The importance of thinking outside a narrow career box
When your CEO suggests you take on a project beyond your comfort zone, how you respond may determine your career path for the indefinite future. ‘I’ve found that some of the most successful IROs are those whose CEOs and CFOs have asked them to move out of IR into a totally unrelated area of the company – or to add unrelated responsibilities on to IR – and they jumped at the chance,’ says Smooch Repovich Reynolds, managing partner for the investor relations and communications practice at executive search firm DHR International.
Reynolds coined the phrase ‘corporate athletes’ to describe enterprising professionals who flex their muscles in a wide array of roles. ‘Companies want to recruit corporate athletes, who bring experiences and diversity of thinking and can move beyond being just an IRO,’ she explains. ‘This profession is not one where people have ever followed a linear, calculated, obvious career track.’
The rewards of taking the road less traveled can be salary increases and/or a bump in prestige. In the last three to five years, Reynolds has seen more IROs add new arrows to their quiver, succeeding at everything from corporate development and strategic initiatives to M&A or treasury.
Often, these responsibilities are reflected in more impressive job titles. NIRI finds that IR job titles in general are changing, with the number of IROs bearing senior titles increasing over time. In 2016, 16 percent of IROs were at the senior vice president or executive vice president level, relative to 4 percent in 2005 and just 3 percent in 2001.
When Bevin Wirzba joined ARC Resources in Calgary, Alberta in January 2016, he came in as senior vice president of business development & capital markets, later replacing David Carey as head of IR. He emphasizes that his own responsibilities illustrate ARC’s approach to investor outreach, explaining that CEO Myron Stadnyk believes it is a strategic advantage to have the individual who’s accountable for IR/capital markets report directly to him.
‘Everyone on the senior team at ARC wears a few hats, and my role primarily involves business development and capital markets,’ says Wirzba. ‘I work very closely with the operations of the company and the financial side of our organization, positioning me to be able to communicate both aspects to investors.’
Avenues worth exploring
Reynolds has seen a transformation in how companies would define a stellar IRO. In the past, she had to convince them ‘that you can’t hire top talent into a dead-end job’ so the IR role had to be flexible and fluid enough to encourage experimentation.
Now, she says, ‘there’s a higher percentage of companies that have already adopted the mind-set of hiring a corporate athlete and allowing someone to move into roles other than IR as part of their mandate. If you hire someone into a vice president of IR job, and he or she is really smart and enterprising, in five years that person may well be bored and leave the company.’
Reynolds notes that how expansively a company views the IR role often depends on size. Micro and smaller-cap companies tend to bundle responsibilities because of thin budgets, seeking a ‘jack of all trades who can wear more than one hat,’ she points out. The true change has come at larger-cap companies, where introducing an IRO into other functional areas is an ewer concept, but one that is catching on.
Nils Paellmann, head of IR for T-Mobile US, notes that it’s fairly common for an IRO to move into treasury responsibilities. While his role is primarily focused on IR, he increasingly works with treasury to prepare presentations for the rating agencies and attend high-yield debt conferences. He says while it is fairly common for IROs to add treasury or communications roles, there are unusual ‘hybrids’, such as an IRO also managing human resources. The risk, says Paellmann, ‘is spreading yourself too thinly.’
Some companies have made a ‘corporate athlete’ mind-set integral to the culture. At ARC, for instance, Wirzba says Lisa Olsen, vice president of human resources, ‘encourages us to define roles with ‘full scopes’ that stretch our team to learn more about our business.’
Wirzba advises IROs interested in broadening their professional mandate to ‘get invited to internal meetings to learn as much as you can, particularly in areas investors are interested in.’ He counts himself fortunate to attend his board’s audit committee meetings to learn more about accounting practices, as well as geoscience meetings to better understand prospects of new business plays. ‘If you’re not learning, it is hard to meaningfully add value to your firm and advance a career,’ he maintains.
Sharon Mah-Gin, client partner for Executive Search Alliance in Toronto, Ontario, says sustainability reporting is a growth area for companies in the resource industry, and a skill-set many IROs would be wise to add. For IROs at firms less receptive to experimentation, she suggests growing your skills in other ways, such as by networking, attending association meetings, or through professional designations, such as those on offer from CIRI and NIRI.
CIRI unveiled its professional designation – the CPIR – a few years ago. NIRI is now offering its own designation for those who pass the Investor Relations Charter exam, a feat that 95 IR professionals achieved in2016, the first year the exam was offered.
‘Getting more education shows that you’re interested in developing yourself, and the association is demonstrating that people have been schooled a certain way,’ says Mah-Gin. ‘Whenever you can, you should absolutely keep up to date on professional development designations.’
In future, experience beyond IR may be even more valuable. Reynolds has seen that most executive-level jobs are experiencing a shift toward a corporate-athlete mind-set, with companies valuing individuals with the gravitas and wisdom to take part in high-level discussions across disciplines.
‘CEOs need people on their management team who have broad and solid critical thinking skills,’ Reynolds concludes. ‘If you only do one thing like IR for your entire career, it will be very hard to move ahead.’
Tips for growing your skills and responsibilities
This article appeared in the spring 2017 issue of IR Magazine