Advice 1: A key aspect of my job is managing / leading stakeholders – whether internal (Partners / colleagues in other divisions / my team) or external (clients / lenders / lawyers / management teams). Learning to quickly build trust has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced; this is crucial for an adviser working in the distressed space as you will often need to tell these stakeholders things they do not want to hear, and this can only be done from a place of trust and empathy. While I can’t pretend to have the answer, I’ve found the following helps build trust: 1. Invest time in getting to know the other person: COVID-aside, spending time in person is hard to beat – be present, be curious about them, don’t be afraid to share. My best client relationships have been where I made the client’s office home and became ‘part of the furniture’. My best internal relationships have been where we have lunch, grab regularly coffees, or go for drinks. 2. First impressions count: prepare, prepare, prepare. Those first encounters with a stakeholder are critical – look the part, act the part, know your lines. Have a zero tolerance attitude towards any errors in those first few emails / deliverables – dot your “i”s, cross your “t”s. The easiest way to kill your credibility is having a table not cast on pg 2 of a report, or misspelling a client’s name on an email. That’s not to say you won’t make mistakes – you will – we all have horror stories (one of mine was giving the wrong numbers to the CEO of a major regulator!) but sweating over the details will minimise these and help you make a great first impression. 3. Know your stuff and don’t bullshit your stakeholders: following on from 2 above, do your homework. Stay up to date with the latest developments in the industry, know your clients back to front, ask questions, and prepare for meetings, no matter how trivial. Credibility is a cornerstone of trust so take it seriously. The other side of the coin is not to pretend you know something you don’t. You will get found out. Let me repeat that: You. Will. Get. Found. Out. Maybe not the first time, maybe not the second, but sooner or later it will happen. And when it does, all credibility and trust will disappear, possibly irreversibly. So if you don’t know, say so. 4. Follow through: if you told a stakeholder you would deliver by 12pm on Tuesday, make sure you delivered by 9am on Tuesday. Underpromise and overdeliver – it’s a cliche for a reason.
Advice 2: One thing that has given me an advantage, particularly in the first five years of my career, is getting the details right. On one of my first restructuring projects, I sent a model to a client at 1am without fully checking it – unbeknownst to me, there was a c.$1bn error! The next day, the senior manager on the project took me to one side and gave me the biggest dressing down of my career – he had spotted the error at 5am and spent the next two hours fixing it and explaining to the client how it was that PwC (not Ken Afrah!) had made such a colossal error. It turned out the issue was caused by a seemingly innocuous formula error deep in the model. The output of the model was subsequently used in a high profile court case – what if the senior manager hadn’t spotted the mistake?! Since that mortifying episode, I have been uncompromising in my attention to detail – everything from reviewing model error traps in Excel to making sure text boxes perfectly align in Powerpoint. This approach has been highlighted again and again by all stakeholders (clients / Partners / other advisers) as a differentiator. Is it easy? Nope. But I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to excel in finance.
Advice 3: I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some inspirational leaders who have imparted brilliant general career advice. But the best advice I’ve been given was small and specific, and I’ve used it more than any other. Fairly early on in my career, a Partner pointed out that I was always factual / knowledgeable with our clients, but rarely influential. Harsh, but true. He said, “Look, Ken, when my kids come down to breakfast, I never ask what they want to have for breakfast. Instead I ask, ‘do you want porridge or weetabix?’ We all want choice, but unlimited choice is counterproductive. I focus their minds – and I’ve preselected the options.” The lesson was clear, and it made me a much more effective adviser.
Details of experience: I am a senior manager that specialises in restructuring mandates for lenders, corporates and financial investors in troubled situations. Day-to-day responsibilities include leading teams on the delivery on a wide range of restructuring matters, e.g. liquidity modelling and optimisation, independent business reviews, insolvency modelling, debt refinancing, contingency planning and exit solutions.
What the job is really like: In a nutshell, my job involves a lot of time thinking about the direction / approach we should take (what are the key questions we need to answer? What analysis do we need to do to answer them? How do we package the results?), getting buy-in on the approach from all stakeholders, coaching the team, building relationships with clients, managing messaging, and reviewing models and reports.