How to get a job at BlackRock, by the head of global trading

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Supurna VedBrat, a managing director and the head of global trading at BlackRock

Based on our annual Ideal Employer survey of more than 6,000 financial services professionals worldwide, BlackRock has placed first as the asset management firm that respondents most want to work for – in the U.S., U.K. and globally.

BlackRock, the largest fund manager in the world based on assets under management, has approximately 14,000 employees globally and hires more than 2,000 people per year, about half of which are in the U.S. Recent graduates make up approximately 15% of its annual hiring.

We spoke with Supurna VedBrat, a managing director and the head of global trading at BlackRock. She joined the firm in 2011 after previously working at Lehman Brothers, ING Barings and Bank of America.

What do you like best about your role?

BlackRock has a voice, a culture, and a platform where we represent the end-investors. Our culture is grounded in keeping the end-investor in mind. One piece of consistent guidance we give is to look at issues through the lens of the client, and you will come up with the right answer. This truly teaches you to become a fiduciary.

I run global trading, and in the years since the financial crisis, the trading landscape has changed quite a lot.

Having a platform that is in the best interests of end-investors is good for the buy side in general.

Also, I appreciate that BlackRock takes talent management very seriously. We have a Human Capital Committee (HCC) with representation from functions across the firm.  The HCC drives our approach to talent management and guides the actions we take to keep enhancing our talent-management approach.

Recently we moved to a flexible-time-off policy that is more Silicon Valley-like, and that is something that was influenced by our employee opinion survey and the HCC. With flexible time off, we don’t give people set numbers of vacation days per year. They can take the time that they need, when they need it, while still fulfilling work responsibilities. People want to balance their whole life, not just their work life. If there are life events, you want to be able to tend to them and take time off. You want to be able to incorporate wellness and other important elements into your life.

I was wondering how this was going to work, but I recently experienced the value of flexible time off. Unfortunately, my dad suddenly fell very sick. My parents live far away in India, so I was able to use this new time-off policy to spend very important time with them. The company was supportive – they said, “You need to go; that is your first priority.” Thankfully he’s doing better now – I’m his energy source.

There is a lot of emphasis on the need to keep developing yourself professionally. As an example, I told my trading team, in their development objectives, ‘You need to identify three skills to progress your career that are aligned with what we’re trying to accomplish at BlackRock.’ It’s about constantly learning and moving forward, not just getting a promotion. Every year you’re working to progress in your career and develop yourself, incorporating firm objectives into your own personal career development.

What do you like least about your job, or what could you do without?

I’m at a stage in my life when I have two teenage boys, so having the ability to take a sabbatical for a few months and then come back to my job afterward, I wouldn’t mind seeing that, but given the area that I manage [global trading], that’s very aspirational.

What does a trader at BlackRock do? How does sell-side trading differ to buy-side trading?

What’s different about working at an asset management firm relative to the sell side is that we’re managing money and investing on behalf of our clients. Every position we take and every trade that we do is on behalf of a client portfolio, versus on the sell side, where a trader is often an intermediary, actually working for a PnL, taking risk on the sell-side balance sheet itself, which is a big difference.

At BlackRock, we manage assets on behalf of different types of investment vehicles, including mutual funds, pension funds, insurance, sovereign wealth funds and hedge funds, to name a few. With a variety of asset flows and investment strategies, as a trader you learn a lot about the world of investing because you’re looking at trading through all of these different lenses, which is very appealing.

For example, we have specialized trading desks in rates, foreign exchange, credit, equities and other asset classes, which is not the case at all asset management firms. You have to have scale. We’re global – we have trading centers in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

As a trader, trading on a global basis adds depth to your experience. Regardless of the region that you’re sitting in, you actually learn about trading a global book, because of the way we’re structured and the variety of different investment vehicles that we manage.

What’s your favorite interview question? What are the best and worst answers you’ve had?

This is a question that gives me a lot of insight into an individual that you may not pick up from a resume: ‘Are you a baker or a cook?’ If somebody is a cook, then it gives me a sense that they can multitask and work in the abstract, whereas if you’re a baker, you might be more likely to enjoy a more prescriptive, structured, task-driven environment. You can imagine the surprise on many people’s faces when I ask this question. It’s an either/or question, but it does tell you a bit about people that’s good to know. There’s a place for both in trading, but it would be unfair to put a baker in a market-structure role.

If you could hire anyone tomorrow, what kind of person would it be?

We are at a time in trading, and in general in financial markets, influenced heavily by technology and global regulation. There’s an opportunity to evolve traditional trading methods into becoming a lot more open across different market participants.

The person I look for is someone who’s got a curious mind, is willing to think outside the box and has some level of technical skills. If you interview recent graduates from college, technology skills are typically something they have as part of their coursework no matter what they studied.

We want to have diversity of thought, so we hire people from different backgrounds – if a team has an engineer, an English major who happens to like investing and a finance major, then you’re going to come up with a more comprehensive solution than if you have a team consisting of like-minded thinkers.

I like people who are willing to speak up. What’s trading going to look like five or ten years from now? Their voices are very important. I have an open-door policy – people can walk in and run an idea by me – I’m open to new ideas.

We want to hire smart people who take risk-taking very seriously. You have to be very diligent and you have to own that – there will be mistakes, we’re all human, but how you respond or react to any misstep is important. Being alert and attentive and having to “own” your trading is very important.

We have quants and people who have traded products for quite a few years, or maybe multi-product traders. We’ve hired people from sales who’ve actually made very good traders, and fresh-out-of-college graduates in communications, who have taken math and finance classes. The point is, we’re not looking for everyone to be of one type. Diversity is a positive to us, so we’re not looking for cookie-cutter candidates.

Which policies do you have in place that help women?

BlackRock has created a couple of customized leadership programs, such as the Emerging Leaders at BlackRock (ELAB) and the Women’s Leadership Forum (WLF), designed to help high-performing women to enhance their leadership skills and advance their careers.

We have a Women’s Initiative Network (WIN) which is not exclusive to women – we have both men and women as members. We also have sponsorship programs at the firm that are customized for the needs of diverse talent, including women.

What proportion of your team has a PhD or MBA?

We don’t focus only on qualifications specifically. Depending on what level we’re hiring, we evaluate if a candidate’s combined work experience and qualifications meet our needs.

Our trading research team is primarily, if not all, PhDs – but in general, a degree is one factor among many in determining who we hire, depending on the role.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started your career?

The power of networking – how it influences and shapes your career, and how important it is to work for firms where you believe in the vision and most importantly you believe in the leadership.

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