While at first, the CFA exam was a thing I did for the thrill of overcoming the huge challenge of cracking into asset management and becoming a portfolio manager, in the end, getting my CFA designation became the thing that has had the single greatest impact on my career. What I learned would have stayed with me to this day – and it goes way beyond concepts like the Markowitz efficient frontier or any of the subject matter.
I started out working in global custody at J.P. Morgan but had always wanted to work as a portfolio manager. A colleague in the pensions analytics department mentioned that I should really take the CFA in order to gain the credibility and technical skills to make the switch.
I was an English major with no practical experience with even so much as a net present value calculation, so studying for the exam was a serious undertaking. I had some serious ground to make up, and I worked harder than I ever had before. While most people study for six months, I studied almost every day for a year. I worked through power outages, studying by candle light, and numb hands after the heat cut off in the dead of winter. I got neck strain from hunching over the Kaplan Schweser books so intently.
So that was the first way the CFA changed me: It was the first time in my life that I had ever wanted something so badly that nothing else mattered. I once told a reporter that my tombstone was going to say “Sara Grillo, CFA” – even if it took me 80 years to get it. It’s made me brave enough to attempt things that others wouldn’t, for example, starting my own company. I’d always say to myself that if I was able to pass the CFA exam coming from zero investment or financial analysis background, then nothing else would be impossible.
With just Level I under my belt, I was able to make a move into a marketing role at a small buy-side firm. Even with having passed just one level, though, there was a kind of personal branding effect that opened up some doors for me. I got more respect at work when people saw that I was a candidate for Level II. When I went to networking functions, I could talk to senior portfolio management executives who recognized my candidacy for future exams as having at least some value to them. And beyond that, I felt more confident starting up conversations because of this.
In addition, the connections I’ve made through my local CFA society have been meaningful. There’s a kind of bond that happens between people who get the CFA designation.
The third way that the CFA exam has changed me, both as a person and as a professional, has been the ethical rigidity that it has instilled in me. It’s not that I was ever morally vacuous, but having to master the complicated Ethics section of the CFA exam three times did teach me to see the laws governing the financial industry in a deeper way. I’ve had anti-money laundering (AML) training and compliance training while holding different roles in finance over the years, but in comparison, these sessions were just scratching the surface. To pass the CFA Ethics section, you have to understand what regulations dictate is right and wrong when executing sophisticated financial transactions. What’s more, the habit of always steering clear of being in any questionable moral situation involving money is ingrained in my mind.
This higher ethical framework has had a clear impact on my career trajectory, just as having the CFA designation really makes an impression on the people who are doing business with you. When people respect your integrity and honesty, it puts them at ease because it makes it easier for them to trust you. This has helped me make inroads when I face difficult situations with clients. I simply tell the truth and am 100% transparent, even more so than I need to be. People are shocked because they’re not used to dealing with someone who is willing to be that upfront with them. It’s been an incredible differentiator for my brand as a businesswoman.
So there you have it. For those of you who expected me to talk about my ability to write an IPS that could choke a horse, sorry if this comes as a surprise. The real value of the CFA program to me came in ways that had nothing to do with the technical skills I gained and everything to do with the way it changed my attitude and how I relate to other people.
Sara Grillo, CFA, is a financial writer with a focus on branding and marketing for investment management firms and professionals. She is a former associate at City National Rochdale and Lehman Brothers, investment adviser at Grillo Investment Management and a financial adviser at Empire Wealth Strategies.
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