Finance executive shares her investing and career insight

Marina Bykova has her finger on the pulse of global investment and banking. She has developed her knowledge of these industries during a career that began more than 20 years ago in Russia.

Bykova is a founder and managing partner at Maxima Invest, an investment advisory firm, and Maxima Solutions, a wealth management firm. Prior to starting those companies she held executive roles at Sberbank in Austria, Russia and Ukraine and was at Citigroup for 10 years, leading groups in Russia and the U.S.

Bykova graduated from the Global Executive MBA program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in 2004, and serves on the school’s regional advisory board for Russia/CIS. In a Fuqua Q&A she shared her investment and leadership expertise plus insights about the challenges women face in the corporate world.

Marina Bykova

Q) What emerging trends do you think will have a major impact on investing in Europe and Russia/CIS markets in the next few years?

  • Despite the sanctions against Russia, the most sophisticated investors continue to be active there. They are oriented to the long-term perspective and investment horizon, and enjoy the opportunity to buy Russian undervalued stocks and equities. Even sovereign funds are going to stay in Russia, increasing their investment portfolios in purchasing power parity, infrastructure, agriculture and other areas.
  • The emerging markets have provided major investment opportunities over the last decade—especially in the equity, fixed income and currency spaces.
  • The global growth landscape and investment opportunity set have changed significantly in recent years, but allocating to emerging markets remains a core investment strategy.

Q) To what do you attribute your success in the banking and investment industries?

I was really lucky to work for good companies that valued professional qualities the most, and to have great bosses and mentors in those workplaces. The companies with the name and reputation in the marketplace, such as Citi in my case, helped to set the table for my future growth and provide an unparalleled learning experience professionally.

At the same time, it doesn’t matter how great the company is where you are working if you do not have good working relations with people around you and your boss in particular. I saw a Harvard survey that shows people named their boss as the number one reason for changing jobs and compensation only as the number four reason. So, it is clear that we cannot underestimate the importance of whom you are working for. In Citi, for example, I crossed paths with Sally Krawcheck who is one of the best leaders I ever met. She continues to be my role model in business years later due to her high ethical standards, standing strong for what she believes is right, and good sense of humor.

Of course, attributes such as hard work, resilience and sophisticated interpersonal skills will always remain crucial for a successful career.

Q) What are the key qualities to being an effective leader?

There are a lot of essays and even books written on this extremely popular topic, and every leader has an opinion on it. I would pick the qualities of passion, innovation, communication and commitment.

  • Passion: You need to love what you are doing and even more, to love doing it. The most successful leaders can motivate—inspire not just themselves but others by demonstrating the example and by setting the high standards. They strive for excellence and lead by example. In addition, true passion for what you are doing will give you the strength and will to pursue your goals even when faced with failures and setbacks.
  • Innovation: Where does an organization begin, particularly if they want to compete in the long term? The answer resides in the type of talent a company hires and promotes. Leaders must create a climate that rewards creativity. Employees must be encouraged to ask great questions and challenge the status quo. If you blindly execute because that is the framework for how things get done, valuable opportunities will be missed.
  • Communication: Being able to clearly and succinctly describe what you want done is extremely important. If you can’t relate your vision to your team, you won’t all be working towards the same goal. The number one reason for failures of projects is miscommunication.
  • Commitment: If you expect your team to work hard and produce quality content, you’re going to need to lead by example. There is no greater motivation than seeing the boss down in the trenches working alongside everyone else, showing that hard work is being done on every level.

Q) Describe a key learning point in your career that still resonates today and influences how you approach leadership.

Ten years ago when I was still working for Citi in Russia and CIS, I decided that I needed to get an MBA. Being a big believer in continuous education, I always loved to study and I enrolled to the Global Executive program without hesitation.

This period was quite busy and difficult for all of us and for me in particular, as it was the consumer launch in Russia. So, my boss very openly asked me: “Why do you want to start your MBA at this point in your career? You have a great track record, what else do you need?” And I simply answered that I would like to become Citi’s first Russian CFO for the Russia and CIS region.

My boss’s reaction hurt me but it was honest. He said that it is an “impossible dream” because of two reasons: one, I am Russian and two, I am a woman. I noted this important and challenging statement and in the next six months managed to convince my boss and other decision makers to start “thinking out of the box” and to appoint me as the first local CFO.

I recently read this empowering statement: “The best way to predict your future is to create it. Visualize yourself living a life where you feel free, powerful and where anything is possible.” This is a very true statement, in my opinion, and extremely helpful for anyone who is thinking about career growth.

Q) What kind of challenges do women face in climbing the corporate ladder, and how can they be proactive in addressing them?

The main challenges for women in the corporate world are the same as always—they still need to prove they have a right to a seat at the table. In May, The New York Times published a list highlighting the fact that out of the 200 highest-paid CEOs, only 13 were women. And this is despite being in today’s world where we have a lot of new and emerging work structures where employers are thinking more progressively.

How to address these challenges? My advice would be to become a part of professional women’s community. I like the proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It is important to be a proactive community member and to offer leadership and mentorship to the younger generation. Create a community of professional power—and make it a diverse group. Find people who are ready, willing and able to help you become the best in your business. Be available to do the same for others. Be positive and do the right thing. Mentorship is one of the best and the most rewarding experiences, in my opinion.