Karina Robinson is the chief executive of Robinson Hambro, a chief executive advisory and search firm.
I was the worst Spanish equities analyst in the City of London. In 1987, my boss at Morgan Grenfell fired me from my first job after 15 months. He could tell from the back of my neck, he said, that I hated the job.
My boss was almost right. It wasn’t just my neck that railed against the role: I hated it with every bone in my body. Yet I have subsequently had a 35-year career in the City and financial journalism, including being a political and economic correspondent at Bloomberg, a senior editor at The Banker, and Master of the Worshipful Company of International Bankers, a City livery company. Over the past decade, I’ve run my own boutique advisory and search firm, Robinson Hambro, along with other advisory board roles.
But this litany of positions hides a (shameful) secret: I scraped through my maths O level, a UK public exam, with a mediocre “C” grade — much to the bemusement of my maths teacher who anticipated a fail. As for physics, the situation is doubly ironic: I gave it up aged 14, yet have founded The City Quantum Summit, a conference bringing together the scientific and financial communities.
Nor am I alone: I was much reassured to hear that Sir Robert Stheeman, chief executive of the Debt Management Office, which issues UK Treasury bonds, failed his maths O level. Twice.
My experience offers, I hope, some lessons for students in their last years of school and university who are being pressured into studies that are not in tune with their souls. You do not need to be a maths genius, a computer scientist, a PhD in physics or, indeed, an expert in any Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects to succeed in the financial or tech sectors.
If you aren’t gifted in that way, enjoy every minute studying medieval literature or international relations. For you too might be “a dragoman” — a word I learned when reading Anna Aslanyan’s book, Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History, and which describes the unifying thread in my career.
A dragoman was a translator in the Ottoman Empire whose power far exceeded that of their 21st century colleagues. Dragomans were intermediaries — the insider and outsider, communicators of esoteric or excessively complicated concepts — and became important political figures. Alexander Mavrocordato was the best known of them: in 1673, he became the Dragoman of the Sublime Porte — a mixture of chief translator and deputy foreign minister.
And there are three reasons why it is a promising career choice. First, it will not be engineers or politicians working on their own who solve the multiple challenges associated with the climate emergency. Dragomen — those working behind the scenes who can bridge the understanding gap between leaders in siloed disciplines and roles — will play a crucial role.
Second, in our fragmenting, albeit globalised world, cultural understanding is key. In October last year, Sony Group’s Chinese arm learned this lesson the hard way when Beijing fined it Rmb1mn. The Japanese company had planned a new smartphone launch in China for 7 July — the anniversary date of the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge incident, which triggered the start of the Second Sino-Japanese war. China saw this as an affront to its national dignity.
Finally, and most importantly, dragomen have skills that are vital for the future workplace. In the UK, for example, the Financial Services Skills Commission has analysed where there are skills shortages and where demand is increasing. Its ensuing framework highlights eight key skills needed for the future. Alongside the likes of machine learning and cyber security, other in-demand traits include empathy, relationship management, adaptability and team work.
Dragomen can tick four of those boxes, while the more technical skills can be learned through corporate training. There is no need — unless you have the capacity — to sign up for a PhD in cyber security.
So, feel free to ignore the chief executive of a FTSE 100 asset management firm who I overheard at a recent private breakfast saying, “No more history graduates!” But remember, a dragoman must have the humility to accept their own ignorance and use that to create a better world.