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Charterholder Profile

RISK MANAGEMENT, MENTORSHIP & SELF-REFLECTION

from Christopher Spencer, CFA, MBA

Christine Ha Kong, CFA

Christopher Spencer, CFA, is a seasoned executive who has seen the full impact of how mentorship, a commitment to education, and a strong and thoughtful network can enhance your career. He shares his path toward his current role as Director, AML Risk at Scotiabank, and reflects on how sage advice, preparedness, and personal accountability can make a world of difference.

You have a range of experience in wealth and risk management. How has the CFA charter helped with transitioning between different roles? 

The breadth and depth of the curriculum immediately set me up for success as I developed my career in the foreign exchange market (FX) and money market sales. I had been out of school for about ten years by the time I completed the CFA Program, and I benefitted from the practical knowledge I had gained. The ability to leverage that knowledge in my conversations with clients looking to manage various exposures and build wealth or with investment advisors and portfolio managers overseeing client portfolios was invaluable. The CFA Program (particularly Level III) reinforced a disciplined approach to portfolio construction and security valuation that I have been able to rely on throughout my career. Understanding the risks associated with different financial instruments has been critical as I moved into a risk management function. It has allowed me to have much more constructive conversations with the business units I support.  

What other factors have contributed to your accomplished career?

Several people have helped me throughout my career: colleagues, direct managers, and mentors. I have benefitted from the snippets of advice and ideas they offered that have stuck with me for years. I still think about those conversations and the positive impact those people have had, which is why mentorship has been so important to me. Also, I have allowed myself to be open to different paths and unusual career turns. You have to be open to the unexpected, and you also have to telegraph that openness to others. Some of those unexpected opportunities have yielded fantastic outcomes. 

What piece of advice has helped in shaping your career?

I was once told, “It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.” The context was that I was sometimes not particularly delicate in communicating with others, particularly if I was right (or thought I was right); more of a “speak first, think later” approach. That’s probably the single most important piece of advice I have ever received (Thanks, Ken). As I learned to focus on that message, I realized that my ability to influence others, get things done, and effectively manage a team improved significantly. Disclaimer: Sometimes, I still don’t listen to it, and I need to remind myself, but I’m much better than I used to be!

What drew you to AML and operational risk management?

It wasn’t so much being drawn to it, but rather being faced with an opportunity to work with the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Retail Banking and Wealth Management, someone I respected and enjoyed working with. The organization had gone through a significant risk program transformation, and there was still work left to do. At the time, I was COO of the bank’s investment counsel business, and she saw my ability to drive decisions and move projects forward. She needed that particular skill set and asked me to take on a role that would focus on tying up those final elements of the re-launch. I have been in a risk role for about five years now, and I find that the discipline of portfolio construction learned from the CFA curriculum fits just as well into the structured approach to managing risk. 

What challenges have you faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?

Truthfully, most of my challenges have been self-inflicted. For years I thought that my career management was someone else’s responsibility and assumed that the organization would advocate for me and ensure that I was on the right track. I lacked the self-confidence to push myself and seek roles outside my comfort zone. I began to be more analytical about my skill set and create an inventory of the type of work I enjoyed, what I felt I was good at, and what I didn’t really enjoy. It became a lot easier to focus on opportunities that optimized the elements of “enjoy” and “good at.” This approach was validated when I was offered the risk role based on a very specific skill.  


Career highlights: 

  • Director, AML Risk, Canadian Banking, Scotiabank
  • Senior leader with extensive experience in anti-money laundering (AML) and operational risk management with previous roles in Wealth Management and Sales & Trading at HSBC and TD
  • Past Senior Advisor & Chair of the Mentorship Committee at CFA Society Toronto

What motivated you to pursue your MBA?

 

When I decided to work towards the CFA designation, I was also considering an MBA. At the time, my wife was in school, and we had a two-year-old and a baby. My commitment to being an active parent and supporting my wife’s schooling as much as possible made me a bit nervous about the MBA programs I was considering, which required some scheduled attendance. I felt that the self-guided aspect of the CFA Program gave me the flexibility I needed. It was the right decision at the time. The MBA stayed on my list as something I wanted to do, and when my wife started her MBA program, it was “game on”! (She won.) Career-wise, I was transitioning from trading to more of a business management role, and the MBA curriculum complemented that re-tooling. Doing an MBA later in my career gave me some great perspective as I had a lot of experience to draw from. I think I benefitted more from the MBA than if I had completed it earlier in my career. 

How do you keep yourself educated and up-to-date on trending issues in the industry?

Well, you can’t beat the CFA Institute website for content, and CFA Society Toronto’s “Day in the Life of” speaker series hosted by the Mentorship Committee is excellent as well, but I may be a little biased. What I find quite helpful though, is connecting directly with someone in the area that I’m looking to investigate further and having a conversation. Not only do you benefit from their expertise, but you can guide the conversation in whatever direction you need, unlike an article or webinar, which is just delivered to you. That’s one of the reasons I think the Knowledge Network is such a great initiative for Society members. It allows people to connect with someone in a field that they’re looking to learn about and have a chat. Now that people are coming back into the office more often, I think we’ll probably see an increase in connections through that resource. For my team, we combine articles or podcasts with a group discussion to foster a greater understanding of a topic. It ensures that the team learns together, and we maintain a consistent level of knowledge across the group on a particular topic.  

You previously served as the Chair of CFA Society Toronto’s Mentorship Committee. What are the main highlights or lessons learned during your time on the committee?

Undoubtedly, the highlight has been the people I’ve met: committee members, mentors, and protégés. Over the years, I’ve worked with a great group of people who brought new ideas to the table and provided protégés and mentors the support they needed to make the program successful. The mentors are our bread and butter, and it’s encouraging to see so many Society members step up to offer their time and experience. One of the significant changes I’ve seen over the years is an increasing need for mentorship and guidance, specifically for charterholders new to Canada who need to understand the local marketplace, build their networks, and set up for success in a new country. It’s a daunting task, and the mentorship program has provided them with much-needed support. 

Based on your mentorship experience, what advice do you have for aspiring mentors?

Mentorship is about guiding a development conversation and facilitating self-discovery and self-improvement, rather than pointing the protégé in a particular direction. If you’ve never mentored before, take a moment to think about some of the people who have made an impression on you, and you might realize that it was just one thing they said or one idea they planted that resonated with you. You don’t need to solve everything to make a difference as a mentor. You need to give the protégé a couple of things to think about or some actionable ideas for them to pick up. Also, never underestimate the learning opportunity for mentors in this relationship. I have become a much better people manager based on my mentorship participation. 

What advice do you have for professionals interested in becoming protégés?

Don’t wait! Start right away. Mentorship is a great way to gain different perspectives and have a trusted advisor to bounce ideas off, yet it’s still an underutilized resource in most organizations. The key is to prepare so you aren’t wasting your mentor’s time and your own. Have a couple of questions or topics lined up for each meeting, and if possible, send them to the mentor ahead of time so they can have some time to think about them. It’s your responsibility to manage the discussion.  CFA_Toronto_RGB Milly


Click here to apply to be a 2023 Mentor or Protégé! 


FUN FACTS:

Last interesting book you read?

The book I have referred people to the most recently is Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. It has some great ideas about reducing the “busy” in our workdays, carving out time to think, and focusing on meaningful tasks. These strategies can also be applied in our personal lives. The concept resonated with me. 

Personal motto?

“Life is what you do with plan B.” Most people have a plan laid out, either professionally or personally. Still, the reality for many of us is that we rarely see that plan play out precisely the way we anticipated. We need to adapt to the unforeseen and be able to make the best of a choice that may not have been our first. That can often lead us to better outcomes and unexpected positive surprises if you approach it with the right mindset. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Christine Ha Kong, CFA, is responsible for ESG research and proxy voting at BMO Global Asset Management. 

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