Seán joined KBI Global Investors (‘KBIGI’) in 1992 and was appointed CEO in 2003. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1986 with a Bachelor of Business Studies degree and was in 1990 awarded an MBA with first class honours from University College Dublin. He is a director and former chairman of the Irish Association of Investment Managers, and a former director of the Irish Auditing and Accounting Supervisory Authority.
Seán has seen KBIGI through several changes of corporate ownership and led its successful transition from a domestically oriented investment firm to a specialist equity manager with a global client base, boasting mandates in the UK, Europe, North America, Asia and Australasia. KBI Global Investors is headquartered in Dublin, Ireland with a US office in Boston, Massachusetts. Seán is married with four children, his interests include triathlon, sailing and golf.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
You can study all the leadership theory you like, but it won’t necessarily make you a great leader. Leadership skills can certainly be enhanced through mentoring, but in my experience, it is listening and observing which sets the great leaders apart – be that in sport, business or any other field.
What do you think is the difference between management and leadership?
Individuals will occasionally function as both a manager and leader, but a different type of emotional intelligence is required in executing the leadership role. Leaders look at possibilities, whilst managers consider probabilities. Leaders must be able to motivate and create change, whilst managers manipulate to deliver results. That is perhaps a simplistic perspective, but it is essential for any firm to achieve the optimum combination of leadership and management if the organisation is to succeed.
The world around us is changing faster than at any time in human history and we need more leaders to emerge. How do we make this happen?
Wouldn’t it be terrific if there was a simple answer to this question?!
At present, a time when we are facing significant problems in so many areas, not least those associated with the exploding demand for food, water and clean energy – each driven by significant population growth – we are found wanting for impactful and positive political leadership. Our global population is forecast to grow by a further two billion by 2050, so failure to act is not an option.
When a crisis looms, new leaders very often emerge from the most unexpected places. In the absence of a co-ordinated political commitment, we are starting to see leadership emanate from the global investment community – the pension funds, public funds, family offices, retail investors and their advisers.
This trend is manifesting itself through some of the biggest global investors – organisations controlling hundreds of trillions of dollars. Here we are seeing growing numbers of asset managers beginning to embrace ‘responsible investing’, switching their allocation towards companies with strong governance, marketing products and services which enhance social or environmental goals.
So, whilst the US has withdrawn itself from the Paris Agreement, many large US corporates and public pension funds are taking the opposite approach, investing in companies which will provide solutions to the world’s environmental problems. They recognise that it is these companies which will have a lower risk profile and outperform over the longer term. Ultimately money talks!
But it’s not just in the US. At KBI Global Investors we believe we are in the early stages of a truly significant global transition, to a more responsible approach to investing.
To accelerate this trend, we need more investment leaders – those running investment funds and the investment companies themselves – to step up and embrace the transition to a lower carbon, responsible and more sustainable investment model, and to abandon dated models built based on short-term investment outcomes.
Whilst it is encouraging to see the progress made over the last two or three years, we need a greater focus within the education system on the importance of responsible investment if we are to maintain the momentum. As more millennials move into positions from which they can influence the way capital is allocated, I believe we will see tremendous leadership coming through, and this will make a real long-term impact. We certainly can’t afford to wait for the politicians or regulators to take the lead.
What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
I’ve seen people come to the right decision and delay pulling the trigger on too many occasions, the result inevitably diluted or doomed to fail. Sometimes you must simply trust your gut instinct and go for it.
What advice would you give to someone dealing with a high-pressure situation in their life or work?
Talk to your most trusted advisers to glean different perspectives – tapping the experience of someone who has been through it all before from a financial perspective, perhaps another whose experience and background enables them to guide you on the ‘soft’ issues. Create some ‘headspace’ for yourself – whatever works best for you. For me it’s usually a long run; that enables me to focus on what really matters and strips out the noise. Focus on the things you can control. Don’t waste your energy on the other stuff. Once you’ve selected a course of action don’t delay implementing it. The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who in the moment couldn’t make the necessary decision.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
I’m not a great fan of books on business management or leadership. They tend to rehash the same basic points and are all too often written by those ill qualified to advise.
Leadership within sport presents an intriguing parallel and many sports teams are better run than many of the biggest corporates. There’s a lot to be learned here but a lot of the ghostwritten and sugar-coated biographies are truly disappointing. One exception is ‘The Battle’, the compelling story of Paul O’Connell’s life in rugby. In a world of media overload and almost instantaneous reporting, insights into exceptional leadership are few and far between. I tend to look back in time to the stories about leaders who took on immense physical and mental challenges.
There are some terrific books on the early polar explorers – Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen included. I’m also intrigued by the commitment and bravery of the early astronauts and Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Right Stuff’ is well worth a read. On a similar theme the documentary ‘Don’t Look Down’ about Richard Branson’s cross-ocean voyages in hot air balloons gives an extraordinary insight into what makes him tick – far more so than his multiple autobiographies.