Chief Investment Officer, Moneta
Investing in People
May 9, 2022 | 30:30
When Aoifinn Devitt created The Fiftyfaces Podcast in 2020, she wanted to showcase the diversity of the world’s investors by telling their stories. Now, she tells Hugo her own story—from her start as a lawyer to her current role as the first female chief investment officer at Moneta, an investment advisor with $27 billion of assets under management. In this wide-ranging discussion, Aoifinn explains how the Russia-Ukraine conflict could change how we think about ESG, whether we’re in a new investing regime, and what she’s learned from podcasting.
|00:46||Host Hugo Scott-Gall introduces today’s episode and guest.|
|01:29||Aoifinn identifies what about investing initially sparked her interest.|
|04:00||The professional benefits of international travel and working abroad.|
|05:25||Aoifinn’s experience being both a mentor and mentee.|
|06:43||What is it like to be a female leader in a male-dominated industry?|
|10:01||The recurring traits of good investors and bad investors.|
|13:25||How can company culture be assessed?|
|14:53||What might the industry be like in 10 years’ time?|
|17:41||The area of customization.|
|19:10||Are we moving into a different investment regime?|
|23:50||The one different aspect of today’s regime.|
|25:23||The force of ESG.|
|27:28||What Aoifinn has learned as a podcast host.|
Hugo Scott-Gall: Today, I’m delighted to have with me Aoifinn Devitt. Aoifinn currently serves as the first female chief investment officer at Moneta, a $27 billion assets under management firm. She was previously Head of Investment at the International Business of Federated Hermes Limited.
She’s worked with institutional investors for over 20 years as a consultant, as an advisor, and has developed global experience in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. In 2020, she created The Fiftyfaces Podcast, a podcast focused on showcasing the richness and diversity of the world of investment by telling stories of a diverse group of people. Aoifinn, thanks very much for joining me.
Aoifinn Devitt: Delighted to be here, thank you.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Let’s get cracking. We’re going to talk about lots of different things, but let’s start off with your career journey. I think it’s always a good question asking anyone in investment, the answers are not always the same. Where did your interest in investing come from? What got you hooked?
Aoifinn Devitt: Well, it certainly wasn’t in my case sitting around the dinner table at the home and discussing the latest stock picks and the Financial Times. I actually started my career as a lawyer. And I came from a family that had many doctors in it, so lots of different kinds of doctors, but certainly medicine was a running theme through my household.
So, became a lawyer; loved studying law. I went into corporate law right after law school at Trinity College, Dublin. Which was really my first foray into the world of finance and a little bit of investment because we dealt with private equity funds at that time.
I spent two years in New York, and then went on to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, I was really integrated with the clients because we did work on-site a lot. It was during the Asian crisis, so we saw their fortunes rise and fall. That gave me a real visceral sense of how IPOs matter. How you’re raising a bond issue; how that matters to a company. That was really where I first became interested.
Really, initially, and just de-mystifying the world of numbers, the world of finance, and particularly the world of investment banking. But my first foray into investment management came through Cambridge Associates and that wasn’t until 2002.
Hugo Scott-Gall: So, you thought you’d become a consultant in the investment management industry. Did you just think, “Well I quite like the idea of investing, and I think I can do it better”?
Aoifinn Devitt: Well, I certainly did enjoy meeting the managers. I found that one of the most stimulating aspects in my professional career was meeting with these thought leaders in the space. I did also enjoy the task of relating some of that to clients. Because I worked with a lot of investment committees, a lot of large institutional investors.
My investment, I will say, has always been at the manager selection stage. I’ve never actually been at the call space trading stocks or trading bonds. Not sure that I’d be any good at it; I’ve never really tried it. But I will say that I do—and this maybe comes from my legal skills, have a reasonable skill in assessing people.
My judgment I find I’ve honed over time. I enjoy people. I enjoy interacting with them. I enjoy seeing what makes them tick; it fascinates me. So, I think that has enabled me to select managers with whom I would entrust my clients’ money over time.
My curiosity also extends to markets. They are never dull; they’re always changing, always dynamic. I’m really fascinated by what drives markets. I don’t like to predict markets, but I do at least like to decipher them. So, that’s an aspect of investment that I really love.
Hugo Scott-Gall: You said, “I think I can read people pretty well,” and that’s clearly very important when you’re entrusting them with billions of dollars. But do you think the fact that you’ve moved around physically, and you’ve moved around by type of job as well, that has given you a deeper, more diverse hinterland to go to when you think about all the different types of people you’ve met?
Aoifinn Devitt: There’s no question of that. I really do think that travel and working abroad and working in different cultural settings (and I’ve worked across Asia, including Japan, as well as Europe and the U.S.), that definitely opens your mind to many different ways of doing things. It enables you to develop an empathy and really connect with those people on their level, in terms of the way they like to communicate, the information they like to take in, and the level of due diligence they like to do. So, I have no question of that—and I would encourage anyone to always take that opportunity to have a stint in a foreign office. Trust yourself into it.
One of the most significant learnings I took came very early on in my career. I started my career as a lawyer, in a large New York law firm. A lot of what we did in corporate law was looking at precedent. If we were writing a contract, we would look at what the old contract looked like, and we’d make a few modifications and that was our new contract. So, it was sort of a lot of cut and pasting going on.
When we went to Asia, there was no precedent for many of the situations we found ourselves in. Initially, that was daunting because it seemed like, “Well, now what? I don’t have that book to pull off the shelf.” And I remember partners saying to me, “Now you actually have to use your skills. You want the contract to say this? So, write it to say this.” And just, of course, to adapt and improvise in that way was really key. I think a skill that I’ve taken with me ever since.
Hugo Scott-Gall: How important to you has been being a mentee and being a mentor? Did you have people along the way that really helped you? I think most people’s answer is yes, but when that happened, did you seek it, or did it come to you?
Aoifinn Devitt: I think in almost every case it came to me as opposed to me seeking it. I’m not sure I even had the self-awareness to know that I needed to seek out mentors at that stage. It may be that it’s kind of confidence-induced, but I didn’t embrace feedback the way I should have; I didn’t welcome it. I always took it personally; I didn’t see it in the spirit of which it was intended.
I was given mentors just as a natural structure of a large law firm. I was given both a junior and a senior mentor. They took their role very seriously and really took me under their wing. That was tremendous. I’ve always found that when I see someone that inspires me, I really gravitate towards them and start to learn from them. Watch what they do and try to emulate that. I wouldn’t say I’ve expressly asked those people to be mentors, but I definitely learned a tremendous amount from the brilliance of others.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Yes, well ditto. If you come with a structured, good question, asking for help, nearly everyone will help you. If you just say, “I want some help,” and it’s quite vague and non-specific, then I think you get a lot less back if nothing at all.
One question I have to ask you, and this is a question that I couldn’t answer, which is, can you talk through what it’s like being a female leader in a male-dominated industry? I’m always very aware that you don’t really understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes until you actually are. And that’s not a question that I know that I can answer. So, I’m interested in your perspective on that and, of course, how it’s changed over time.
Aoifinn Devitt: I think I mentioned earlier at the very beginning of my career where it was actually expected that we looked to a precedent to actually copy that contract. If I take that analogy further: that’s what we do in our lives, too. We look for examples of people who have navigated this path before. That’s why role models are so important. We look at how somebody navigated this tricky situation, or what they said, or how they coped with returning to work after maternity leave.
The sad fact is because there are so few women in senior positions, there are extremely few role models for whom to look to for that expertise. So, I didn’t have many role models. Actually, that was challenging. It meant, by default, that many of the role models had to be men. So, I tried to learn from them and the wide diversity of men that I worked with.
In terms of now being a leader in an industry that remains dominated by men, I think it does give you a real advantage in terms of just bringing a different perspective to the table. We all talk about cognitive diversity and how important that is. I’d say my deep love for working with people and my curiosity in people and what makes them tick has led me to be very curious about others and ask them questions about themselves. That has enabled me to build trust.
But I wouldn’t say it has been a factor in my career progression of such. I don’t feel it’s hindered me. But it’s always been an aspect. It’s just something that just sits there. Just like I have red hair, and I’m also often the only woman in a room. Or I’m the only woman on a panel. And that’s just something I’m used to at the moment.
Hugo Scott-Gall: I’m really interested in your answer on this: Why is it that there are not enough women in our industry? And it’s not really changing.
Aoifinn Devitt: It’s not changing fast enough. There are certainly many great groups out there, like Girls Are Investors, Girls Who Invest trying to really improve the pipeline. I think the missing piece is the nurturing. I was on a panel recently where we talked a little bit about sports. My only sport I’ve ever been any good at is long distance running. But it’s had the importance of those cheerleaders along the way of your race. The point where you’re most likely to start flagging, or most likely to start finding that you really need that energy drink or just that boost of morale.
I think that’s where we fall short in the industry: We’re very good at the beginning of the race, the starting corrals. We get everyone all excited about the vision and how much of a contribution they’re going to make. But it’s at the points when they’re starting to feel weak, or the energy is ebbing. I don’t think we’re rallying in the same way. Maybe it’s because we’re all too busy, but we’re not doing enough to nurture women along their career path.
And then there are practical reasons, too. There’s the time of life when maybe a lot of progression might be being made in say a portfolio manager track records, where there might be leads taken. But there’s no reason that that should really act as an impediment. Unfortunately, it has acted, and then there are simply fewer women in the role.
And there’s been attrition through Covid, through integrate resignation. This attrition is felt everywhere across the industry. Unfortunately, when it happens with a senior woman who you unfortunately don’t have a great bank within to replace them. So, I think that those factors are all part of it.
Hugo Scott-Gall: If I can just pivot a bit now, you said earlier you’re very interested in people, and you think you have a pretty good set of mental models for assessing people. Obviously, a big part of your role now is assessing asset managers as investors. So, could you sort of share some traits of good investors and also some traits of less-good investors where you’ve had disappointments? I know that’s a broad question, but I’d love to hear what you say are the recurring patterns around excellence, and I guess those that have fallen short.
Aoifinn Devitt: Yes, absolutely. Well, certainly I’ve always seen it as a key part of the joys of my job: the ability to meet with managers. And even when I’ve been a single-person investment office as I was when I was CIO of the Chicago Police pension, I used to always have an open door to manager meetings because in my single-person office I was a little lonely. I really relished the opportunity to have these relatively high-level professional discussions.
I’ve always loved to meet with managers. I think I’ve met enough. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. I had my own fun for a while; I had my own firm. Having done that, I think you become pretty good at knowing when you’re seeing smoke and mirrors. And knowing when something is not quite what it looks to be. What I would always try to do is look through those smoke and mirrors and really try to get to the essence of what really is. It’s a transparency, honesty. Those are key traits that we have to see. Humility, too.
I like to ask managers how they fair through challenging times. About their worst investment idea, or their worst stock that year. Their winners, their losers, what they’ve learned from them. And one can gain a huge amount just hearing how a manager even reacts to that question. Because whether they’re defensive or whether they’re open, you get a good sense too as to how aligned their interests are—their skin in the game. That is obviously a key trait.
And just being very open and upfront about making mistakes. The fact is our industry has always been taboo to mention investment mistakes. By definition of any batting average, we look at in terms of as your underperformance of active managers, we can see that mistakes are all over the map, and there’s quite a prolific number of mistakes for every investment manager. But yet, we don’t talk about them. I think it’s only when we have the safety to talk about mistakes and what we learn from them that we actually can see where the true talent lies.
So, I’d say that’s the characteristic of the good managers I’d like to see. And also just from a practical standpoint, I like to see not too much focus on asset gathering. I like them to treat their investors like partners, and not simplify things to the point of thinking that the investor doesn’t grasp the concept. I’ve always been somewhat allergic to having overly simplified, dumbed-down presentations.
I do a lot of work with public funds. I sit on some investment committees. The reason I’m so passionate about that is I think that this is a large body of assets, and often it’s been steered by investment committees that are not comprised of financial professionals. They’re public servants, or elected representatives, and extremely committed and extremely intelligent, but they’re not perhaps skilled in financial services.
When I see a product being sold to them, almost in the form of a snake oil-type salesman, I get quite defensive. And it really does force me to want to rally as a protector almost of that institutional investor. So, I’d say that’s the bad sign: to take your investor for granted and not see it as a partnership.
Hugo Scott-Gall: That’s very interesting. As you said, it’s a highly skilled thing to be able to do. And it’s a really mentally tough thing to do to stick with managers who you believe in when they’re going through tough times. Because no one, it doesn’t matter who they are, has a great quarter every quarter; it’s just not possible.
But one of the things—if you think about an investment manager, what is their competitive advantage? It’s skill in making decisions and it is intellectual capital. There are no physical assets. How do you assess culture? Because culture has to be very important, even if it’s a small team. If it’s a bigger team, how do you go about assessing culture? I imagine most investment managers, as with most intangible-intellectual, property-driven, decision-making businesses, so this could be a whole range of professional services, will tell you they’ve got a great culture. How do you assess that?
Aoifinn Devitt: First of all, it’s essential to visit the manager on-site. That old adage about kicking the tires does really ring true. Going on-site, it’s the body language, it’s the atmosphere in the office, the sense of industry. It’s in a meeting: if the senior person’s there in place, whether the junior people can have a chance to talk. Little things like that.
I also read a lot into the energy and excitement I see, particularly among the junior staff to be working in the environment they’re working in. I think that’s where we get the true read on culture. So, it is critically important, and unfortunately with Covid we haven’t been as able to do that as we would’ve been in the past.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Yeah, and in different ways I think Covid has been a challenge for cultures, particularly cultures that are relying a lot on close physical contact. I don’t mean really close physical contact, but I mean discussing things, brainstorming in rooms together. That I think has been a challenge.
So, I think it will be very interesting once everyone is back on the road checking those cultures to see if they’ve remained as strong. Whether they’ve been strengthened. Do you think if we were to wind forward 10 years, 15 years, you’d be looking for different things in managers than you are today?
Aoifinn Devitt: I don’t think so. I think this is really a people-business. Obviously, probably in 10 years we’d expect technology to be forming an even [larger role]—we would certainly expect certain technology to be in place with many of these managers and not to simply be doing everything with the old methods. But I would think that in terms of who you’re going to entrust your capital with—and especially as we get into private markets, that’s going to be where the lockups are longer. The ability to deliver value is really dependent on the skill and the network and the experience. I do think that we’ll be looking at many of the same things.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Let me ask you a similar question, but really random: product side, as in, do you think the different range of things you can invest in, whether that might be public markets versus private, whether that might be off the peg long-only equity portfolios versus bepoke. Do you think that the product required for the next 10, 15, 20 years are going to look very different? That we’re going to get disruption to the product suite of the investment manager industry?
Aoifinn Devitt: Definitely. That’s a great question. Certainly, the number of products continues to proliferate. We certainly are navigating to an increasingly busy scene when it comes to choosing for our clients. We’re going to see evolution on many fronts. We’re going to see evolution in terms of structure, whether it comes through customized indices, through more products being democratized and being made available to the smaller investor.
Equally there will be technology platforms that make that possible, that allows there to be this efficient scale to get access to those big names. So, now where I’m working and where we work with very small clients as well as large clients, we’ve seen the need for that. And we’ve seen the speed with which many of these technology platforms have started up in order to cater for that need. That’s definitely going to be a big change.
In terms of subject matter, too, we’re already seeing massive innovation, whether it be around digital assets, or say, impact-focused funds, or renewable energy funds, or any number of areas where we’re seeing new product launches. As well as perhaps inflation-resilient funds, or funds that are tied into the commodity complex. We continue to see a large amount of innovation in the product space.
I still think we’ll be looking at the same core exposures. Especially certainly if we’re going forward 10 years. We may be more selective when it comes to active management. Maybe there will be less—maybe patience will have run out with some of the active managers that aren’t delivering alpha and aren’t returning their fees, at least. So, perhaps we’ll see more passive. But again, they’ll be customized passive solutions then as well, because increasingly investors want to make their mark on their strategy. And if it’s not coming from them it’s coming from their stakeholders, the need to get admission expressed in an investment strategy.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Do you think customization is an area where active managers, as in humans, can prove themselves and actually carve out a niche that is both defendable, maybe raises switching costs, maybe enjoys some pricing power, or is customization eventually just going to be done more and more by machines? Is there much—when you’re thinking about five-year, 10-year view, allocating to humans versus machines, what is it you think humans can still do well?
Aoifinn Devitt: I can’t say that the ESG revolution in terms of the product factory that we’ve seen spring up has definitely been a lifeline for active managers. There’s no question. There is still a skepticism around how passive strategies can achieve that. As we see that even getting more extreme, the need to—whether it be divest from a certain region or a certain sector, as we up the ante on that, that is going to definitely give a lifeline.
Unfortunately, it may not always be a just lifeline, in that there may be some strategies that perhaps shouldn’t have been continued, or mangers that shouldn’t by right have a reason to continue to exist. They will continue to exist. In terms of customization that gets around products that cannot be done passively will certainly be a lifeline.
As far as customization such as index customization, that then I think is going to probably be a great boon for those very large players who can construct those into size. Some of those firms didn’t exist 10 years ago. They really just sprung up in response to that. They’ve move swiftly. Arguably, they’re looking at the entire ETF complex as their potential client base.
Hugo Scott-Gall: I think one of the arguments for humans versus machines, the machines often time are very nimble but they can only process current and historic information. Humans can see patterns and should therefore be relatively good when things change. And things change in an unusual way or a meaningful way. So, you’re getting a real dislocation. So, right now, it certainly feels we may well be in a different investment regime than we were in the last, let’s say decade.
You can certainly maybe even say the investment regime we were in may be right up to the pandemic, or maybe right up to the invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps started with Volcker in the early ‘80s. So, you can debate whether investment regime started; But do you think that—I suppose No. 1, when you get step change, big shifts in investment regimes, that should be something that humans can thrive in? Or secondary, perhaps the bigger question really is, do you think we’re moving into a different investment regime?
Aoifinn Devitt: It’s a great question, and I suppose the classic phrase that the four most dangerous words are, “It’s different this time,” are something that I’ve been thinking about a great deal since the beginning of the year. Because there is a temptation to think it’s different this time, when we’re in the middle of it. But we have to remember it’s only a matter of weeks since that invasion. And now there’s a sense of almost normalizing the environment, normalizing because we’re getting used to the noise of the backdrop, and we certainly see markets start to normalize.
At this point, I’m probably on the fence as to whether we’re in a new regime. I’m watching carefully. But then the other question is, well even if we were in a new regime, would we necessarily change what we should do as a response to that? Even looking back through the historic regimes, a solid portfolio with a steady state allocation to equities going back decades would probably have still made a lot of money. Not too much tactical short-term shifting.
That goes against one of my core investment beliefs, which is around long term, not reactive investing, but having a strong strategic orientation and pretty much sticking to that. But I do blend that with—because I love markets, I love watching them. I do blend them with a daily observation of the market. Because I need to know what’s going on so I can interpret it, and I can use it as my backdrop with which to interrogate and quiz managers in terms of how they’re reacting.
But generally, the best advice of all is to do nothing. That’s actually something that some of the models and algorithms are quite good at, is they are good at actually sticking to their rebalancing discipline to their regime. So, I’d say I’m not sure it will benefit one or the other anymore. I think possibly the human tendency toward action bias, and towards knee-jerk reactions and toward sentiment is probably going to actually be a mistake.
Hugo Scott-Gall: I think you’re right. If we had Warren Buffett with us, he would say—well, maybe he wouldn’t, I’m putting words in his mouth and speculating, but he may very well say that the two big things I needed to believe in were the strength of the U.S. economy, its innovative, resilient nature, and second was property rights. And I wasn’t going to get my assets taken off me, and that the U.S. economy was going to keep producing growth and housing productivity, all those things. I read pretty much everything he writes.
And ditto Charlie Munger, I think those two things were constants. And that’s why he says, “Look, I was lucky to be born in the U.S. If I’d been born in other places in the world, I wouldn’t have this opportunity.” So, I think that was his north star in terms of setting investment regime. All the things that have happened in his investment lifetime, you can drive yourself mad trying to work out what they mean.
Right now, I think it’s pretty easy to produce a laundry list of “Is it Cold War II? How persistent can inflation be? How long before rates will have to rise? What are rates mean for equities, stagflation? Do we have enough data sets to really understand stagflation? Are we talking about deglobalization, a shrinking of—there are a lot of companies who are certainly in their pitchbook will tell you we got a huge addressable market, and now maybe that addressable market it is shrinking because we’re going to deglobalize.
All of those things are very difficult for one human brain to process, certainly my human brain to process. But I just wonder how you think about that? I think you’ve sort of answered it. But, on any given day, you can create a list as long as your arm with things to try and think about and fit together, to get a coherent view. I think where you’re going with this is that’s probably the wrong thing to do—that active management doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be active every day. You need to understand I think some bigger things. Demography would fit into that.
Aoifinn Devitt: Absolutely.
Hugo Scott-Gall: And so, sometimes don’t give in to yourself, and just remember these bigger trends. Is that roughly how you think about it and therefore how you allocate the billions of dollars at your disposal?
Aoifinn Devitt: Absolutely. I always like to be a critical thinker, and to have an open mind and to ask myself to test the questions like you’re asking right now, and say, “Well, is it different this time? Has something changed?” I’d say the only aspect of today’s regime that I think is different is the ESG-driven, stakeholder driven concept of investibility, which seems to have come to the fore around Russia.
And that is, to me, a really crescendo that we’ve seen building up over the increased awareness of ESG issues. We’ve had increased vocal overtures by stakeholders and by companies in response. A lot of this came about in summer of 2020 with the murder of George Floyd. We saw companies responding, and now there is just this groundswell of response to governance and social issues. Particularly really coming at the fore with Russia.
I think that’s the one aspect which I wonder whether that’s something we’ve seen before. We’ve certainly seen high inflation, we’ve seen rising interest rates, we’ve seen emerging market underperformance. All of these areas we’ve seen the oil prices being quite volatile.
There are, I wouldn’t say playbooks for this, that every crisis is different, and I don’t like to look to a previous crisis to understand this one because this is so different from the GFC in terms of just financial institution stability. But I do wonder how far, if we were to open that door of what we consider investible based on moral judgement, how much we would have to continue to leave that door, how much we would let in or let out were that door to be opened. And that’s something I’m watching very carefully to see if it’s flash in the pan, or the beginning of a much bigger trend.
Hugo Scott-Gall: That’s a great point, I wanted to ask you because ESG is in some ways being tested now. Because alternative energy sources, some countries are going to burn more coal, etc. So, I wondered whether this test of something that’s really gathered a lot of pace, I think as you said is proliferated into a lot of product. Some of them perhaps not doing exactly what they applaud and claim to be doing. But I wonder whether ESG comes through this a little changed, but stronger for it.
Aoifinn Devitt: Definitely. There are so many articles written about whether the war in Ukraine is going to ultimately be the boon for renewable energy and ESG overall. I think it may be the stronger for it. And certainly, stronger in terms of us understanding what it means to have an ESG overlay. Because now we’re seeing that it could mean ultimately, if we do decide that a country becomes uninvestible, not because it’s illiquid but because we can’t tolerate a regime, what does that mean for many of the emerging market regimes that we already invest in?
And I think it’s going to draw increased focus on the trade-offs that are implicit in ESG. And whether they make sense in every case, and whether, just as some large oil majors have suggested that either buying oil at a discount was essential in order for them to provide essential supplies and not have blackouts across some of their supplies in Europe.
Whether there is sometimes a necessary evil in order to ensure stability and to continue to ensure that the economies continue to run. So, it will be tested—I think we’re moving beyond the rhetoric. It’s very easy to have theory around ESG. And when it’s put into practice, then that’s when it truly gets tested. So, I think it will be stronger for it, I don’t think it necessarily means that certain whole sectors will be untouchable.
Hugo Scott-Gall: So, in a sense I think you’re saying we’re going to get some price discovery. That actually something that was quite conceptual, and certainly very few people would disagree with in terms of, “Yes, there should be less pollution,” etc. But now, maybe there is some price discovery about what it really means.
I think that’s what I meant in my point, which was you get through that price discovery, you understand more clearly and better, “Okay, maybe there are some sacrifices involved in making the world cleaner, safer, healthier.” And that would make it stronger. That would be a greater social acceptance, perhaps. I think it’s a very interesting time that actually Russia and Ukraine has forced these questions.
Let’s pivot from that. Finally, I just want to ask you about two things: podcasting and marathons. I’m nervous and intimidated meeting a fellow podcaster who’s hosted many more podcasts than I have. So, I feel like I’m in the presence of podcasting royalty. But what have you learned from your experience behind the microphone? When we started, I observed that your microphone is much more impressive than mine; that is something I’m going to take away with me from this. There are many things I’m going to take away, but certainly microphone envy is one of them. So, what have you learned from your time behind the mic interviewing people?
Aoifinn Devitt: That’s a great question, thank you very much. I will say, there’s no need to be envious. My podcast gear consists of the microphone and that’s it. I don’t have a lot of gear. It’s funny that you mentioned podcasting and marathons because it has been a podcasting marathon certainly for me since 2020.
I’d say what I’ve learned is first of all, just the power of listening. We don’t listen nearly as much as we think we do. I always do audio-only podcasts because I try to just focus on what’s being said without the hand gestures and without the facial expressions, even. I want to just hear it in the voice. I look at the transcripts of my interviews later, and I’ve found that I’ve spoken maybe 10% of the time, and the guest has spoken 90% of the time, which isn’t what a typical conversation would look like.
But that’s the thing what’s made it so impressive for me in terms of a way to build empathy. Because I’ve found that listening to people—for some people it ended up being almost like a form of therapy. It was done in many cases during a challenging time, during the pandemic. First of all, just hearing about people. I spoke before about the importance of people in the world of investing and other professional worlds, and people’s relationships and what makes them tick. And I think if I ask them a little bit about their hinterlands, as you’d used the expression before, their backstory, you really get a sense of what makes that person tick.
Are they driven by money or are they driven by a high standard they set for themselves? Are they driven to impress others or are they seeking only to live up to that standard for themselves? I think that’s when we get a sense of the person and also of their resilience; what they’ve been through. It’s also very powerful to have that story then as a bank for me to draw on for other experiences and hopefully for listeners to draw on. Because we don’t all have enough experiences in our own careers to really have enough of a bank or library for role models. But if we can gather them together on a podcast series, well then, I think we really have true leverage. And with leverage comes impact.
Hugo Scott-Gall: I couldn’t agree more. I think one of life’s great luxuries is spending time with interesting people. I certainly have found that one of the huge benefits and I guess the gift that keeps on giving from doing this is hearing people’s stories and seeing how they changed during an interview, even. Because I’m not trained in interviewing, but you kind of know where you’re going to start but you don’t know where you’re going to end. So, I find it really interesting.
A book I enjoy reading is by a Japanese writer called Haruki Murakami, which is what I talk about when I talk about running. When you’re running a marathon, I think it’s 37 marathons, what do you think about? What do you think about when you think about running?
Aoifinn Devitt: First of all, what I think about is that it’s all about just me and this race. That is actually quite a massive amount of security I get from that. Because I’m not going to let down a team. I’m not going to let down anybody else. Nobody else has any expectations around that race other than me. Also, knowing that gives you a certain freedom.
I did a race recently that turned out to all be on packed snow. It was a bit of a surprise to me, but it was seven degrees Fahrenheit in the morning as we were starting that race. I very quickly realized that this was not going to be a PR, and that I was going to just slow down, switch out my fast-paced music for some podcasts, and just kind of settle into a long run. I have the freedom to do that because nobody was expecting anything. I expected myself to finish, but that was the only expectation I set.
So, actually being able to be gentle and give yourself some grace like that is something that I think about. First of all, there’s obviously the fitness aspect, but for me it’s also just the psychological journey; it’s the setting goals. So, I do have a goal now, I’ve gone a little bit beyond 37, I’m at about 41, 42 right now. I actually lose count after a while. But it’s to get to 50 by the end of this year.
Having goals is just really important for me to set as milestones and the pointers in my life. I find that I like to organize my life around these little milestones. So, that’s what I think about. Sometimes I’m not actually thinking. I’m thinking about, well where is the next aid station, or how can I solve this problem in one of my children’s lives? But it tends to be actually the bliss of nothingness.
Hugo Scott-Gall: Yes, I completely understand that. Although, I haven’t run 42 marathons, I haven’t even done 42 podcasts. I want to say, thank you very much for coming on the show. I know we’re a rival show. Like I said, you’re podcasting royalty and I’m not. But it’s be great talking through—I think we covered a lot of ground. Twenty-six miles.
Aoifinn Devitt: It’s been one of the most fun races I’ve ever run, so thank you so much.
Hugo Scott-Gall: That’s great.
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