elissa: We asked Kate what advice she has in terms of navigating career opportunities over time. Once you get that offer, how can you chart your course?
Kate: Career development, to me personally, means very consciously in a very focused way and very determinedly building the broadest and deepest possible skill set that sets you up to manage, lead, mentor, and take increasingly important positions within an organization. And this is all built on a base of subject matter, expertise and experience. There is no roadmap. You own your own career and you don’t know what opportunity set is going to be put before you and you need to figure it out. And so the question is, how do you figure it out and it really gets back to thematically, things that I’ll come back to again and again; preparedness and understanding your skill set. What are you good at? What are you not good at that you need to be good at, so you can do the next job?
I think it’s very important in a career to look at the people senior to you, right above you. Look at the people at the top. If you want to be Larry Fink, if you want to be the CEO of BlackRock, what does Larry do? What skills does he use? What’s the gap between what he does and what you do? His presentation skills. His communication skills. His analytical skills. I think that in sports, people often visualize to be very successful. You hear the great tennis players or great golfers, they visualize. I think you have to do that in business as well. Where are you going and what skills do you need to get there? Networking in your organization, knowing what’s going on in your organization; you have to focus on your job and you have to do your job but you also have to get out of your own cubicle and understand what is happening in the organization.
Certainly, at a company like BlackRock where we’ve gone through many mergers and changes and acquisitions, that always means there’s opportunity. Have you listened for that opportunity? And again, how can you take your understanding of what your skills are, find a job that uses those skills but also offers you a chance to stretch yourself and position yourself for that next job? So for example, in my own career, by focusing on skills I didn’t get pigeonholed, let’s say into an asset class. So I started out working in an area with international equities, and I took that skill set and I was able to then work in emerging market equities, and then I was able to work in a product which combined emerging market equities, international equities and US equities.
So over the course of my years, I was able to develop asset class fluency across many many different asset classes but building on the client facing skills which didn’t change, regardless of the product or the organization. I’ve changed organizations a couple of times. I think the best career decisions I’ve ever made are really knowing when to stick with a job or an organization, and knowing when to move on. We all run into times where we’re not happy with what’s going on in our job, and one has to learn to distinguish between a rough couple of months or just a sense that the grass is always greener on the other side, and really when the time to move on is. There are frustrations that we always face but really, sometimes having patience. If I look at my career, the two things that I did best was stay for 10-plus years at two organizations, and pursued different opportunities within those organizations.
Because I worked with a number of people, I earned the trust of people and they gave me different opportunities. If you jump too quickly because you don’t like what you’re doing today, that’s a mistake. On the flip side of that, don’t confuse patience and complacence. If you’re very comfortable at what you do and you feel like you’re great, don’t fall behind. You need to push yourself to develop other skills. You can’t stay doing the same thing too long because you’re too comfortable. You have to take some risk, and I will say, in the course of my career there has certainly been mistakes. I will tell you that there was a three-year period which I view as the nadir of my career, and I tell young people this all the time, probably the worst three years. I was really, really, miserable, not happy in the organization, not [inaudible 00:10:09], not happy in the job, but without those three years I absolutely could never have gone on to do what I did following that. That time of adversity set me up extremely well for the next steps in my career.
Elissa: What is Kate’s best bit of advice to women just starting out?
Kate: Yes, and I would say really two important things. I received two important pieces of advice. First, when you are hired for a job in any organization, be excellent. Do the best job that you absolutely can do at that job. That is your reputation. If you do an excellent job, you will be in demand, you will create a bid for yourself, and that will set you up very, very well. And really, the second thing is, and we might have said this in the beginning, you own your own career. Your parents don’t own your career, your company doesn’t own your career, your significant other doesn’t own your career. You are responsible for charting the course, and figuring out what is best for you, and building your skill set, and heading toward making your career a success, because ultimately you really define for yourself what is your own success. And you need to think about that and be very proactive about your own career success.
Elissa: In part two of this series, we’ll talk to a young analyst about why she chose BlackRock and what drew her to a career in financial services. Stay tuned.