Managing Your Career by Managing Risk

February 27, 2017

Joanna Welsh lifted herself into a leadership role. Literally. The résumé of Citadel’s new Chief Risk Officer sports a silver medal from the International Powerlifting Federation Championship alongside top roles in management consulting, investment banking, and alternative investments. We caught up with Joanna to talk about how the discipline of risk management can drive a successful career.

First Joanna, we have to ask about your passion for powerlifting. Why choose that sport?

In many ways, the sport chose me. You see, I have a passion for the scientific method. So when I came across powerlifting I had this epiphany. I could get involved in a sport where that method of thinking is used every moment of every day. It requires continuous observation, experimentation, and measurement in areas like diet, schedule, and routine. I’ve always seen the scientific method as a lens through which you can look at many things — from a specific task, to a career, to a life-long goal. It also didn’t hurt that I could pour my competitive spirit into powerlifting. I want to win at everything I do and this was another opportunity to do so.

Do you see a parallel between powerlifting and risk management?

The foundation for both is a focus on creating repeatable processes. In powerlifting, you outline and execute a training cycle. Tracking variables such as weight, time invested in certain exercises, and the number of lifts enables you to go through a repeatable process each day and plot a course to build strength. Those real-time feedback loops are as valuable as they are gratifying.

Similarly, in risk management, you create a hypothesis about how the markets should respond to specific events and execute a process to test it. Both worlds are rich in sensors, data, and patterns just waiting to be discovered. And for me, standing in both worlds improves my ability to filter and contextualize the data, and ultimately create repeatable processes.

Your role offers a unique perch from which to view career progression; to see what separates the people who succeed from those who don’t. What insights would you share with someone starting out?

Managing your career is a lot like managing risk. You have a scenario or trade target, make some assumptions about how that scenario will play out, and constantly re-evaluate based on new information or learning. By doing this, you can decide where to invest your time and energy. If you can map out your behavior in this way, you’re showing at least the conviction to become a leader, an important step on the path to success.

For a junior person, know that your supervisors are looking for talent that can be developed. You’re given the space to focus on finite tasks where attention to detail matters the most. After all, that’s information the people above you are counting on to be accurate when they make strategic decisions. Have a sense of ownership over your work and look for areas where you can increase your expertise, especially in ways that your supervisor cannot. In that way, you will become more valuable to them.

Mid-career is often the toughest spot. You have to transition from being in the weeds to building a team. You must strike a second balance between managing your people and adding value to the leaders above. Mid-level people are the biggest filters in a system, and under-filtering, especially for the reason of covering one’s backside, can be a real danger to an organization and will be a major impediment to reaching the next level.

In a senior role, the most important thing you can know is your areas of deficiencies. Your strengths have brought you to the big table, but it’s the people you put around you that will keep you there. Intellectual curiosity and humility are critical assets. You must remind yourself that the only stupid question is the one that doesn’t get asked. I like to keep an open door to junior people just for that reason. They can offer the most startling insights because they know their areas so well.

And at all levels, remember that risk management isn’t just about playing defense. It can also be one of the most impactful competitive advantages.

Beyond thinking about your career as an individual, what about making your team succeed?

I think whether you’re a trader, a risk manager, or in another field in this industry, you have to show that you can simultaneously wear two hats: one for your career and one for the team. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Let’s say your job involves reporting. With your reporting hat on, you need to show that you can report with a focus on detail, accuracy, and finite tasks. With your team hat on, you need to show that you’re learning about the decisions that are made from the reports and the markets broadly.

Right now, I know I’m focused on wearing my team hat but that comes from a long history of simultaneously focusing on my career hat. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in the industry throughout my career, but now I’m excited to lift up the next generation of leaders and help them succeed.

Any last words of advice?

Absolutely. Always question your estimates and always be aware of your assumptions.