They say that when you’ve got a hammer in your hand, everything starts to look like a nail. The mere act of picking up this tool alters the way that you see the world.
When you became an investment professional, you made a bigger commitment than simply picking up a tool. This choice of career will have become a part of your identity as a human being. Naturally enough, it has a profound effect on your perception, cognition, inclination and behavior. Your career will have sharpened your existing intellectual and competitive attributes.
You might have noticed in the competitive investment industry that the desire to outperform peers and/or benchmark can intensify into a kind of monomania. While this has its benefits, of course, usually it also gives rise to an array of unintended consequences.
To be clear, I’m not saying that performance is unimportant, or caring deeply about your performance is a bad thing. Not at all. What I’m suggesting is that performance is not the only thing that you should care deeply about as an investment professional.
Your career results are a function of two things:
- Numbers. Your investment performance
- People. Your professional relationships.
The one without the other is not half as good, it can be uncomfortably close to irrelevant. If you have stellar relationships but no performance, you might be warmly regarded by your colleagues but you’re going to have only a short stint in the hot seat. Fair enough, that’s the deal. You were hired to deliver decent numbers.
But many fund managers fondly imagine that if they post great numbers, assets will naturally follow, the business will thrive, and their careers will be a great success.
That can happen, sure, sometimes. But way more frequently your career is also propelled by the people around you. You have teams of people who support you in delivering your performance, providing you with analysis, IT support, compliance, business development…You get the picture. Without all that support, you’re unlikely to attract assets of any significance, which means that great performance will be largely insignificant. All of those relationships matter. Performance and relationships.
One of the consequences of performance monomania is the tendency to devalue or even discount entirely the relationships part of the equation. This is a dangerous path. As you lose the commitment of the people who support you, your career becomes increasingly fragile.
Quick diversion: We are given due warning about the consequences of monomonia in some of the world’s great works of art and literature. An example is Herman Mellville’s famous story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the whale named Moby Dick. One of the reasons that this fiction is widely considered a great work is that it contains a deep truth. If you haven’t read the book, spoiler alert: he manages to harpoon the whale, but it doesn’t end well for the good captain or his crew or his ship.
As an investment professional, you’ll see events in the world through an investment lens. In response to an event, the questions that will run through your mind will typically include: what does this event mean for that stock or sector, how might that affect your portfolio, what trades do you need to put on or take off?
So, it’s not a stretch that you might begin to see the people around you through that same investment lens. Put differently, there is a non-trivial probability that you might treat the people around you in the way that you treat a portfolio of stocks. You might even reduce these people to simple binary narratives or simple evaluative metrics, much like you might treat tradable securities.
To state the glaringly obvious, securities and people are not the same. Stocks have no memory or feelings about being ruthlessly treated, but people do. The stocks in your portfolio don’t contribute more to your performance when you acknowledge and affirm them, but the members of your team do. The stocks that you’ve selected for your portfolio don’t need to trust you or trust each other, but the members of your team do.
When you dehumanise the people who support you, even subtly, you undermine your own future results. The corollary is that when you pay constructive attention to your professional relationships, you give a major boost to your own career.
To repeat: your career results are a function of both your investment performance and your professional relationships. By accepting that statement, you avert a decent chunk of the risk associated with performance monomania. You recognise that you inhabit two equally important professional domains, not just one.
Let’s take a quick look at these two domains, each with its own characteristics and dynamics.
- This domain encompasses your relationship with the various securities covered by your investment process.
- In this domain you’re measured by the quality of your investment performance, the degree to which you’re able to outperform your benchmark or your peers.
- It’s the domain of business and accounting and engineering, it requires hard skills. It’s mechalogical in nature.
- This domain demands of you an ability to be cool, rational, analytical, decisive.
- This domain encompasses your relationships with the various stakeholders in your investment process.
- In this domain you’re measured by the quality of your professional relationships, the degree to which you’re able to enrol others and count on their commitment.
- It’s the domain of psychology and philosophy and biology, it requires soft skills. It’s ecological in nature.
- This domain demands of you an ability to be warm, receptive, engaging, generative.
Given that each domain will make different demands of you, it follows that you need to be aware of what domain you’re operating in. The better you’re able to make the distinction between domains, the better you will meet the emergent demands of each situation, and the better will be the arc of your career.
But it’s not always a simple matter. When you’re in a research meeting with your team of analysts discussing the investment merits of a particular stock, what domain are you in? Is it the investment domain because the meeting is about the stock? Or is it the interpersonal domain because the meeting is with other people? Or is it both domains simultaneously?
In a single setting like a research meeting a skilled practitioner would be able to consciously and seamlessly move back and forth between the two domains as different demands emerge, as the situation unfolds, even in one setting. When you’re able to do this, you also become able to actively influence the manner of the unfolding.
The phenomenon of noise (as I define it) is highly antagonistic to this higher level of functioning. The first casualty in an encounter with noise is awareness. With loss of awareness, you lose the ability to distinguish between domains and the ability to consciously shift between them. Noise will seduce you into confusing these two domains or force you to fuse them into one. Enter monomania, with all its unintended consequences.
As a final thought on the matter, machines are getting much better at replicating your activities in the market domain. That’s a problem. But they seem (to me, at least) to be somewhat further behind at satisfactorily replicating genuine human relationships. That’s an opportunity. This latter domain might be the best place to build a longer-term competitive advantage.
- How do you rate your abilities in the investment domain? How might others rate you?
- How do you rate your abilities in the interpersonal domain? How might others rate you?
- In which domain might you need to deepen your abilities? What’s the next step?
- Justin Newdigate: Noise (2019)
- Herman Melville: Moby Dick (1851)