From Morgan Stanley Executive to CEO of a Tech Startup: Managing Transition

Prevailing wisdom holds that banks are officious and sluggish, while tech startups are quick and nimble. The two business models–and those who work within them–have little in common. Prevailing wisdom is wrong: in reality, the skills necessary to be successful in both spaces often overlap.

Last year, after 15 years at Morgan Stanley, I made the leap to become CEO of Mash, a Luxembourg-based FinTech company. The transition has been exhilarating, and the startup world’s accelerated pace has allowed me to see substantial successes in only twelve months. Want to make a similar move? Here are my three key pieces of advice:


Seek out tech opportunities inside your company

Finance and tech are quite different fields. Banks tend to be focused on risk management, regulation and compliance, while tech startups emphasises customer experience. Banks value hard skills and technical knowledge, while tech startups—unless you’re a developer—reward soft skills like communication, speed and flexibility. The key to successfully transitioning from one field to another, is focusing on the places the two overlap.

That overlap is growing every day as banks increasingly look to partner with tech startups. According to CB Insights, 2017 saw more tech startup acquisitions by top US banks than any other year in recent history.

In retrospect, I can see that much of the work I did while at Morgan Stanley was preparing me for my current role. In my last position at Morgan Stanley, I led the effort to commercialise the bank’s internal technology. Such programs are becoming common at big banks as they invest more and more in proprietary tech—according to Gartner, the global banking industry will spend $519 billion on information technology in 2018—and they’re a perfect way to get a taste of the startup world without having to leave the bank.


Build skills and connections

The process of transitioning to a new career involves a lot of networking. When I was still at Morgan Stanley, I became a mentor with the FinTech Innovation Lab in NYC, where I worked with tech startups looking to partner with incumbents in the financial industry. That investment of my time not only taught me a great deal, but demonstrated my enthusiasm for the tech startup space, which is precisely what hiring managers look for.

Stay up-to-date on topics that are important to tech startups. I’d have trouble taking a job candidate seriously who didn’t have at least some knowledge of blockchain and crypto, or who can’t see the connection between the advent of voice-based products like Alexa and Google Voice, biometric identity management (including facial recognition), and the future of consumer-facing tech, for example.


Remember what you already have

The barrier to entry to tech startups is much lower than it was 15 years ago. That’s especially true if you’re looking to transition into FinTech, banking’s closest cousin in the tech industry. Forty billion dollars in investment has flowed into the sector in the last four years, according to PwC, meaning that many FinTech startups are thriving—and hiring.

Many FinTech startups want to partner with big banks but aren’t sure how to navigate those institutions’ complex internal politics and bureaucracy. A former banker’s inside knowledge and market experience can be instrumental in making lucrative deals and ensuring that vendor relationship or partnership runs smoothly.

Likewise, knowledge about a particular market or sector of the financial industry can translate well to a particular corner of FinTech (e.g. an M&A banker may find a role as head of strategy, and a technologist could easily make a move to develop next-generation platforms).

Soft skills are also highly transferable to startups, so expound on your experience managing teams and projects, dealing with clients, and communicating insights. Job requirements are less rigid in the startup world, so showing flexibility and eagerness to learn will go a long way.

Managing a career change from a bank to a tech startup can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Like any job search, it simply involves laying the right groundwork, showing enthusiasm—and finally, holding your breath and making the leap.

James Hickson is Group CEO of Mash, one of the fastest growing FinTech companies in Europe.

He previously led FinTech at Morgan Stanley.

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