Executive Exchange: 12 questions with Dan Watkins

JP Morgan Asset Management’s APAC CEO reflects on his 27-year journey with the firm and life lessons learnt.
Executive Exchange: 12 questions with Dan Watkins

NAME: Dan Watkins


COMPANY: JP Morgan Asset Management

Dan Watkins

Dan Watkins is a very well-recognised name in Asia's asset management industry.

The APAC chief of JP Morgan Asset Management has worked in a variety of roles over his career across Europe and Asia, starting with a retail call centre in London 27 years ago.

Overseeing the Asia-Pacific business from Hong Kong, his remit covers seven locations with more than 1,500 employees.

In this week’s Executive Exchange, Watkins shares valuable career lessons, industry insights -- and his biggest fear in life.

What was your very first job and what did you learn from it?

I started my career at JP Morgan in the retail call centre taking calls from clients each day.

Quite simply, the very best training I could have ever wished for. I personally think everyone should have a period working in client services or operations in their career.

In such roles you have no choice but to a) truly learn how the business works across the entire spectrum of the operating model, and b) you are reminded every minute of the day that there is a client at the end of every single decision we make.

What's one piece of career advice you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?

I would say one thing very clearly to a young Dan.

When you work 14, 15, 16 hours a day, you are not impressing anyone! In fact, quite the opposite, you are giving out the vibe that you are out of control.

Without fail, the most impressive individuals I have ever worked for or with are those who operate with a very healthy balance in their life. They make it to that game of football; they get home for the kid’s baths; and they enjoy a night out with their friends.

By having an active personal life, you are showing others that you are in control of your working life.

If you could switch careers tomorrow, what profession would you pursue? 

Last year, my twin brother gave up his successful 20-year lawyer career and went back to university to train to be a teacher.

My mum and dad were both teachers, so it’s in the family blood. I would love to try teaching. My twin has shown the way – one day maybe.

If you could instantly become an expert in one random skill, what would it be?

That’s a very easy one. I would love to be a fully skilled artificial intelligence (AI) engineer. It’s anything but random; in fact, it’s the skillset that is going to transform our industry and beyond.

Maybe ‘AI engineer’ is a moonshot; but I am determined to become competent in this, and will be expecting my team to do the same.

What is one decision you made that you would change if you could go back in time?

It’s inevitable that you are going to have made both good and bad decisions through the course of a 27-year career.

I actually think it’s important that you don’t exert too much wasted energy looking backwards in time and wallowing in your regrets.

It’s far more productive to keep looking forward and be excited about the future and what’s going to come next.

When I look back at any of my poor decisions, they do tend to be where I regret just not saying yes.

There is a danger we overthink our next move in life, and we focus on the pitfalls and what may go wrong. But what’s the worst that can happen? I don’t think you ever actually regret giving things a go, even if it’s just that once.

What's been your biggest professional challenge and how did you overcome it?

There is a great phrase used when talking about career mobility, which is that you have to learn to be ‘comfortable being uncomfortable’.

But I certainly stretched that to the limit when I agreed to become the head of technology when I worked in Europe. I was propelled completely out of my comfort zone.

But I think that is where I first developed my leadership principles - because I had no choice.

I had to listen, I had to be purposefully curious in learning, and I had to set a strategy that excited people - and then let the experts execute the plan.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

The manager I worked for when I lived in Luxembourg taught me such a simple line; to this day it keeps me centred and calm. ‘Common sense will always prevail’.

Whenever I find myself too emotive on an issue, or frustrated at a decision that hasn’t gone my way, or angry at something that feels unjust, I remind myself that if you give things enough time, common sense always comes through and the right outcome prevails. It has worked for me.

What's the most adrenaline-filled adventure you've ever had?

I am useless with heights - always have been and the fear has got worse with age.

So, I like to test myself to fix the fear. I’ve tried paragliding in New Zealand, high mountain skiing in Japan, a hot air balloon flight over Dubai desert, and a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. And I can confirm, I am still petrified of heights!

But I will keep trying to fix my fear.

What is the most important leadership lesson you've learned while leading your organisation?

There are three core competencies required of an effective leader, and the longer that I find myself doing this job - the more I am reminded how key they are.

Firstly, listen more than you talk. The answer is often found three or four levels deep in your organisation - you need to always be listening to hear it. 

Secondly, set a clear and exciting strategic direction, then get out of the way! Let managers manage and help the team to develop.

Thirdly, never stop being intellectually curious. You are very rarely 100% right; at best, you may be right at that particular time. Always be willing to be flexible and change as you learn more.

What are the mega trends that have been/will be transforming the asset management industry? 

The asset management industry will always evolve and reinvent itself, that’s what makes it such a fun and challenging place to work. I believe there are three key mega trends transforming the industry at this time.

The speed of the rise of active ETFs across the globe is both breathtaking and super exciting.

The democratisation of alternatives, putting alternative investment products in the hands of private wealth investors is adding a new and transformative dimension to the traditional 60-40 portfolio.

And AI is the modern-day Industrial Revolution.

I don’t think we have even begun to understand the transformative impact that this technological advancement is going to have on our day-to-day lives. 

How do you maintain a work-life balance as a busy executive? 

No one is going to provide you with a work-life balance; this is 100% your responsibility to achieve.

So, you have to set your own boundaries, your own rules and your own way of operating.

I say this now as a 48-year-old CEO. I will freely admit I was awful at this in my younger days; and I have got better as I have matured.

But you have to be selfish in managing your time, selfish in managing your calendar, and selfish in managing your business travel.

A mentally and physically exhausted CEO is of no use to any business.

What personal habits or traits do you think have been most important to your success? 

You have to start with the basics, which is that you need a strong work ethic, a passion for what you do, and an ability to work well with others.

But I also believe we need to bust a couple of myths.

Firstly, knowledge is not power. As a leader, your job is to ensure everyone around you, at all levels, has access to the same information as you have to get their job done.

If you are withholding information and knowledge, you are preventing everyone else from reaching their full potential.

Secondly, you don’t gain influence by taking power; you gain influence by giving power away.

Consistently empower and delegate to those around you and watch your leadership influence grow.

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