Inspirational diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) champion Darren Johnson discusses his career in finance and advises how others can follow the path to success.
Own your difference and identify your edge and superpower is Darren Johnson’s advice to young people from diverse backgrounds aspiring to work in the finance industry.
It’s certainly the recipe that worked for him in forging a successful career in the sector. He is Chief Operating Officer at Impax Asset Management and has been an important force in developing the company from ~$400 million assets under management (AUM) to nearly $50 billion today.
“I would never have been able to do that if I didn’t embrace myself and my superpower,” Johnson says candidly. “I equate how I work to that of an orchestra conductor who doesn’t make a sound; instead, they depend on their ability to make other people powerful. One of my biggest achievements is seeing people I’ve worked with, or mentored, advised, and supported, go on to do amazing things.”
Johnson is extremely passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion in the financial services sector, actively promoting better representation, via his work, with the Diversity Project, Investment 20/20, TalkAboutBlack and other organisations involved in promoting a more inclusive society.
He is also one of the judges for DiversityQ’s Women in Finance Awards and praises how it shines a light on the sometimes-missed talent. Adds Johnson: “The Awards shows there are plenty of capable women out there with amazing superpowers and does so in an authentic way. I love being associated with the Awards because they want to make a positive change by celebrating the success of women in finance.”
But, finding his superpower and feeling comfortable about being different was, Johnson admits, one of his biggest challenges. “This is what’s known as impostor syndrome,” he reveals.
“And I had it so much at the start of my career because I didn’t have a network, I didn’t have a grounding.
“My superpower is varied but centred on the fact that I can bring very different perspectives and experiences to the norm in financial services. I didn’t embrace that early enough in my career, but I became a completely different person once I did.
“Part of my career success is literally down to my perspective and ability to look around corners and learn from others. It means I’m very innovative and driven to become an expert in everything I do because I love solving problems.”
His early inspiration for a career in finance came from an unlikely source in the shape of Michael J Fox’s character Alex Keaton in the American 1980s sit-com Family Ties. Keaton was the polar opposite of his left-leaning family and aspired to work in the stock market.
“I really resonated with that,” says Johnson. “Because, before that, I didn’t know anything about what was beyond nursing, bus driving, and other public service careers. I wasn’t aware of careers that offered wealth and influence. So, the Alex Keaton character became a kind of role model and pushed me to where I am.”
Finding the edge
Role models have continued to play an essential part in his working life. He explains: “It is better, easier, nicer, whatever the words need to be, to see someone that looks like you achieving.
“But sometimes, the trail hasn’t been blazed yet. So, it’s down to you to blaze your own trail and, at the same time, have that mentality to see role models in every person you meet. I always look at people I meet with the view that there is something about them that can make me better.
“It is what helped me at the start of my career. I would do anything I could to give myself an edge because I understood from a young age that I had a disadvantaged background compared to many of my peers.
“It wasn’t just about good grades but having ‘something else’ about me. It took me a long time to understand that my edge was my background. Now, I tell people I didn’t get to where I am despite of my background, but because of it.”
Determination, tenacity, and hard graft have provided the fuel to drive Johnson’s success. Not least in getting his job applications noticed for one of his first roles in the city in the late 90s. Johnson created a one-page CV with hyperlinks to more detail around the summary, which was innovative at the time. It had the desired effect, and he always got a call back from potential employers. Once given an interview, Johnson hoped his passion and hunger for learning would be apparent.
He cites one example where this was the case. The job involved fund accounting for local authorities and organisations with investments managed by large investment banks, for which he needed to gain experience. Johnson’s enthusiasm convinced the interviewers to offer him a second interview, despite having no experience in the industry at the time, provided he could define an equity, a custodian, and a fund.
At the time, finding information online was not easy; but seeing an advert on TV for Scottish Widows gave him an idea. He would ring them pretending to be a student and get the required information. It worked, but not content with that, Johnson went to the library to delve further to equip him for answering any detailed questions.
“I got called back for the second interview and literally knocked the ball out of the park,” he says proudly. “My superpower, the ability to look at things differently, is what I used to overcome some of the hurdles I faced.”
Finance does embrace diversity
Today, much more information about financial services and other industries is readily available to help aspiring job seekers, and Johnson is keen to dispel the myths surrounding the sector. He says: “People think you need a finance-related degree or background to join. That’s not necessarily true.
“Some think it’s a dog-eat-dog, cut-throat industry and that you have to work long hours. That’s not necessarily true, either. Some people believe the industry doesn’t embrace or welcome diversity. It does. These are important points that people need to understand.”
Johnson advises reading about the sector and networking through channels such as LinkedIn. He offers: “Go and meet the people you want to meet; offer to buy them lunch and pick their brains or at least get into their sphere. You must think carefully about your edge and what you bring and ensure it shines in your application.
“All financial services firms are looking for new perspectives and difference. Own your difference and if you’re unsure what your edge or superpower is, ask your friends and family.”
While much progress has been made on diversity, equity and inclusion in the financial industry, the going has been slow in some roles. Johnson believes this is for two reasons: certain jobs don’t have a high turnover, and clients like stability. The good news is that the sector controls approximately 9% of the UK’s economic output and is growing.
“In growing, we have massive influence as well,” Johnson points out. “The enlarging of the industry suggests new opportunities are being created in which firms can take advantage and speed up the progress. Providing opportunity does not need to be seen as a zero-sum game.
“It’s sometimes hard for people to understand that diversity is not dumbing down. One thing slowing down change is recruiting just on experience, which may mean hiring the same people.
“Including a skills-based approach, alongside experience, doesn’t mean you’re dumbing down; you might be bringing in more alpha.
“We are in the digital information and knowledge-sharing age—a world where intangible value has taken over from tangible value. The economy is changing, demographics are changing, and we are changing with globalisation and the pivot away from simply focusing on profitability to thinking about how the investments we make impact people and the environment.
“Human capital and innovation are replacing natural resources as the basis for growth. The threat to growth comes from the lack of inclusion and people’s sense of belonging. Firms must embrace these changes or risk being left behind.”
On DE&I, Johnson is an advocate for inclusion first. This meant more than putting statements on a website. He says: “There’s a big spectrum of inclusion. It’s not just making sure everyone’s voice is heard in meetings. But it also means if someone with a hearing impediment comes to your office, have you got the tools to allow them to be included?
“If someone’s on maternity leave, how do you keep them energised with the business so they don’t feel the world has moved on when they return? So, inclusion first and then diversity will thrive.”
He staunchly questions unconscious bias training and argues that there is only conscious bias. Johnson illustrates this with the anecdote of how, when helping to retrieve a runaway dog for its owner, he called at a house. The person who answered immediately became suspicious that, because Johnson was Black, he was up to no good.
“Awareness is the sickly cousin to knowledge,” he adds. “Would you be able to do your job well if you were merely aware of it? You need deep integrated knowledge to do it well; therefore, to me, you need to ensure that people have the knowledge to understand some of these biases that happen in workplaces and what inclusion means.”
Adapt and embrace change
Johnson uses his favourite quotes to summarise what he learned as he climbed the financial service ladder. He says: “First, ‘progress is impossible without change’, so you need to stay up to date with the industry and share ideas. Next, ‘a ship is always safe at the shore, but that’s not what it’s built for’. Do not shy away from the challenges; put yourself out there.
“You need to have different tools in your toolbox because ‘if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.
“‘Nobody’s as powerful as you make them out to be,’ so don’t be scared to talk with people and collect cheerleaders along the way. Sometimes they can come from the most unexpected places.’’
“Lastly, ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy’. You may have all the plans in the world for how you will chart your career, but you’ll find many curveballs that will take you off course. So, be agile and be happy to adapt and embrace change.”
Johnson concludes: “Diversity does require effort, and I know there is fatigue. But studies continue to show the power of having an inclusive and diverse organisation that drives innovation.
“Make sure you’ve got the right inclusion practices in your business. The last point is that your true culture is defined by the worst behaviour tolerated in your organisation, not rhetoric on your website.”