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“LBS was a productive and safe environment in which to explore what to do with the rest of my life”
Career changes don’t come much bigger than this. Chris Severson used to be a fighter pilot in the US Marine Corps. Now he’s a banking strategist. How on earth did he make that switch? With the help of London Business School (LBS).
Chris had initially followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the Marines when he was 22 after winning a military scholarship to attend university for free. Twenty years later – during which he had been deployed to Afghanistan three times – he decided it was time to get out and find a job in the private sector. He was eligible for a pension and wanted to be around for his kids.
But switching from military to civilian life is a challenge. “It’s not an easy transition,” he says. “I do a lot of mentoring now with military members looking to move across. It’s difficult to explain what you’ve done in a way that’s relevant to an employer.”
So he joined the Executive MBA programme at LBS. “What stood out for me was the quality of the people. That was who I wanted to be around. LBS was a safe, protective environment within which to explore what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
The global focus also convinced him. “As a marine I’d been all over the world so I had a global mindset.” Chris’s MBA classmates introduced him to several people in the finance industry and he became a director at Barclays Investment Bank in the summer of 2013, juggling this role with his coursework by working evenings and weekends.
“LBS offers a great learning environment with top-tier professors where you really grow as an individual and know you can rely on your classmates to help you make big step changes. If it wasn’t for LBS I wouldn’t have been able to move into finance. It provided me with the academic take I needed on business and got me on the right people’s radar.”
Two professors stood out – Richard Jolly and Gabe Adams. “In the Marine Corps we talk a lot about leadership and training but it was useful to look at both from an analytical standpoint. Richard and Gabe brought hard data and fact-based research to bear on issues like executive derailment. That’s so much more valuable than some business leader’s book you pick up at an airport.”
In the Marine Corps Chris used a risk culture survey for squadron pilots. As a founding member of Barclays’ Chief Controls Office, he applied the same approach to traders, designing a risk climate assessment survey to identify data-driven, human-factor risk feedback for all of Barclays’ global markets teams.
Next he took the opportunity to work as an executive in the management team of a start-up, as Head of Strategy and Planning at the sub-Saharan banking group Atlas Mara, based in Dubai. There he ran day-to-day operations and was responsible for building scale in the company’s rapid growth markets: Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia.
He’s now in London, which he calls the obvious choice. “It’s international and diverse, it’s the financial services centre for the world and it’s a good place to raise a family.” Going forward Chris sees two possible paths for himself. One: return to a global investment bank. Two: go into private equity as an operational partner. “What I bring is around building, leading and motivating teams,” he explains.
Plus he has more experience than most of working in pressurised environments. Unlike in the Marines, finance doesn’t generally involve life-and-death decisions. In stressful moments in the office, his experience in the military gives him a healthy perspective: “No-one’s going to die today.” It’s safe to say he knows more than the average executive about resilience.