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Enquiring minds, inquisitive natures, and a love of learning

Richard Swann (MBA, 2004), there are many attributes and ways of working that contribute to a successful and fulfilling career and your career path needn’t be determined by your degree or first job.

What did you do after completing your first degree?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Although my degree was in Biochemistry, I ended up joining one of the big accountancy firms, where I trained in standard auditing and then moved into restructuring. It was a very bleak period in the UK economy and I was involved in lots of insolvencies. In 1994, I decided to do what I should have done at 18 or 21 and went travelling around SE Asia.

When I got back from travelling, I went back into Corporate Finance and Mergers and Acquisitions. I started my MBA in 1996 and almost ran out of time to complete it before the deadline as a lot happened in those years with work and family. I was made partner in 1999 and worldwide partner in 2001. In 2008 I moved to a very small equity business called Inflexion Private Equity as only their 15th employee. I’m the Chief Investment Officer, and we’ve grown enormously to become the UK market leader in private equity.

What made you decide to do an MBA at Warwick?
I knew I didn’t want to be an accountant forever, so I needed to broaden my experience. I chose Warwick because of its reputation and the flexibility to do the course by distance learning as I couldn’t take a year off. I think Warwick has been really good at keeping in touch with its alumni on a regular basis.

Why do you think degrees in different fields are so transferable into careers like yours?
Alongside my career, I have also personally invested in three businesses, which train graduates after university and then deploy them into roles, so I’m really interested in education. When I look at the sort of people we want to hire, the defining characteristic is an enquiring mind: people who have an inquisitive nature and enjoy learning for learning’s sake. We don’t select people because they have a particular degree.

There’s a lot of diversity in terms of degree subjects at the board level of my company and I believe this helps us make better decisions. Many organisations are very hierarchical, and employees think all the wisdom lies above. In reality, the only thing that sits higher up is experience, so if you can create an environment where people feel empowered to say what they think, you get better outcomes. I think over the next 20 years, the workforce will see great changes with many jobs becoming automated or digitalised. So we need to ensure graduates develop key skills in human interaction, versatility, working with ambiguity, and making connections.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?
The diversity. I always say to my kids that a happy job is one where no two days are the same and you meet lots of different people. Human interaction. Empowerment. We frequently use the phrase, “We ask our people to seek forgiveness, not permission,” and it’s great if you can work in an environment with that type of culture.

What skills or attitudes do you think are essential to be successful in your line of work?
An enquiring mind. Also, we don’t like talking about this but hard work! We’ve become unaccustomed to reminding ourselves that the most successful people are those who work hardest and smartest. I don’t think there’s a substitute for working hard. When I was in my 20s, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing or where I was going but working hard and doing a good job creates opportunities that you can then jump on. In the current climate, there are opportunities for most graduates, but that doesn’t mean they’re the opportunities that are going to give them fulfilling 30-year careers. If they want that, they still have to work hard and be ambitious.

What advice would you give to a young person looking to succeed in finance?
Pursue things you enjoy doing and worry less about what looks good on your CV. I tell my own kids not to worry too much about their first job after university. When you’re 21, a year feels like a really long time but it’s not. Your whole career does not need to be defined by your first job.

Richard sitting in an office in a black suit smiling

“Many organisations are very hierarchical, and employees think that all the wisdom lies above.
In reality, the only thing that sits higher up is experience, so if you can create an environment where people feel empowered to say what they think, you get better outcomes.”