Karina Robinson is the Managing Director of Robinson Hambro, an executive search and consultancy firm.
I was the worst Spanish equity analyst in the City of London. In 1987 my boss at Morgan Grenfell fired me from my first job after 15 months. He could tell from the back of my neck, he said, that I hated work.
My boss was almost right. It wasn’t just my neck that objected to this role: I hated it with every bone in my body. Yet I went on to have a 35-year career in the City and in financial journalism, including as a political and business correspondent at Bloomberg, an editor at The Banker, and master of the Worshipful Company of International Bankers, a of city livery. Over the past decade, I have run my own consulting and research firm, Robinson Hambro, as well as other advisory board roles.
But this litany of jobs hides a (shameful) secret: I passed my maths O level, a British public exam, with a mediocre ‘C’ grade – much to the astonishment of my maths teacher who expected a failure . As for physics, the situation is doubly ironic: I gave it up at 14, but I founded The City Quantum Summit, a conference bringing together the scientific and financial communities.
And I’m not the only one: I was very reassured to learn that Sir Robert Stheeman, managing director of the Office of Debt Management, which issues British Treasury bills, failed his O level in mathematics. Twice.
My experience hopefully offers some lessons for students in their final years of school and college who are pressured into pursuing studies that are out of tune with their souls. You don’t have to be a math whiz, computer scientist, PhD in physics, or indeed an expert in any Stem (science, technology, engineering, and math) subject to succeed in the financial industries. or technological.
If you’re not good at it, take advantage of every minute to study medieval literature or international relations. Because you too might be a “dragoman” – a word I learned while reading Anna Aslanyan’s book, Dancing on Strings: Translators and the Balance of History, and which describes the common thread of my career.
A dragoman was a translator in the Ottoman Empire whose power far exceeded that of his 21st century colleagues. Dragomans were intermediaries – the insider and the outsider, communicators of esoteric or overly complicated concepts – and became important political figures. Alexandre Mavrocordato was the best known of them: in 1673, he became the Dragoman of the Sublime Porte, a mixture of chief translator and deputy minister of foreign affairs.
And there are three reasons why it’s a promising career choice. First, it will not be engineers or politicians working alone who will solve the multiple challenges of the climate emergency. Dragomen – those who work behind the scenes and can bridge the understanding gap between leaders in siled disciplines and roles – will play a crucial role.
Second, in our fragmented, yet globalized world, cultural understanding is essential. In October last year, the Chinese branch of Sony Group learned this lesson the hard way when Beijing fined it Rmb 1 million. The Japanese company had scheduled a new smartphone launch in China for July 7, the anniversary of the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which sparked the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. China saw this as an affront to its national dignity.
Last but not least, dragomen have skills that are indispensable for the future job position. In the UK, for example, the Financial Services Skills Commission has analyzed where there are skills shortages and where demand is growing. The resulting framework highlights eight key skills needed for the future. Besides machine learning and cybersecurity, other sought-after traits include empathy, relationship management, adaptability, and teamwork.
Dragomen can tick four of these boxes, while more technical skills can be acquired through corporate training. It is not necessary – unless you have the ability – to enroll in a doctorate in cybersecurity.
So feel free to ignore the managing director of a FTSE 100 asset management company I overheard at a recent private breakfast say, “No more history graduates! But remember, a dragoman must have the humility to accept their own ignorance and use it to create a better world.