Today, thousands of candidates from every corner of the globe will sit for a CFA exam. The CFA designation, which stands for Chartered Financial Analyst, is billed as the premier, global designation for professionals working in investment management. It has been dubbed ‘the gold standard’ in the investment industry. In addition to a credential, it is the mark of a professional, requiring annual commitment to ethics and lifetime learning.*
Earning a CFA charter requires passing three rigorous exams, which are offered only once, or twice in the case of the first exam, per year. When I say rigorous, I’ve heard the CFA exams compared only to the Bar exam that American attorneys must pass, and in those cases, I have been told that the CFA is more difficult. The passing rate for a CFA exam ranges from 32% to 55%, and less than a third of those who embark on the tests will complete all three.
In the investment industry, passing all three CFA exams signals to employers, colleagues, and clients that you are, to put it simply, really fricking smart.
Ahead of today’s exam, I noticed several negative comments on social media. Perhaps it was all in jest, but several people claimed the CFA worthless or proclaimed that ‘nobody cares about your CFA’. Some of the comments were downright rude and offensive. I suppose that’s par for the course in social media, and I also suppose there is a twinge of jealousy amongst those who were unable to pass the tests. But those comments provoked this blog post – an explanation of what my CFA charter means to me and how it has profoundly shaped and enriched my career.
I earned my CFA charter exactly 10 years ago. When I moved to New York after college, I briefly worked as a sales assistant on an equity sales desk covering small hedge funds. I was the assistant to an older gentleman named Ed who, seeing my frustration at starting out as an assistant, recommended that I take the CFA exams. Never one to fear a difficult exam, I took his advice. I have not kept up with Ed from Scarsdale, but I owe him major THANK YOU.
When I first earned my charter, I was not involved in my local society, which at that time was New York. The society felt so big, I never imagined there were opportunities to volunteer and become more involved in CFA activities on a global scale. I didn’t immediately get a huge pay increase or a fancy new job. In fact, not much changed in those first few years except that I got to put three letters behind my name on a business card.
When I moved to New Orleans, I knew no one except for my future husband. So, I joined every affinity group I could think of, including the local CFA Society, CFA Society of Louisiana. In this small society, I met colleagues who would later become great friends. I was asked to join the board and accepted. The board is a group of volunteers who organize society events and manage memberships. I helped get speakers for our monthly lunches by leveraging my contacts at asset management companies.
I soon learned that volunteer board members attended learning conferences to hear best ideas from CFA Institute and other societies. I attended a global conference in London and was blown away. I found myself at an opening night reception with CFA charterholders from almost every country – from Romania to Vietnam, Kenya to Argentina, Mississippi, Toronto, Singapore, and Germany. If you’ve never experienced a global gathering of such diverse people who have so much in common, it is hard to describe the experience. This was the first time I realized I was a part of something truly special. I don’t know of another global professional membership group on this scale.
I continued my volunteer service and served as President of the CFA Society of Louisiana in 2015-2016. But a couple of years before that, I attended my first educational conference from CFA Institute. The CFA Wealth Management Conference was held in New Orleans, so it was a no brainer for me to attend. I have been to countless industry conferences in my day. At best I hope to get one new nugget of information, meet a few interesting colleagues, and perhaps learn about a piece of useful software. But a CFA conference is a different animal.
The speaker quality was unbelievable. Clare-Flynn Levy spoke about using biometric data to improve the performance of institutional money managers and traders. Carolyn McClanahan blew our minds about cognitive decline and aging and how to help clients plan for it. To wrap it up, none other than famed bond investor and writer, Jim Grant, downloaded his thoughts on the room. There was no downtime, no boring sales presentations from asset managers, and they didn’t allow audience members to use question time to get on a soapbox. It was here that I met Charlie Henneman, Head of Educational Events for CFA Institute, for the first time.
Issac Pressley, me, and John T. Elmes speaking at the 70th CFA Annual Conference
A few years later, Charlie would ask me to be on a panel at the CFA Annual Conference, which was held in Philadelphia. While there, Lauren Foster, who creates and curates much of the content from CFA Institute, interviewed me live from the exhibit hall, where we discussed the benefits of gender diversity in the industry and in corporate leadership. The following spring, I would step in to moderate the entire Wealth Management Conference in Los Angeles, a role a reprised the next year in Fort Lauderdale. I am now a member of the Advisory Council for the CFA Annual Conference, which is by far the most talented group of people you’ve ever seen assembled in one room. We convened in London last month to brainstorm for the 2020 Annual Conference in Atlanta next May.
Is there any other professional membership group where volunteering can lead to such amazing opportunities?
For the past five years, Paul Smith has led CFA Institute as our CEO. Under Paul’s leadership, CFA Institute has focused on “promoting the highest standards of ethics, education, and professional excellence for the ultimate benefit of society.” Our members recognize that the investment industry suffers from a lack of trust with our clients, and we want to lead efforts to create better regulation and rebuild the trust gap. I have never witnessed someone work as hard as Paul to promote our profession and our members, and I am lucky to be on a first name basis with him on account of my volunteer activities. He must be on a plane 350 days a year. I hope he will take a very long, well-deserved vacation when he leaves CFA Institute at the end of this year.
My CFA charter began as an impressive credential to list on my resume and business card. But as I dove in to opportunities to volunteer within the profession, I realized that I am a member of one of the only, truly global professional networks. I can travel to Frankfurt, Oslo, Charlottesville, Hong Kong, Toronto, Barbados, or Johannesburg tomorrow and have dinner with a friend and colleague. In fact, I recently did that in Paris, when I met up with Twitter friend Julien Coudert for lunch. I know that my fellow 150,000+ CFA charterholders are committed to the highest ethical standards and to moving our profession forward to face the challenges of a new century.
You can call me corny or make fun of me for believing I unlocked a merit badge for passing three difficult exams. But to me, my CFA charter and membership is worth far more than every dollar, every hour of study time, and every night spent away from home to volunteer.
So good luck to all the candidates sitting for the CFA exam this weekend! When you earn your charter, be sure to join your local society and get involved.
- CFA Institute Paul Smith is leading an effort for membership to approve a continuing education requirement. This is an effort I support wholeheartedly.