15 Lessons I Learned During My Career, With Jim Coley
One of the great things about success today is how it has become less and less an individual’s task. With so many successful people ready to impart their wisdom, you need only to find the right mentors and coaches from whom to learn. You don’t have to toil and dig a new path; you just have to follow those who have done them. In this episode, we have one of those remarkable people, eagerly sharing the hard-won lessons he learned from his career. J.R. Lowry speaks with Jim Coley, a recently retired executive-level leader from S&P Global. Upon his retirement, Jim wrote “15 Things I Learned In My Career,” which took off and went viral on LinkedIn. In this conversation, he dives deeper into those lessons with us, sharing career advice from hiring, managing, and succession planning, to maintaining physical health and wellbeing. Don’t miss out on these golden nuggets – tune in!
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15 Lessons I Learned During My Career, With Jim Coley
Recently Retired Executive-Level Leader From S&P Global
PathWise is dedicated to helping you live the career you deserve, providing career coaching content, courses, and community. Basic membership is free. Visit PathWise.io online and join. My guest is Jim Coley, who retired from managing the client management team within S&P Global Solutions Division. Over his many years in the financial services industry, he developed a reputation for creating, turning around, and growing globally diverse business development, sales, and account management teams across the capital markets, asset management, and financial technology industries.
He started his career with diversified manufacturer FMC, where he helped invest their corporate cash balances. He then went to business school and moved over to Morgan Stanley, where he spent sixteen years and to Deutsche Bank, where he spent two more years. While at Deutsche, he served on the Board of Directors for Tradeweb, which at the time was a nascent electronic fixed-income trading platform.
He then cofounded and led two startup businesses, one a community bank and one a boutique investment management firm. He joined Markit in 2009, which later became IHS Markit, and which was ultimately acquired by S&P Global in early 2022. He served on the Advisory Board of REZITRADE and was on the Advisory Board of Tuskegee University. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and his MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Jim, welcome. Congrats on your retirement!
Thank you for having me.
The impetus for this particular discussion was your retirement announcement on LinkedIn, where you wrote a post with a list of fifteen lessons that you learned during your career, which I found quite helpful. It seemed like that list made the rounds, and it got a lot of impressions on LinkedIn.
I was quite surprised. I had no idea when I wrote it what the impact would be. The last time I looked, it was almost 100,000 impressions. I had 400 people chat in the comment area. I had eighteen reposts. Almost all the reposts were from people that I didn’t even know. People reposted, and then I had numerous people reach out to me directly and ask for a copy of it or comment on it. One of them said, “Number thirteen rang true with me. Thank you so much.” It was very touching.
LinkedIn is a funny thing. Sometimes you can’t get a message to people you know. I was doing thank you notes for some fundraising that I’d done where I’d pretty much used LinkedIn as my communication vehicle. I had people on there who I didn’t even know who had contributed to my fundraising. That always helps restore your faith in humanity. How long did you spend putting that list together? How long had you been thinking about it?
It was rattling in the back of my head for about three years. I have been kicking around the idea of retiring, and then this summer, my boss, Andrew Eisen and I decided this was the year I was going to retire. When we made that decision, I wrote down the points on my iPad as a draft, and then I kept iterating them over the next few months.
At one point, I was at twenty and thought, “That’s too many,” and then I cut it down to ten. I thought that didn’t seem like enough. I was missing some important ones. I then got to around 15, so I settled on 15, and I liked the ring of the 15 things and the title as opposed to a top ten Letterman-type list. That’s where we ended up.
Search Engine Optimization algorithms love numbers. Whether it’s 10, 15, or 20, it helps to have something that’s based on a list. They love the list.
You started right off with your own wording of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others.” You’ve indicated that some of your bosses didn’t do a particularly great job of abiding by this principle. Why do you think not all leaders get this, and how did you manage those situations when you were in them in your own career?
It is hard to manage through it. I came up in an environment in the ’80s on Wall Street where there was the Liar’s Poker period and the big personalities. It was common for people to yell and throw things at each other on the training desk. It was the environment I grew up in, and fast forward to now, decades later, that behavior is largely not tolerated in the work environment. There are still a lot of old-school managers that grew up in that environment from way back when who still operate that way.
The way I operated is probably not the best way. I tried to ignore them and brush them off, and I found that generally didn’t work. What I have done is go to one of their peers and try to seek advice, almost like a mitigation session. The final stop is HR in this day and age. I have never personally used it but I know that can happen. My goal is always to try to outlast them and find another job somewhere in the organization and try to move on.
It is tough. You face a difficult choice when you are an employee in one of those situations because there’s only so much you are going to be able to do to change [the situation]. As you say, there’s less tolerance for these people in this day and age, but they are still out there. It makes it tough on their employees, and unfortunately, sometimes those situations aren’t even always recognized by their bosses. They see the good. They don’t necessarily see the dirty underside.
It makes for an unpleasant work environment, and the team doesn’t necessarily operate at its full potential in those environments, in my opinion.
One of the other points on the list you mention is that every person will experience spurious luck in their career but it takes skill to recognize luck to seize it and effectively capitalize on it. I thought that was a great point. What are some of the ways that you feel like you were lucky in your career, and how did you capitalize on that luck?
It’s random. I remember when I was graduating from Wharton, I was 22. It was the Great Recession of 1982. I wanted to go work on Wall Street. No Wall Street firm was going to hire a 22-year-old kid out of Wharton, so I did something different. I had gone to one of those random events. Someone I met knew what I wanted to do and made a call on my behalf without my even knowing about it.
The next thing I knew, I had a job interview. I got hired by Morgan Stanley, and I made it to Wall Street, and it wasn’t the path I thought I was going to go. When I think about the luck in my career, it has been mostly through individuals that you don’t necessarily think are going to help you but in some weird way, they come into your life and offer you an opportunity. That’s why I talk about, “It takes skill to recognize luck.” When you see that lucky event, you have to capitalize on it.It takes skill to recognize luck. When you see that lucky event, you have to capitalize on it. Click To Tweet
Sometimes, it’s people and other times, it’s other things. It’s other situations. I can think of times in my own career where maybe going in, I didn’t feel like a situation was going to be as useful as it ended up proving. It ended up being either much better than I expected or had some downstream benefit that I hadn’t anticipated until that downstream benefit revealed itself, which sometimes wasn’t until years later.
I describe the job I’m in now as bringing together a lot of the random things that I have done over the years. Some of them I’m not sure I fully appreciated would be useful to me until I got into this particular job. Sometimes we discount luck. Sometimes we probably overplay it. You have to capitalize on the situations that are put in front of you, and you have to be open to that.
I feel like my last career at Markit…I went there with the idea of working there for a year and then returning back to the asset management space. I didn’t realize how dynamic and fast it was going to grow and how many things I could end up doing there. Thirteen and a half years later, I was still there. It was luck that put me there in the first place, so I totally agree.
In a related point, you talk about recognizing where people have benefited from tailwinds and where they faced headwinds. Was it hard in your experience when you had somebody who had faced those headwinds to get the higher-ups to go along with your recommendation that somebody deserved that bonus or promotion even when their contributions might not have been as visible or more broadly?
I learned this thing in coaching youth football. I called it positive intent. You had to say five good things about something before you could give one criticism because people don’t hear it. With adults, it’s 3 to 1, but whatever. What I found with senior management is that they form opinions of somebody, and you’ve got to reinforce that message over and over that someone is doing something that’s not luck. It’s a skill. If you do that a number of times over a long time, you will have the opportunity to support that individual. It’s a drip campaign for sure.
I think of a basketball stat. I can’t remember the exact name of it, but it’s basically the plus-minus. How much does your team score more than the opponent when you are in the game versus how much do they score relative to the opponent when you are not in the game? That differential is at least an indicator of your value even if you are not putting up points, putting up rebounds, making assists, shooting free throws directly or whatever the case may be, but you are in the game and helping the team overall. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have something like that in the work world because there are a lot of unsung heroes out there who play that role and make their teams better, but it doesn’t always show up in the corporate stat line.
Your job as a manager is to find those gems and cultivate them, and then to be their team cheerleader. That’s a big part of the role.Your job as a manager is to find those gems, cultivate them, and then be their team cheerleader. Click To Tweet
How did you deal with the opposite situations where you had somebody who you felt was gliding along on those tailwinds, putting up great numbers but not necessarily deserving the full level of respect that maybe they were getting from the numbers themselves?
That’s the tougher one because everyone looks at it and says, “That person is so successful.” You have to use some facts and a drip campaign like, “That person is on the good profit line business.” They benefit from a client doing something that gives them a great opportunity.” I don’t try to put them down so much. I try to elevate the others above them, and that’s the only way you can do it.
I saw it a lot on Wall Street. There are a lot of lucky people that are happening to be on the right product line at the right time, at the right profitability and asset class. One of the lessons I learned from my first career on Wall Street was I started in money market sales, where you have the lowest profitability. Then you have high-yield sales guys with two points of spread in the product. They were the heroes. The money market guys were considered the goats. That’s where I learned that lesson.
There’s something to be said for being in the right product and selling the product that generates the juice.
You mentioned that you had people reaching out with points that have particularly resonated. For me, the one that resonated more than any was the importance of filling your open roles in a timely fashion. It’s always amazed me how people I have worked with will simultaneously complain about how overworked their teams are, and yet they still can’t get their open roles filled. It’s like you are not doing anything to help yourself in those situations.
You nailed it. I learned this one when I first started at Markit from Shane Akeroyd, who was my boss for about a decade. He used to hammer this point home to all his managers. “You’ve got to hire.” You think about the time it takes for someone to be fully productive. We did a study back in Markit in 2010 where we studied how long it took a salesperson to be fully productive, and we measured that by the average of the population. It turned out it took about nine months.
When you figure out the time to get a requisition in, get approval, find candidates, and hire them, they have to give notice, then they have their leave, then they come in, and you train them. You are looking at a year before someone is going to be fully effective on your team at a minim. If you’re underwater, you need help if people leave or need additional capacity. You’ve got to be thinking about that a year plus in advance. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned in my career.
You were talking about situations where you are growing, so you can anticipate that you are going to need people. You’re naturally in the market. Even when you’re not growing, you’ve got to be naturally in the market because somebody can come in and resign at any point. In the US, they could give you two weeks’ notice and be gone very quickly, and then you are in a scramble to replace them. If you’re not in the market, if you haven’t got a job spec written, or if you haven’t got a relationship built with the relevant recruiters, it extends that time and ends up extending your pain as the manager of that group.
To the point, managers are under pressure. They tend to think of recruiting as something pushed to the side. “I’ll get to that later because I’ve got a deadline or a report.” You’ve got to be a full-time recruiter as a manager now.
Succession was another topic that you talked about, the importance of doing succession planning. There are some people out there that feel that there’s a threat in doing succession planning. If you prepare somebody to take over your role, you’re putting your own job security at risk. How did you approach succession planning over the years?
You’re right. It’s a two-edged sword for many people. For some people, it’s scary. They think it’s a way to exit. I was lucky early in my career. I had a manager say, “The sooner you train up and hire your successor, the faster I’ll promote you.” It’s a confidence thing. It’s the philosophy that I’ve operated under.
It’s the way I have always done it. What I have done is I was a student of competitive chess when I was young. If you’re a chess player, you learn to analyze the board in front of you and all these constant permutations of moves that possibly could happen. I’m always constantly succession planning in my head. “What if this person leaves, what do I do?”
Sometimes I even put it down in PowerPoint. I try to visualize it like, “Here’s what my team looks like,” because that helps me. You’re constantly thinking, “If that person leaves, I know immediately what I’m going to do. I’m going to go to this person.” If those people don’t exist, then you start thinking, “How do I groom some talent?”
Markit founder Lance Uggla and the people we worked with were good about us working on succession planning and thinking about it, whether it’s a nine-box or some other technique you want to use. Grooming your team so that you’re ready to go when and if that person leaves, either internally or externally.
I’ve worked in several firms that have done the nine-box exercise, some in a bit more perfunctory way than others. It doesn’t end up amounting to much in the end. When you’re forced to put down, “What are my succession options for myself or for people on my team, how ready are those people? What do I think that they don’t have that they need?”, it’s a great acid test for what you need to do to develop them.
I’ve approached this over the years where I don’t want to be in a position where I’m overly dependent on somebody. What you don’t want is to be in a situation where you have to tolerate bad behavior because the person is valuable, or you have to pay them above market rates because you don’t have a good backup.
It’s in your interest, particularly if it’s your team. Even with your own role, as you say it, you owe it to the organization. That may be a funny way of thinking about it, but if you care about the organization you work in, you want it to be successful even when you leave. It’s something that a lot of people struggle with because they worry about how it’s going to affect them. They don’t want to be the ones boxed out.
It’s a confidence thing. If you’re confident in your own career. There are always going to be opportunities, particularly in an organization that’s growing. The faster you can groom talent and have successors, the faster you’re’ able to do something else that you might be interested in doing.
A bunch of your other points talk about well-being in a variety of fashions. In one, you advocate for taking a personal interest in the people who work for you. You said, and this is something I was a little bit puzzled by, to be honest with you, is that it might be controversial in this day and age to take an interest in people who work for you. I was surprised because I feel like we are attuned to privacy but there’s an awful lot of focus on monitoring employees’ mental health and getting them support when they’re facing issues. What made you say that you thought it might be a little controversial?
I feel like the world’s evolved a little bit, and you do have to be a lot more careful now about privacy. It’s a fine line. I’m probably not great at it but I try to [listen for] it. One of the things we learned about COVID is the strain [it had] on our employees. I saw this, particularly with individuals working on our teams that were by themselves in a small apartment in a big city with no outlets and lockdown. You could see that over time their mental health was changing. For their well-being and the well-being of the team and the organization, you have to be a little bit tuned in there, [but] you have to be a little bit careful how you approach it because you don’t know the assumptions.
I might say something like, “How are you doing?” To your point, the firm has this hotline or this resource for you to reach out to. If it’s confidential, “I don’t want to know about it but I want to let you know that we care about you. There are resources here to help you get through anything that might be bothering you,” and leave it at that.
What I do find is that sometimes employees, as you develop relationships with them, will open up. They’ll tell you that their parent died, their sister is ill or something. You’ve got to tread lightly there but I let them lead it now as opposed to maybe 2 or 3 decades ago. You were a lot more forward with it. I let the employee [take the lead].Sometimes, as you develop relationships with employees, they'll open up. Click To Tweet
I hear your point that you have to be a lot more careful about how you approach conversations. Some people are more private than others. You have to be careful when you’re in a managerial position not to pry but you’ve got to have your ears open. I had a situation where I was on a business trip, and one of our HR-type people called me and said, “So-and-so (who was in a group for which I was responsible) resigned. I was surprised. I couldn’t convince him to stay.”
To make a long story short, the conversation played out over multiple phone calls that morning. He said something weird on the way out [of the office], and it stuck with her. She called me, and I told her she needed to go over to his apartment [to check on him]. He overdosed that morning when he went home. She dragged him to the hospital and saved his life.
In some cases, you have to use your best judgment and intervene. It may not feel comfortable to the employee at the moment but what’s the alternative if you’re in one of those particularly bad situations? It’s tough. It’s great that we are talking about mental health now. But it introduces a whole new set of challenges like any other social issue has for us in terms of how we build that into the workplace and get comfortable dealing with it, talking about it, and incorporating it into the way that we work day-to-day. Like we have had to do with diversity and many other topics over the years.
We were fortunate both at Markit and S&P Global to have good HR business partners that we could reach out to and say, “I’m observing the following. I’m not sure exactly how to handle it.” They are professionally trained and see many more cases of this. Their experience there was super valuable. I would say to any manager, “If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution, reach out to your business partner, bounce the idea off them and say, ‘I need to do this or I’m observing the following.’”
You talk about physical health being important, not just in mental health. What did you do to maintain your own physical health over the years? Did you have anybody who was a big influencer on that point for you?
I did have an influencer on that. It was probably earlier in my career. It was John Mack at Morgan Stanley. I remember when I made MD. He called all the MDs at the end of the year into a room, and he told a story that has stayed with me for decades. He was telling a story about how he was riding up the elevator before Christmas [one year].
There was a young intern in the elevator, and he asked her if she was taking time off for the holidays, and she said, “No, I’m way too busy. I’ve got to work all the way through the holidays. I’m going to basically lose all my unused vacation time.” John Mack said to her and to us, “If you manage your personal time as badly as you manage your business, you are going to have a long bad career.”
This idea of balancing personal life with business life is something that I try to achieve. I probably wasn’t always very good at it. It’s hard, if you work in New York City or London, where you’re commuting 3 to 4 hours a day. It’s hard to do that. One of the benefits of COVID is that it has freed up that time.
Not allowing that commuting time to be fully blocked with work and using some of that for personal time is the new lesson I learned during COVID. I bought a bike during the lockdown. We got a Peloton. This is not a point that I always followed throughout my entire career but I have come back to it.
I can’t say that I have done a great job throughout my whole career either. There were times, especially when I was traveling a lot when I was working at McKinsey, it was hard and we were working long hours. There’s a lot of pressure on the team. Everybody supported each other and you felt like you had be there all the time. That was probably the worst of it for me.
When I left there, I joined a gym. I have pretty much been consistent since then in terms of maintaining at least some level of physical activity. It gives you sanity. Whatever you end up liking to do, you’ve got to carve out that time for it. Be it in the morning, evening or middle of the day, if you can arrange that with your team. I’m a proponent of that. It helps you be more productive at work. As John Mack said, “You’ve got to manage your time well.” How did you encourage your teams to take care of their own physical health?
I try to, as much as I can or as much as they allow from a privacy standpoint, be fully invested in their lives. I know what they’re doing and what they’re not doing, where they’re going on their vacation, and what they’re doing on the weekends and with their kids. If I see them, I will say to them, “Did you get a chance to work out today or did you hit the gym?”
I had one guy working for me, he was a big kickboxer. I would say, “Did you get a chance to go do your kickboxing last night?” Letting them know that it’s okay to take time off to do something. That’s good for their physical health and also encourages them and their teams to do the same thing. It’s a big lesson learned during COVID.
As we’re all coming back into a hybrid work model, at least for a lot of companies, we need to continue to capture some of that time at home to build in the things that help us recharge our battery on a more regular basis than taking a periodic vacation.
The lesson I learned is don’t let that [prior] commuting time be consumed by workfff. Maybe consume or use some of it for personal time.
Leaders struggle with this, though there may be enlightened leaders like John Mack on this point. How can a leader [take care of their own physical health] without having to resort to 4:30 AM or 5:00 in the morning workouts when they want to get their gym time in? It’s hard to imagine a leader hitting the gym or going for a run in the middle of the day because the optics of that traditionally haven’t been great.
I’m a little old school, so I agree with that. I’ve never been a midday gym person, so I try to do it before or after the day is over. 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning or right at 5:00 PM. If others want to do it, and I’ve had people on my team that said, “I’m going to go for a midday run,” I’ll let them do it. I encourage it. For me, personally, I grew up not with that philosophy.
I used to go for a [lunchtime] run with my boss when I was in the Air Force, which made it easier since it was with him, but I don’t think I have done too much of that since then. I tend to prefer doing it in the morning as well but generally not quite so early as 5:00.
On another theme, you talked about the importance of making time for personal learning and reading. How disciplined were you about this, and what learning or reading sources did you find most helpful to your own career?
In the old days, when you were committing in on the train, you had that hour or hour and a half of time do do the reading. We then went into the lockdown, and that time disappeared. I took a trick from one of my managers at S&P, who had worked for me at Markit. She used to put in “focus time.” It was literally an invite in her calendar, and she blocked [the time]. I started doing the same thing.
I started doing focus time from 7:00 to 8:00 in the morning, and that’s where I did my reading. I did outside reading – local news, world news, and business news, and then I always finished off with sports. I was fully ready to go, and no one could bother me during that time, much like being on the train.
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a traditional train to work. I do have my bit of a Tube ride in the morning [in London], which generally is consumed with reading something that’s business oriented. Not the paper so much anymore, but a book or something like that. I find that the industry dailies that come out via email about what’s going on in the industry that I’m in are helpful.
I would say beyond that, one of the other things I’ve always found helpful over the years is meeting with companies that are doing some leading things in the industry, particularly on the tech side. Keeping up to date on what’s going on in that respect and what other companies in the industry are doing. Those are a few other things that I’ve found helpful.
When we hire interns out of college, one of the first things I tell them is, “You cannot do enough reading.” Outside reading on the industry or on your clients. Understanding what they’re doing – your clients and competitors – and their products. It’s an important part of your development.
A little bit back on the wellbeing point, one of the points that you talk about is, you say, “If you can do it financially or if it’s financially feasible, dial back a bit when your kids are in their middle years between the ages of 5 and 15.” Is that something that you did? Is that something that you didn’t do and wish you’d done? I’m curious to hear your own story here.
I got a lot of comments on this one. A lot of people said, “I’ve got to try to do this.” For me, it happened. I worked at Deutsche Bank for Anshu Jain, who unfortunately passed away in 2022. It was my last job on Wall Street. I left in one of those downturns, so there was no opportunity to go back. I was unemployed for a time, and then I got into the startups.
The nice thing about startups is that if you are the boss, you can do what you want to do. You can take off the afternoons. At that time, I started being with my kids and realized what spending a lot of time with them was. By the time they get to high school and start going to college, they don’t need you.The nice thing about startups is, if you're the boss, you can do what you want to do. Click To Tweet
That 5 to 15 range is super important. If you can do it or find a way to do it, it helps you with bonding with your children and their development. I encourage this one. It’s hard for people to do. A lot of people didn’t have the financial means that I did to allow myself to take a decade off. I do think if you can do it, it’s a good way forward.
I think back to when my step-daughter was in elementary school and middle school, that’s when I traveled the most. I missed anything she was doing from a sports perspective in the afternoon. I was always happy when she played a nighttime basketball game, because I could get to one of those.
There was a point where my daughter, our middle one, said to me, “Daddy, how come none of the other daddies travel as much as you do?” That was a killer. Fortunately, soon after that, I was out of McKinsey and then working for Fidelity. I can’t say that I dialed my hours back a ton but at least that was in town, so I had a little bit of flexibility.
This comes back to what we talked about a little bit before. People are not necessarily coming to work five days a week anymore. You can juggle around your kids’ events better now, certainly, than you could have several years ago before we had technology like this to be able to do meetings online. Take advantage of it. That would be the advice I would give people is, “Take advantage of it.” The kids are going to get older day by day, whether you’re home with them or not.
We learned from COVID. I encouraged my management team and encouraged them to manage theirs. Don’t get caught up anymore in the 8:00 to 5:00. If your team is doing what is expected and necessary, you’ll know. For example, I’d be on email at 7:00 at night and I’d have someone in Europe emailing me at midnight. I’d ask them, “What are you doing?” They’d say, “I was out all day with my mother. She’s ill, and I had to take her to the doctor, and I need to get caught up.”
Most people will allocate the hours, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an 8:00 to 5:00 time. If you need to take an afternoon off to do your daughter’s baseball game, do it, and then work that evening to catch back up. That’s the lesson I’ve learned.
Some firms have the idea of core hours. I was [at one point] working heavily at Charles River Development, a software-focused firm, interestingly in a bank that seemed to be always on. They were acquired by State Street. Their agile development teams would do their daily stand-ups typically sometime between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning, which basically meant that if you wanted to come in at 10:00 and work until 6:00 or 7:00, you could do that.
If you wanted to come in at 7:00 in the morning, you would be there for [the stand-up] but they had adopted that principle of having those meetings later in the morning to give people a bit of flexibility. That was a nice thing that they had, sitting inside the bigger bank that tended to start days at 7:00 in the morning.
You mentioned that you had done a startup after the dot-com bust and downturn in the early-2000s. You mentioned in your view that everybody should spend time in a startup at some point in their careers if they can. You were involved in a few. What were some of the bigger lessons that you learned in those years, and how did they translate into the work you did when you returned to more of the bigger corporate world?
The first lesson I learned is that no matter what your worst-case scenario is for your business plan, it’s going to take three times longer and twice the amount of money that you thought it would. It holds pretty much true no matter what you think. The second lesson I learned is that you are only as good as your founding partners. This one was a painful one for me to learn. If you have a partner that’s not up to snuff, it’s going to inhibit your business case. Those are the two main points I learned. The reason I put this one in there is that it teaches you a lot of humility, to multitask, and learn to be a great time allocator.
As a CEO or part of a startup, there’s a tremendous amount of demand on your time. Everything seems like it’s on fire, and you’ve got to put out all of them. You’ve got to learn to prioritize what is super important and what has to get done today versus what you put off of tomorrow. That’s the part that you can carry back to big business – that feeling of being overwhelmed sometimes and how you block out certain things and get other things done.
Your point about humility, a lot of people, particularly if they are used to working in big firms, they’re used to having HR or finance. They’re used to having a cleaning staff or facility staff that deals with everything. They’re used to having IT staff. When you’re in a startup, most of those staff members can be found by looking in the mirror.
You end up having to do a bit of everything, and it teaches you the value of all of those things that probably you under-appreciated when you were working at a big company. To your point, your time – there’s only so much of it. You have to be focused on your own time and also on the time of the people around you because it’s not like there are dozens of people doing marketing, sales or anything. There may not be anyone doing it full-time. You’ve got to be super conscious about that.
Another point is elevator pitches. You talk about the importance of having an elevator pitch. That’s a very important thing for a client-facing person, and you were in client-facing roles for a good chunk of your career, but how important do you think it is for non-client-facing people? What were some of the unexpected ways that having a good elevator pitch benefited you over the years?
I would go out on meetings, particularly in C-Suite meetings, taking our CEO and meeting another CEO. You would watch people use the marketing points that were there for how they explained what the company did and so forth. You’d see the confusion in your client. You think about the senior-level folks. They probably don’t know much about the company. They certainly don’t know how their own company is using your products and services or what the workflow might be. It adds confusion.
What we did when I ran account management at Markit, which was basically interfacing with the C-Suite, we’d practice the elevator speech. Practice it with 8 or 30 words and a 2-minute pitch. We’d have different pitches that we used. We would all use the same keywords over and over again so that it was consistent.
Your point about non-client-facing people goes back to that point about luck. You never know when you’re going to meet that individual. Even if you are in the back office or you are in something that’s not client-facing, there could be an individual you come across. If you don’t have that elevator pitch down when someone says, “What do you do?” at a cocktail party or going up in an elevator. If you don’t have that pitch well refined so that you can wheel it out and use it, you might miss that luck opportunity for a chance encounter that might be something that could change your career. I encourage everybody to practice it.
You could apply it in the construct of a company that you’re working for or the products that you’re selling but as more people start doing things on the side or participating full-time as freelancers in the gig economy or whatever you want to call it, it also applies to their personal brand. I hear a lot of discussion about people’s personal brands and being able to convey and articulate your personal brand. As you say, you never know where those opportunities are going to pop up. It could be that you bump into somebody who’s with somebody you don’t know at a train station, airport, restaurant or wherever. Those are opportunities potentially where serendipity might happen in your favor. It has value.
Your point about the marketing, and in defense of marketing people, when marketing people develop a pitch, and it doesn’t work, it’s on the people who are out with the clients to come back and say to them, “That didn’t resonate. I saw the confusion on the client’s face” and rework the pitch. I feel like sometimes, what ends up happening is marketing will put something together that doesn’t fully hit the mark, as is often as the case when somebody takes a first stab at something.
Sales goes out and it doesn’t work the first time. They toss it out, and then they start making up their own scripts. That feels like it happens an awful lot of the time, and then everybody says it in their own words, and then the client is like, “You say this. They said that. What is it really?” This is almost worse than having a marketing stab that didn’t quite hit the mark the first time.
You nailed it.
I haven’t retired yet, but I’m not that many years behind you, and I’ve seen this movie before. Let’s leave it at that.
A few last points. You talk about the importance of building your network. Ironically, I was recently reading a summary of Keith Ferrazzi’s, Never Eat Alone, which is a great book on the importance of networking and all the ways it can help you in your career. Did you do a good job of following your own advice on that front?
I’m going to have to be honest on this one. Not initially. I went to Wharton. I was working full-time, putting myself through college. I learned this lesson the hard way, and a lot of the people that I went to school with went on to do great amazing things. I had that opportunity back then to get to know them and cultivate those relationships.
I wasted that opportunity. It’s something that I tried to teach my children when they went to college. It was with LinkedIn and going back into the workforce and the ability to connect with people that I started redeveloping [my network]. What I saw at Markit were relationships I built at Morgan Stanley several years later. Those people all scattered. They didn’t stay at the investment bank.
They went to asset management, private equity or into government, and those relationships became very valuable, and then you were able to reconnect again and use those relationships. It’s something that I learned later in my career. I wish I had learned it earlier in my career but it’s super important. It probably starts, maybe back even in high school or college.
I’ll admit I as well, did not put enough focus on this until I was in the middle years of my career. When I was at business school, I was dating [a woman] who ultimately became my wife. I lived off campus the second year. We had her daughter, my step-daughter, with us full-time, and I was in a completely different mode. I focused on the academic part of school, which was good. but not enough on the community part of it.
Half the value to me, if not more than half the value of going to a good business school or any good school in any degree area, is the people around you. It’s getting to know them, and I undervalued that. LinkedIn has probably been a great savior for me in the end because it’s allowed me to reconnect with a lot of people that I have worked with over the years and rebuild those ties. It would have been a lot better or easier if I had not let those opportunities deteriorate in the early part of my career.
You talk about the importance in terms of connectivity and meeting clients in person when you’re in a client-facing role. It probably would be remiss not to get your take on the importance of in-person connection and how that affects your thinking on remote working and hybrid work.
I’ve got a little bit of an intense personality. I always felt like if I didn’t get a chance to meet the person and get to know them on a one-on-one basis, they might not open up as much. No matter what size clients are, small or large, I’d try to get out with them and do something outside the office, back to that personal establishment.
I was trying to get them to know that I knew their company and situation and create that relevance. You can’t do that over the phone. It’s something that has to be personally done on a one-on-one basis. It’s super important. COVID made it difficult, in lockdown for some periods. We are starting to open back up now, and people are starting to allow us back in their offices. It’s the number one way. It’s the way I’ve sold all my career and I’ve encouraged people to make the personal connection.
We’re in the middle of this transition back [into the office]. Some firms are further along with it than others. Some will go back to more of the old way of working than others, and it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out. I talk about this on these discussions a fair amount because it’s playing out as we speak, and it’s a situation that we haven’t ever all experienced before. What we went through with the lockdown and now how that’s changing the world of work – we’ll see how it plays out in the long run.
Zoom calls, team calls, or Webex calls are important in the way of life. It’s not the same as being in the room with somebody, or on a golf course, or out at a meal or whatever it might be. I urge people to get out from their desks.
The last point, you talk about leading from the front like communicating a clear path forward. You may have invoked a military leader in there by reference. How do you balance that style of leadership against stepping back a little bit, giving your team the opportunity to come to the solution themselves and giving them the opportunity to fail and learn from it? How have you thought about that trade-off over the years?
The point I was trying to make is that you’ve got to have the conviction to do what is right and set the path, and not ask your team to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. That’s the lesson I learned. You have to let the team grow. They have to learn. I’ll use a hiring analogy. At Markit and S&P, we would do round-robin interviewing. I’m sure most companies do it that way. There would be many times when I was the only no, like, “I don’t think we should hire this person.” To the hiring manager, I would say, “If you believe this is the person that’s going to be the person to make a difference, you take ownership and go ahead and do it.”
Sometimes it works out, and sometimes, it doesn’t. The only time I would override [the hiring manager] is if I thought it was a fatal mistake like it was going to be something bad. I’d let them make mistakes that were not necessarily fatal as a learning point. They then learn. I’m not going to use a name but I can think of an example of one of my managers when I was at S&P who came back and said, “You were right a few years ago. We shouldn’t have hired that person. I thought I had it, and I didn’t. I learned a lot from that.” I thought, “That wasn’t a fatal mistake, and that person learned a valuable lesson.” Do things like that where they can make a mistake, and it won’t kill [you].
There was a deck espousing the Netflix management philosophy that made the rounds several years ago. One of the points that stuck with me is that there are big commitments or investments, and smaller ones. Don’t sweat the small stuff that we tend to spend a lot of time worrying about. If you think about the downside particularly, to use your words, if it’s not fatal or if there isn’t a downside other than maybe a little bit of reputational embarrassment, why not give your team the opportunity to try something?
There’s too little conviction and confidence in giving teams the ability to learn. As a consequence, they don’t fully flourish because they’re coming in and executing every day.
What’s ahead for you? You’ve got some travel coming up. Are you done [working]? Are you looking to do something part-time? Would you ever go back to doing something full-time? Are there boundaries you’re putting around the next stage of life?
It depends on who you ask in the Coley household. If you ask my wife, she says I’m done. If you ask, Adam Kansler, who’s now the President of Market Intelligence at S&P and a good friend of mine, he would say, “You love working. You’re never going to stop working.” There seems to be a difference of opinion. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been blessed to work in three different industries. Wall Street, Asset Management, and FinTech. I’ve spent four decades doing it.
I would like to continue to use the knowledge of what I’ve learned to help others. Whether that’s doing board work, which is what I’m initially thinking or something along those lines. That’s what I would like to do. That being said, I’ve gotten a lot of inbound calls since being “retired” for full-time jobs. It’s nothing I’m going to look at in the next few months. [I’ve got] some bucket list travel and we will see how long the retirement lasts, so maybe check in a few months.
You attracted a lot of inbounds by virtue of your fifteen points making the rounds on LinkedIn and all the impressions that you talked about at the beginning of our interview. I’m going to give you one. If you had to give just one piece of advice to your younger self or to somebody else who’s thinking about their career, what would your top piece of advice be?
I always emphasized, even with my own children who are now in business, the benefit of international experience. For me, that’s one I learned. I did have the benefit of working in London for a very short time. With the way the global economy is evolving, working in APAC, and getting experience in Asia somewhere, for some point in your professional career, is going to advantage you down the road. I didn’t personally have that opportunity in my career. I wish I did but I think that’s the number one advice I would give people.
Jim, thanks for making the time to do this. I appreciate it. It was good to walk through the list and get a little bit of color on some of the points that you covered in your post.
I appreciate it, and I appreciate being invited. Thank you very much.
Enjoy that bucket list vacation you’ve got coming up.
I’d like to thank Jim for joining me to discuss his list of fifteen things he learned during his career. If you’re ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular insights, you can become a PathWise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter and follow PathWise on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Thanks. Have a great day.
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About Jim Coley
Jim Coley recently retired from managing the client management team with S&P Global’s Solutions Division. Over his 41 years in the financial services industry, Jim developed a reputation of creating, turning-around, and growing globally diverse business development, sales, and account management teams across the capital markets, asset management, and financial technology industries.
Jim started his career with diversified manufacturer FMC, where he helped invest their corporate cash balances. He then moved over to Morgan Stanley, where he spent 16 years, and to Deutsche Bank, where he spent two more years as well. While at Deutsche, Jim served on the Board of Directors for TradeWeb, which at that time was a nascent electronic fixed income trading platform.
Jim then co-founded and led two start-up businesses, one a community bank and one a boutique investment management firm. He joined Markit in 2009, which later became IHS Markit and which was ultimately acquired in early 2022 by S&P Global. Jim serves on the advisory board of REZITRADE and was also recently on the Advisory Board of Tuskegee University. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Southern California and his MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.