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Q&A: Mike Connarty, director of international investments at Standard Life, advocates learning Mandarin if you want to get ahead

Mike connarty, Std Life

Mike Connarty is based in Edinburgh but he’s an international figure in financial services. As director of international investments, Mike manages Standard Life’s fast-growing joint venture investments in India and China. If you want to work for him, you’ll need a genuinely international outlook – and ideally the capacity to speak Mandarin.

Q: How long have you been in financial services?

Mike: Since 1977, when I finished my law degree at Edinburgh University. I had interviews and job offers from some law firms but as soon as I was interviewed by Standard Life I knew I wanted to work for them instead.

Q: Has your career path been conventional or capricious?

Mike: Conventional in the sense that I have worked for Standard Life for 35 years, but in that time I have had the opportunity to work in pensions, legal, customer services, compliance, marketing, banking and international. (which meant working in Brussels and Germany). I headed the project to set up our Indian joint venture, HDFC Standard Life, with partners Housing Development Finance Corporation (HFDC) in 2000, which meant living in Mumbai. I am now back in International (since 2007) with responsibility for our joint ventures in India and China (in China our joint venture is Heng An Standard Life, based in Tianjin).

Q: What matters most, talent or hard work?

Mike: Talent matters most, but there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing talent wasted because of a lack of application. I’ve seen examples of this on the sports field as well as at work.

You could be in a job that’s well suited to your talents, but the business environment and the markets change constantly so you have to work hard to develop and adapt your talent.

Q: What would you always advise people to do before they step into an interview with you?

Mike: Know your audience. Research the person you are speaking to, their organisation, and their department. Not being prepared implies you are not serious about the job. I don’t give unprepared people much houseroom.

As for graduates, I’d advise those who are finding it hard to get the right job to show interviewers that they have filled any gap between university and permanent employment thoughtfully, with something such as charity work or travel – but not just for travel’s sake. Learn about the different cultures you could work in, especially those of the Far East.

Q: What do you know now about working in financial services that you wish you’d known 15 years ago?

Mike: The significant importance of continuing education. The world and financial services change fast. My law degree gave me the skills I needed to start with, then I took an MBA to give me breadth of knowledge in other business areas.

Now I think it would be good to start with a financial services degree and a degree in Mandarin. When I was at school businesses were expanding into Europe so we learnt French and German but now I’d advise anyone wanting an international business career to learn Mandarin. Mandarin speakers are in short supply so it will give them the edge when it comes to getting jobs – that’s advice I’ve given my own children.

Q: You are only allowed to hire one person over the next six months. Can you describe their ideal profile?

Mike: They would have a high level of integrity. It’s essential in any job, but especially in financial services. They would be outgoing and able to get on with people and communicate well. They would also have wide financial services experience, and experience in international markets. The ability to adapt to different cultures is essential – we cannot expect people constantly to adapt to ours.

Q: In no more than three sentences, can you say what your business area will look like in 2015?

Mike: Our joint venture in China will have expanded, so we have a presence in more cities with wider distribution, and more customers, to give us a bigger share of what is a huge potential market.

In India we are already the number two company among the 23 in the joint venture market so in three years time I see us as having expanded to take the number one slot, and starting to compete head-on with the nationalised insurer (The Life Insurance Corporation of India) which has over 60 per cent of the total market.

Q: I want to work for you. What will persuade you to hire me?

Mike: You must show you have the ability to build and develop relationships with all kinds of people regardless of their background.

You must have the right skills but also the ability to impart that knowledge to others.

A high level of integrity is essential – people must be able to trust you and you them. And, finally, you must have a sense of humour – that’s vital if you want to work for me.

Comments (4)

  1. “Mandarin speakers are in short supply” Last time I have checked there were millions of people in China with three PHD and fluent English. European people should better learn how to use Excel properly and take quality risk.

  2. “Mandarin speakers are in short supply” …..
    I speak and write Chinese Mandarin and worked in an Investment Bank with huge presence in Asia. For the past year or so, I have been trying to move to a sales role serving Chinese Corporates within the bank but to no avail. The hiring manager seems prioritise work experience in front of the advantage in knowing a foreign language.
    If Standard Life is hiring for Mandarin speaking staff, I’ll be glad to apply for a role.

  3. Mandarin is important however there is the risk that fund managers and analysts are hired for their language ability, and more important factors such as analytical ability are placed second. The experience of the UK when it went Pan-European was firms initially hiring staff for their language ability; the result = a very poor quality to mediocre research output. In the end, the English speaking UK analysts took over the Pan European role, and research qualilty dramatically improved, because they had much better analytical ability.

    Moreover, Mandarin ability and even local native Chinese hires have not prevented many firms investing in to huge Chinese accounting scandals. It is not hard to find growth stories in China, but it is hard to filter out fraud risk. Investment companies thought they had formed Guanxi, helped by their Mandarin ability, but they lacked other skills such as analytical ability to confirm other important factors, hence lost a lot of money.

    A better appproach would be to have teams that consist of several specialists combining their respective fields, such as analysis, accounting, Manadarin, and fund management, instead of just Mandarin where the talent pool is very limited and the empirical evidence does not support a superior investment performance, despite the theoretical logic. This is for listed equities and debt. The one exception to this would be private equity.

    JohnBesantJones Reply
  4. There is nothing wrong with the advice to learn Mandarin, although perhaps it is something for the next generation. And yes, analytical skills are very important, but you surely don’t mean that only ‘English speaking UK analysts’ have them?

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