What it means to be a thought leader

My family and friends often ask me to explain what it means to work as an investment analyst in the Investment Strategy Group at Vanguard. I answer by saying that my job is to develop thought leadership. Now, if you’re not sure what the phrase thought leadership means, you’re not alone. When I first joined Vanguard, I didn’t understand what it meant either. Essentially, within my role, thought leadership means investment research that aims to go beyond what’s already been published within the industry or showcases a differentiated opinion. This research helps Vanguard answer key topical questions: What is the value of financial advice? How should investors be thinking through decision-making in retirement? What is Vanguard’s outlook for the economy and the capital markets? Answering these questions by way of research helps Vanguard continue to educate our clients and crew—and helps further establish Vanguard as a leading investment management firm.

A vertical learning curve

When I began my rotation in the Investment Strategy Group through Vanguard’s leadership development program, I felt fairly intimidated by how much I didn’t know. The group was full of subject-matter-experts who not only conducted research, but frequently acted as ambassadors, discussing and delivering our group’s research in crew trainings, client meetings, and at industry conferences. While I had a background in economics and was passionate about investing, I was unsure about being able to contribute as a new team member within such a tenured department.

What I realized was that being surrounded by such knowledgeable leaders and analysts ensured that my learning curve was essentially vertical. The culture was so collaborative and grounded in intellectual curiosity that I quickly began to build both investment and technical acumen. Throughout various projects, I was able to leverage and maximize my own unique skillset while partnering with other analysts to bring my analytical skills and systems knowledge up to par. I loved the fact that there truly were no bad questions, and everyone was eager to share their experience and knowledge, whether it was over a casual coffee or in the midst of a department-wide town hall.

The content creation process 

Shortly after completing my rotation and joining the group permanently, I was aligned to the Advisor’s Alpha research team, which focuses on investor behavior and the value of financial advice. When I began working on my first whitepaper, I collaborated with members of my team and partnered with leaders and practitioners in Vanguard’s client-facing divisions. Our goals were to create differentiated content that would shape the industry conversation and to outline best practices that would give institutional clients the best chance of achieving their mission (i.e. charity, education, retirement).

Creating thought leadership, no matter the topic, often happens in phases. We started off by doing deep dive research, poring through academic studies, industry intelligence, and previously published whitepapers. I really enjoyed the “get smart” phase because it allowed me to get a feel for the broader conversation happening in the industry around institutional advice. Then, we began outlining our approach, performing analysis, and drafting the paper. The writing phase was challenging but rewarding as we iterated through a number of versions and honed in on our structure, language, and visualization. Though it was a long journey, the skills I gained by working through the research process were invaluable.

A foundational skill set

My favorite aspect of working as an investment analyst in this group is that it’s given me broad exposure to numerous investment disciplines across the globe. While I work in Vanguard’s Scottsdale, Arizona office, the Investment Strategy Group is spread across our headquarters in Pennsylvania as well as a number of international offices, allowing us to conduct thought leadership on a global scale. By avidly reading and organically learning from experts in the department, I’ve built a base of knowledge across all of our research specialties including portfolio construction, retirement, and the economy and markets.

In addition to that wide-ranging foundation, I’ve delved deeply into my own research specialty. I realized that a challenging first step to being a thought leader and influencing industry conversation is being well-versed in what’s already been said. By leaning on my team’s experience and conducting research alongside our business partners, I’ve educated myself on the existing dialogue around investor behavior and the value of advice. In the future, I aspire to continue contributing to this dialogue as a developing thought leader (and proudly explaining my job to my friends and family when they ask!)

-Sneha K.

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