Pimco’s Kimberley Stafford: You Don’t Have to Talk Like a Man to Succeed on the Buyside

By Isabel Wong

A study conducted by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics in 2017 found that 28 per cent more interview offers are given to graduate job applications with masculine traits than those with feminine qualities and hobbies, while salary offers were also 5 per cent higher for more masculine candidates despite all job applicants had the same academic qualifications and experience. 

In a male-dominated environment such as the buyside, one might wonder if the industry’s preference for masculine qualities is even more prominent. But Kimberley Stafford, managing director and head of Asia Pacific at Pacific Investment Management Co., disagrees that women have to exhibit masculine traits to succeed in the investment management industry. She said two key reasons why there are not many women on the buyside are a lack of awareness of buyside careers among young women, and the need to further develop mid-level female talent into senior leadership positions.

The ‘boys’ club’ atmosphere of Wall Street is often cited as a factor that tarnishes the buyside’s reputation as an attractive option for female talent. (Photo: unsplash.com)

Having been with Pimco for nearly two decades, Stafford has been in multiple leadership roles in the firm across various job functions including global head of consultant relations, head of US institutional and alternatives sales teams, and global head of human resources and talent management. According to Stafford, two of the aspects that have contributed to her success on the buyside are supportive allies and her willingness to embrace new challenges.

L: Lynk | K: Kimberley Stafford

L: Tell us about your career journey. At what point did you decide a leadership role on the buyside would be for you?

K: Very early on in my career, I realised that I like relationships, talking about macro-strategy at a higher level, and understanding clients’ objectives and how we could help with different solutions. So that realisation drove me to the client facing side where I worked with investment consultants.

While I like the client work and the relationships that I’ve been building, I also enjoy working on the business management and strategic side. When there was a role opening up in the executive office which oversees the financial operating and strategic elements of the firm, my manager at the time recommended me for the role. That opportunity really opened up my aperture of what it’s like to work at a big buyside firm.

Having held multiple leadership roles in different job functions at Pimco, Kimberley Stafford said supportive allies and willingness to embrace new challenges are key to her success. (Photo: Courtesy of Pimco)

Then, an interesting step was I became the head of HR and global talent management. I don’t come from a HR background, but during my time working in Pimco’s executive office, I learnt that our management team is all about understanding our talents, and they are constantly trying to improve our budgeting, compensation structure, and hiring processes. So I put myself forward and offered to help our CEO on people-related strategy by being a HR liaison for the executive office. When our head of HR at the time transitioned into a new role within the firm, he nominated me as his successor and that’s how I got the role.

After only one year leading our global HR efforts, I was asked to lead our global consultant relations, institutional and alternative sales in the US. Our newly appointed CEO at the time, Emmanuel Roman, then asked me to relocate to Hong Kong and lead our Asia business. 

While it was not something that was on my radar, he said to me, “Pimco is a global business and you will not appreciate having a global perspective until you sit somewhere else outside the US”. 

He was right. Three years on, I am absolutely loving this opportunity and the key takeaway from my career journey is realising the importance of raising my hand for certain roles and tasks while having advocates and sponsors along the way. The willingness to just say “yes” to new challenges has also been really helpful.

L: When you were the head of HR, did you see any challenges in terms of hiring female professionals on the buyside? Is it true that by nature, women don’t choose to work on the buyside? Are there any other barriers for them to enter the space?

K: For Pimco, there are two main talent pools. We’d like to attract talent either at the undergraduate or the MBA level, straight into the firm and develop them, and hopefully give them very long careers in the firm. But then we also hire experienced people who’ve had a longer term career in the industry. 

We have been seeing a decline in terms of female MBA students opting to focus on finance. It seems that women are choosing other types of career such as consulting and technology. When we asked them about the reason why, the majority of them told us they just could not envision how they could integrate a career on the buyside and the personal life that they want. So one thing the buyside needs to do more is spend time demystifying how it is possible to have a fruitful personal life and career life on the buyside as this will help increase the talent pool .

At the same time, we need more women in leadership roles. That’s really how we get the cognitive diversity, and the power of the diversity of thought. But that pool is also small. So a lot of what we focus on at Pimco is developing that pipeline, and developing our female talent into senior leadership positions so we have more women making key decisions that will impact the firm.

L: How to implement the agenda of pushing for diversity into the buyside hiring process in a practical and fair manner?

K: At Pimco, we emphasise meritocracy because we want the very best as the best talent will deliver the best outcomes for our clients, and we’re not willing to compromise on that. But as our job is thinking about smart investment ideas that will translate into solutions to achieve different client objectives, having a homogeneous talent base in which everyone thinks the same will become a roadblock down the road.

So maintaining a diverse perspective within the firm is a business imperative for us. When we work with search firms, we often tell them to redo the talent search process if they come back to us with no women on the slate. We do this because we want a slate that is diverse. We want to make sure that we’re looking at as many different kinds of candidates as we possibly can as a starting point because that could potentially lead us to more female talent and a more diverse workforce.

L: Data has shown that buyside firms tend to be more diverse in Asia than the rest of the world. Is it because domestic helpers are more common in markets such as Hong Kong, Singapore and China? Could personality also play a part as there is an assumption that women working on the buyside tend to be more ambitious?

K: There’s truth to both. The infrastructure and support as well as the cultural acceptance of women working that are available in certain parts of Asia do make a meaningful difference. Our Hong Kong office is also statistically the most diverse office we have at Pimco. But I don’t think we can paint with a broad brush as there are still some Asian markets where that’s not the case.

On the personality side, I think a lot of women are ambitious and want to excel. Sometimes we wonder if [women] have to be assertive and male-like in the way they behave and communicate in order to excel. I do not think this is true as I do not exhibit this style and know other very successful women who similarly do not.

Women representation in leadership roles on the buyside in markets such as Hong Kong and China often appears to be higher than that of North America. (Photo: unsplash.com)

In group settings, especially earlier on in my career, it was hard to speak up and I felt intimidated. And I think these are all just issues that women face. I think part of it could be cultural, but there are also things that companies can do to provide an environment that is more conducive to welcoming women’s ideas and different personalities.

When we started our gender diversity initiative at Pimco over 10 years ago, we surveyed all the senior women and asked “what makes it harder to be a woman at Pimco?”, and a lot of them expressed communication styles and decision making styles being the challenges as they usually prefer voicing their opinions or making suggestions when they have data and a carefully thought through plan to back them up. 

Our head of Japan at the time also pointed out cultural differences could play a part as it could be challenging for our international offices to fit into an American corporate culture. Therefore, in response to that, we encourage everyone at Pimco to send information ahead of a meeting so everyone can preview it, digest, think about ideas and questions, and be very prepared when walking into a meeting.

We also have a meeting format where there is a moderator. If the meeting does not allow everyone time to voice their opinions and ideas, we tour the table and give every person an opportunity to speak, whether it’s an in-person meeting or video conference. Then, we usually follow up with the action items and provide the opportunity for people to share their best ideas. We found that those small changes really help create a much more inclusive culture.

L: Most people still think women on the buyside are usually male-like and aggressive which you mentioned are not personality traits that you have. But you also used to play football during your university years, did it play a part in terms of developing you into a woman who can work and lead on the buyside?

K: I think so. Looking back, that’s how I learnt about teamwork and how to bring together a group of people with different skill sets and harness that collectively to win the game. I think that’s the same in a buyside firm. At Pimco, we don’t have just one star. It’s all about everyone showing up in their respective positions that they’re great at, and delivering and working together.

I was a goalkeeper and I’d be the last one to say I should not play forward, we would lose if that happened. The buyside is an environment of high expectation and excellence. But it’s also one where it’s very clear that the path to getting there requires collaboration, respect, and inclusion.

L: Is it true that it is challenging to “have a life” when working on the buyside?

K: Instead of work-life balance that many people would look to, I prefer to call it work-life integration, which is how you combine and connect both aspects into your preferred life, and that is more empowering. But everyone is going to have a different description of what that preferred life means, what’s important to them, and how you want to structure it.

A couple of things that are important in achieving that: One, taking time to be introspective about your goals and how you want to architect your preferred life. Two, companies like ours are trying to really understand that everyone has different priorities. We care about the outcome and the performance objectives, and we care less about how people get there so sitting at their desks for 16 hours is not necessarily what we value.

I think what’s so interesting recently is we’ve all had to work from home over this past period. We all know now technology works, it’s been a really great proof statement for everyone. A lot of us are wondering “what does the next phase look like?”. We are probably not going to go back to where and what we were, and this is great because we are able to see there are a lot of different ways to work and achieve outcomes, and that’s really good for women in particular.

L: If you have the power to change anything on the buyside, what is that one thing that you really want to change?

K: I think that there’s a myth for women about what it is like, the career paths, the culture, and what life can look like – and I really want to demystify that.

Hopefully, that would mean that a lot more women would be interested in careers on our side of the business. But in the meantime, without the magic wand, I think Pimco is trying hard to raise awareness and engage young women. For girls in high school, when they’re not even contemplating what they’ll be, we have to start showcasing how exciting careers can be on the buyside because we know we’re competing with a lot of other interesting industries. We want people to at least take a look and see that it can be really rewarding.

L: What will be your advice for high school girls?

K: People often think that you could just be a portfolio manager and manage money when you work on the buyside. I’ve done basically every job except that at Pimco. There’s a wide range of jobs on the buyside, from marketing to compliance and legal, they are all very interesting. So the diversity of careers and roles in our industry is something that we want to open people’s eyes to. We just don’t want people to close off a path without even taking a look.

Buyside Power Women is Lynk’s latest interview series that features conversations with female leaders and male allies on the buyside to increase visibility of women in the industry. The series covers the career journeys of female CIOs in different regions, and how advocacy for diversity could influence future capital allocation.

Stay tuned for upcoming Buyside Power Women editorial articles and live events here.