BOWER Heroes Series #3
Colm O’Shea – Hedge Fund Founder
Colm O’Shea is the Founding Partner of COMAC Capital LLP, a London-based global macro hedge fund. COMAC was highly regarded for its performance during the financial crisis and became one of the largest funds in Europe. Prior to COMAC, Mr. O’Shea worked for Citigroup and as a senior portfolio manager at Soros Fund Management.
What is your interpretation of ‘Talent’?
Talent is generally used to mean natural abilities and tendencies you were born with. But I tend to believe that the skills and behaviours we learn are far more important. The skills we honed as a young child are the things other people tend to describe as our talents but I think if we choose to, we have the ability to develop and grow throughout our lives and develop new talents.
What do you feel you are particularly talented at yourself?
The most important skill I have is a strong work ethic and a belief that I can learn and improve. This means that I often think I can become highly skilled at something through application and determination even if I would not be described as naturally talented in that area.
What do you see as your greatest achievement?
How you define achievements often changes as you grow older. As a young man I would think of objective measures such as academic and sporting success. When building my career I would think of the success of my business. As a more mature business man I now am most pleased to see the successes of people I have worked with and the great network of colleagues we have formed who have become lifelong friends.
When do you feel you have been most surrounded by talent?
I was very fortunate that when I was 10 my mother saw and advert in the local paper encouraging children to apply to a highly academic school. I was surrounded for these formative years by some of the smartest and intellectually challenging people I have ever known. This helped me enormously to not make the mistake of defining myself in any narrow way. I learned that if I wanted to compete and excel alongside such talented people I needed to keep pushing myself to develop new skills.
In running my Hedge Fund it is no surprise I worked with many extremely intelligent and motivated people. But what I learned over the years was that academic achievements and objective measures of ability were far less important than behaviours and attitude. The talents that really matter are often the softer skills such as the ability to work collaboratively in a team, to have the confidence to allow you to be independent and creative, and to know when to ask for help.
“What I learned over the years was that academic achievements and objective measures of ability were far less important than behaviours and attitude”.
How did that affect your working environment?
When we got the mix right then the office was a fun place to be. People are given enough autonomy to have control of their work, but also have frequent interaction which builds mutual skills and also friendships.
How did that affect your own work?
I learned that I really like to work interactively and collaboratively. This means that I work much better with people who also enjoy working in teams rather than people who want to work as an expert in a silo.
How do you spot talent in others? What do you look for?
What I look for is an optimistic positive attitude and a love for learning. This desire to learn does not need to be in any way academic but people who embrace situations in their life where they face challenges and learn how to overcome them are likely to be talented at the most critical part of learning any job.
What advice do you have for putting together a talented team that works well?
I think this is very individual but the two dimensions I would think in are the personality of the core team and the maturity of the business. Whatever team type is chosen has to fit the personality of the team builders or it will fail. I have built a number of teams over the years and the successful ones are the ones which I have personally enjoyed being a part of. The maturity of the business is also important to be aware of as even if you enjoy a flat structure with little formality, once you are past a certain size you will tend to attract specialists rather than generalists and they will want clear structure. This for me is the most challenging part of growing a business, when the firm has been successful with a small firm culture and then becomes a large firm, which if allowed to grow too quickly will lose the original culture.
What do you look for in a PA?
A PA role has to be all about fit. Not everyone would like working for me and someone who is perfect for someone else might not suit me at all. I have found that a positive attitude, a practical approach to problem-solving and a willingness to adapt are critical.
What do you think makes an exceptional PA?
The characteristic I have seen that is most useful but not easy to interview for is to be able to work well with the broad range of personalities they encounter in the role.
What advice would you give to leaders looking to develop talent?
The easiest way to develop talent is employ people who genuinely want to learn and improve. Then you just need to give them opportunities, and if you are not providing them it is likely they will let you know and work with you to find better ways to learn. I have found to my cost that trying to develop people who do not really want to change is deeply mutually frustrating.
What do you think is most important for career development?
Be opportunistic and positive when life throws you a surprise. Even the most steady work environment can see big changes over time and if you adapt better than other people you will do very well.
What do you believe is the best way to energise an employee to use their talents?
Everyone is different and therefore the techniques a manager uses to energise employees should vary depending on the team or person. While some people may relish a dynamic competitive environment others may prefer a more supportive and structured work atmosphere. Getting to know your employees and understanding their differences goes a long way towards knowing how to motivate them.
What advice would you give to a young person starting their career in any industry?
The best advice I was given when starting out was to think whether I would like to become like the people in that office. Because either you will become like them or the culture clash will become unbearable and you will leave. Taking a job that on paper looks great but with people you do not like and respect will not be a productive experience.