Practical analysis for investment professionals
27 September 2016

Lucy Kellaway on Being Fearful, and Fearfully Driven

On 14–15 October, CFA Institute will host Women in Investment Management: Access to Success in a Changing Industry, a virtual event to create better outcomes for investors and provide practical information relevant for individuals, investment teams, and those who hold leadership positions.

Lucy Kellaway has a problem with being authentic.

More specifically, the Financial Times columnist and associate editor has a problem with people who use the term “authentic” to describe the behaviors required to succeed in the modern workplace. “Especially if you’re a banker,” Kellaway said on stage at the 2016 CFA Institute Alpha and Gender Diversity Conference, “you can’t be authentic.”

“I write about the nonsense of office life,” Kellaway said, and every office should be familiar with initiatives where an ordinary phrase — one like “being authentic” — becomes loaded with complicated baggage in an attempt to improve corporate performance.

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Kellaway’s point was that different aspects of our personalities are presented (or obscured) depending on where we are and who we interact with. Insisting on one “authentic” mindset for addressing every situation is a recipe for failure.

Kellaway’s ongoing exposure to corporate doublespeak, where communications assign heroic importance to mundane words and downplay the impact of significant phrases, may have ended up inspiring her ideas for success in the workplace. By approaching familiar concepts from unfamiliar perspectives, she has uncovered effective methods that deliver results.

For one thing, she thinks that not enough has been said about the power of being terrifying. “You don’t have to be nasty,” she explained, “You just have to perfect the stare.”

“Fear has defined my working life,” Kellaway said. But it was not the fear that she inspired in others or the fear that others attempted to instill in her. She was driven by a self-imposed fear of “being found out,” a fear that she would fail to meet expectations. Over time, she found that “fear has also been my greatest weapon,” driving her to meet those daunting expectations. “If you’re afraid, you work hard,” she said. “That’s what you do.”

Eventually, Kellaway arrived at a state that she describes as “post fear,” a transition that began around age 50. Employees who are post fear offer a mix of challenges and opportunities, she said. “You’re not necessarily going to bust a gut in the manic way that you did when you were very, very afraid,” she said. But on the other hand, “it means that we dare to do things.”

The Alpha and Gender Diversity Conference was convened to discuss how diverse teams can uncover new ways to improve corporate performance and create better investor outcomes, and Kellaway’s insights raised the interesting possibility of matching post-fear mentors with younger, more fearful mentees.

As Kellaway wrote in a Financial Times column, businesses need “the right mix of daring and caution,” and these kinds of pairings could be another way to achieve that. The ability to identify and dismiss irrelevant fears, leaving more energy to focus on taking the risks necessary to tackle the relevant ones, could lead to very productive outcomes.

The question remains whether older, post-fear employees would be able to bridge the generation gap to communicate with their younger colleagues. Kellaway herself doubts that such a gap exists.

“I think a lot of fuss is made unnecessarily about millennials,” she said, in response to a question from the audience. “I think the only definite difference that I’ve noticed is that they don’t do practical jokes in the same way that we do.”

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: Courtesy of Monica Pedynkowski

Key Takeaways

  1. According to Lucy Kellaway, fear can be an obstacle, but it can also be your greatest weapon. If you’re really afraid, you work really hard to meet those daunting expectations.
  2. There is also power in being terrifying; Kellaway quips that “You don’t have to be nasty, you just have to perfect the stare.”
  3. According to Kellaway, the ability to identify and dismiss irrelevant fears, and to focus more energy on taking the risks necessary to tackle relevant fears, could lead to very productive outcomes.


How I Became a Fearless Feminist at Fifty-Five
Lucy Kellaway

View the full transcript (PDF).

About the Author(s)
Peter M.J. Gross

Peter M.J. Gross was an online content specialist for CFA Institute, where he managed blogs for the CFA Institute Annual Conference, European Investment Conference, and Middle East Investment Conference. Previously, he worked at Hampton Roads Publishing Company and at MFS Investment Management. Mr. Gross' articles have been published by Enterprising Investor, City A.M., Seeking Alpha, and The Hook, and his work has been highlighted by Real Clear Markets. He holds a BA degree from Connecticut College.

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