In 2014, Divine Kaur was moving rapidly up the ranks of the corporate finance department at General Electric (GE), but looking back she admits she wasn’t quite equipped with all the skills she needed to become a successful leader.
“I was always very good at relating to people with a similar personality and attitude to work as me. But I sometimes sidelined people with other personality types, which isn’t a good thing if you want a managerial career,” says Kaur, who last year moved from India to the GE headquarters in the US.
What made Kaur reassess and improve the way she communicates? “It was during the Executive Master in Finance (EMFin) I did at INSEAD. It was a great course for technical finance knowledge, but unlike other Master in Finance programmes, it also offered a leadership component, which gives you the best of both worlds,” says Kaur. “And while you can get taught leadership on an MBA, the INSEAD EMFin teaches it in a much more finance-focused environment.”
“It gave me a new perspective on myself.”
Kaur studied for the most part in Singapore — the EMFin’s structure allows students to stay in their jobs and attend school for two-week stints of intensive study — but she took the leadership module at the INSEAD campus in Fontainebleau, France.
“It gave me a new perspective on myself and was one of the best courses in the EMFin,” says Kaur, who graduated in 2015. “In one exercise we were asked a lot of questions and then put on a 'leadership personal values matrix'. The task revealed that I was strong in certain aspects of leadership like resilience and being results-oriented, but it also showed that I needed more empathy — I wasn’t stepping into the shoes of other people often enough.”
The leadership teacher
The man behind the leadership module is Ian Woodward, a Senior Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD who also spent eight years working at Macquarie. “Because I’ve been in banking myself I know the type of personalities you encounter there and I can relate to what our students are going through in their jobs.”
Professor Woodward says he teaches the “fundamentals of leadership” at both an individual and team level. “For example, we use case studies from financial services and other sectors to examine how successful leaders are able to motivate people. We also look at when it’s better to take a more direct approach with the staff you manage and when it’s better to empower them. And we look at different ways to give people feedback according to their personalities.”
But it’s the individual presentation exercises that students seem to enjoy the most. “Professor Woodward recorded us speaking on stage and gave us great insights into how we were communicating. His methods took us beyond our comfort zones,” says INSEAD EMFin alumnus and former Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) analyst Aditya Haripurkar.
“We look at different ways to give people feedback according to their personalities.”
“He went over all aspects of body language and verbal communication,” adds Haripurkar, a Singapore resident who’s also lived in the UK, Australia and India and who now runs a Fintech start-up. “For example, in my presentation, I wasn’t just speaking too quickly, my hand movements were also too fast.”
Don't leave it too late
Learning leadership skills like these early on in your finance career — most EMFin students at INSEAD haven’t yet reached the senior ranks — is becoming increasingly important, says Professor Woodward.
“I also work with C-suite leaders in the finance sector, and many regret not focusing on leadership when they were younger. Now they’re in senior roles, they have to tackle issues such as client relationships and recruitment, which require very different skills from their technical and transactional work.”
Professor Woodward noted that the financial services sector has, over the past 50 years, underinvested in leadership training and development compared to many other industries.
“Leadership is a journey and never a destination.”
“Banks traditionally worked deal-to-deal and it’s only since the wake-up call of the financial crisis that they’ve realised they need to put more emphasis on good leadership. As a leader you now need very good soft skills to deal with the amount of change happening in financial services — banks are constantly restructuring and markets are volatile.”
Learning the tools of leadership is equally important to all financial service jobs. “It’s just the context that changes. If you’re client-facing then external relationship skills come more into focus,” says Professor Woodward. “But back- and middle-office people also need very good internal communication skills to make sure the specifics of their programmes are properly implemented.”
INSEAD’s leadership module aims to help build the next generation of senior managers in financial services — but it’s no quick-fix. “Leadership is a journey and never a destination,” explains Professor Woodward.
EMFin graduates are given a “leadership agenda” to help them identify their leadership strengths and weaknesses throughout their career. “Importantly, as part of this, they set time aside for reflecting and getting feedback on how they can improve their skills. Leadership means building self-awareness and also awareness of others,” says Professor Woodward.