A 36-year-old in charge of $135 billion shares his 'awkward' advice for making it to the top - and it involves going against your instincts

A 36-year-old in charge of $135 billion shares his 'awkward' advice for making it to the top - and it involves going against your instincts

Malcolm Smith JPMorgan Asset Management

JPMorgan Asset Management

Malcolm Smith, head of the international equity group at JPMorgan Asset Management

  • Malcolm Smith is head of a group of which manages $135 billion of assets at JPMorgan Asset Management.
  • Smith was the youngest ever managing director at the firm, aged 30.
  • He told Business Insider that the key to his success is not being afraid to "ask the difficult questions."

LONDON - Aged just 30, Malcolm Smith became Blackrock's youngest managing director.

Six years and two children later he now oversees JPMorgan Asset Management's $135 billion international equity group, a major part of the $1.7 trillion business.

One of the keys to this rapid rise, Smith told Business Insider, is the ability to know when to ask the "awkward" questions of his bosses.

"I'm willing to ask the difficult questions, address the big issues, and own them and deal with them," Smith told Business Insider when asked what he puts his success down to.


"When younger people come into the industry, there's always this sort of feeling that you don't know as much as senior and more experienced people. That's normally absolutely true by the way, but there's a happy balance between keeping your mouth shut and listening [and speaking up]."

"You don't learn too much by opening your mouth. Obviously, you know what you know, so you need to listen a lot, but also ask the right questions and be willing to ask the awkward question."

Having started his career in 2004 at Merrill Lynch Asset Management, Smith became a Blackrock employee after its acquisition in 2006. He eventually rose to become a managing director.

Smith's words echo those of a former boss, Michael Barakos, who in 2016 praised Smith's "straight talking and pragmatic" approach to his job when he was named one of Financial News' rising stars of asset management in 2016.

Not only is asking difficult questions and speaking up a good trait to have, but so too is the ability to have a sense of perspective and see the bigger picture, Smith believes.


"Sometimes it is just being willing to think about those basic things, then worry about the problems and own the problems. Think through every angle of a problem," he said.

Smith also advises aspiring asset managers to "act as though you were the business owner, even if you're not" when looking at potential stocks to buy.

"You've got to ask 'If I was in charge, what would I do? What would I worry about? Have we thought about that?'" - Smith told BI.

"Oftentimes, that's been helpful. Everyone always assumes someone else is worrying about it, but most organisations don't have people who just sit around worrying about things."

It may seem obvious, but Smith also encourages people looking to make it in the industry to actually care about what they're doing, and care for the people they're working for, rather than simply doing a job.


"You have to care, and want to do well. You don't want to let people down, you don't want to let you clients down, your colleagues down, and so worrying and caring about that business and all the different challenges it faces from every angle has been a big thing."

Smith also believes that everybody needs a healthy dose of luck - especially when it comes to who you end up working with - is a big determinant of anybody's success.

"One of the key things for me is that I've generally had really good managers - I've been very lucky in that regard - who have been able to give me opportunities and support, and sometimes take risks on me."

"If you're pretty young, and people are moving on your responsibilities, you hopefully deliver, but until you put someone in charge, you never know."