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My finance career plateaued but I turned it around to become a manager. Here’s how

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Jenna Dessart had, by 2013, built a successful and global career for herself in the asset management sector. She had worked for more than two years at AXA Investment Managers in France and had shifted to Hong Kong with BNP Paribas Investment Partners.

At the time Dessart was in a regional research role at the French bank, analysing economic and political developments affecting Asia’s equity and bond markets. But despite all her early achievements, she felt that her career was at risk of reaching a plateau.

Decisive action was needed to help achieve her goal of securing a management position. “I had a finance degree and one level of the CFA, yet I could see that moving up the ladder in my role would be difficult without an MBA,” says Dessart.

“I wanted to challenge myself on a human level and get a qualification that would help me interact better with clients and colleagues,” she adds. “An MBA isn’t about studying by yourself and memorising information, it’s a social and intellectual challenge that will shape you into a better leader.”

Dessart planned to stay in Hong Kong and began thoroughly researching programmes in the city. One soon stood out to her: the Chinese University of Hong Kong MBA. “It’s a high-ranking MBA in Asia and globally, has excellent employment rates for its alumni, and has flexible exchange programmes with other world-class universities,” she says.

Above all, Dessart was attracted to CUHK because of the quality of its faculty. “I could see that the lecturers had industry experience – in finance and other sectors – and I wanted to learn leadership skills from people who were business leaders themselves.”

The lecturers did not disappoint once Dessart began her MBA. “They all brought their knowledge to the table and tied the academic concepts to real business scenarios.”

Dessart says she particularly enjoyed the class on fixed-income securities analysis, taught by Thomas Bain, a former J.P. Morgan managing director.

“He made the subject come alive with active discussions and regular quizzes that helped us retain the material,” says Dessart. “He taught us to stay abreast with financial news and think about how the news impacts the economy, industries, companies and products. The class connected the dots between money and theory.”

Case studies were another highlight of the CUHK MBA for Dessart. “They had an Asian focus, which you don’t get at most business schools, and they were a great introduction to the strategies and stumbles of companies in this region,” she explains.

Dessart, who chose a finance focus for her MBA, says the degree equipped her with a range of new technical skills – from understanding management accounting to valuing financial instruments.

Even more importantly, Dessart says CUHK encourages students to become better leaders by “questioning information and arriving at logical conclusions”. “The course gave me more confidence to be more vocal about my ideas because the professors were always encouraging us to express our opinions.”

The lecturers also used their strong local networks to bring in senior guest speakers from financial services and other sectors. “This way we learned about current and upcoming trends directly from market leaders in their fields. And they provided realistic insights into what working in their industries is like.”

Dessart also gained new knowledge from her classmates. “This was the best part of the MBA – the classroom looked like the United Nations. It was amazing to interact with students from many different nationalities, backgrounds, ages and industries.”

“Doing group work with people from countries as diverse as China, India and Germany made the MBA more interesting and it also helps me now on the job,” says Dessart. “I’m better at managing relationships and adapting my working style.”

She did two internships in Hong Kong during her MBA and the second one, at money manager Gavekal Capital, led to a full-time job when she graduated in 2015. Earlier this year she moved to Yotei Advisors, a wealth management firm.

“I’m still in the buy-side, but at management level – so I achieved the main objective of completing the MBA,” says Dessart. “My experience at CUHK also helped me become more confident at work, especially with clients, which is vital in my job as a wealth manager because I need to build long-term relationships.”

Dessart offers the following advice for finance professionals thinking of using the CUHK programme to advance their careers. “Your job search starts on day one of the MBA and you build managerial skills every step of the way, so make the most of the case studies, competitions, and networking events. Also be proactive in class – propose new ideas and interact with everyone. Teamwork is the key to success during the MBA and when you’re a manager.”

Image credit: Getty

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