You learn more when things go wrong than when they go right

Friday 23 July 2021

Inclusion and Diversity

Author: Maha Khan Philips 

Sarah McMullen, CFA, is Managing Director and Head of EMEA for PGIM Fixed Income. She talks to Professional Investor about the importance of inclusion and diversity, about building inclusive cultures during Covid-19, and the lessons she has learnt along the way.

Sarah McMullen, CFA, had not planned a career in financial services when she went to study physiology at university. But a summer job changed all that. “It was through working during my university holidays that I ended up at an investment bank. That was my first foray into financial markets. I needed to pay for my travels, and temping at an investment bank was one of the most profitable ways to make money as a university student,” she explains.

McMullen experienced what it was like to work on a trading floor, and she enjoyed the fast-paced environment. “I was doing a science degree at the time, and had a maths background and I leant into fixed income,” she says.

She joined Citigroup as a graduate trainee in 2004. “It was a great role and learning opportunity. I ended up on the credit derivatives desk. I saw a boom in the CLO business, and then saw it crashing down in 2008 which was equally eye opening.”

McMullen learnt a huge amount during that crisis period, she says - everything from how people reacted to stressful situations, to her own personal response to the crisis. “My summary of 2008 is that you learn more when things go wrong than when they go right. Working at a bank during that time meant I had a front row seat during the ensuing crisis. It really tested my knowledge of how things were expected to work, how structured products actually work when you get into distressed situations.”

In 2008, McMullen moved to the buy-side and joined PGIM Fixed Income, initially on the product management team with responsibility for structuring, analysing, and marketing its CLO transactions.

She has remained at the firm ever since, in a variety of different roles. She is head of the firm’s Client Advisory Group in EMEA, responsible for providing strategic direction and leadership to the institutional sales, consultant relations, marketing, product, and client management teams. In July, she also became head of EMEA fixed income (she was formerly co-head) which is a much broader role, and means she spends more time thinking about issues like talent and culture.

Inclusion and Diversity

The investment industry still has a long way to go on diversity and inclusion, she says, arguing that it needs to be more reflective of society. “Gender and ethnicity are obvious, the importance of building a diverse team is well recognised. But there is still a big gap between the idea of diverse teams and the reality in the workplace,” she points out.

She also believes Covid has created challenges around the creation of inclusive cultures. “The question has been how you evolve a culture in a virtual landscape, and you continue to develop and retain diverse talent in a different work environment. The early part of Covid was remarkably smooth from a technology perspective, and in terms of engaging with our clients and the immediate team in the office. The harder piece is that as time continues and you work from home, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. How do you continue to develop people, especially your junior cohort that would perhaps have learnt a lot in the office? We are finding we have to be a lot more structured about giving people opportunities to learn than we have been in the past.”

Her advice to women starting out in their careers is to have confidence in their own abilities, and to speak out for what they want. “Women don’t always have the confidence to advocate for what they want, and that is something we need to encourage.”

She also believes there needs to be more support for women through the career pipeline. “Part of it is trying to shift the mindset in women about what’s possible. I’m a strong believer in you can get everything you want, but not always at the same time. I have a family myself. It’s possible to have a family and a career but there are times when different ones take priority. Being honest and perhaps more open and forthright about that balance is important,” she says.

McMullen decided to study the CFA Program when she joined PGIM Fixed Income. “Having come from a non-financial background, I definitely felt that I wanted a broad and deeper understanding of financial markets. The CFA charter was very well regarded at both of the institutions I worked at, and I saw it as a really good programme that gave me exposure across all areas of financial markets. It was a lot of hours but it was definitely worth it, it really helps in my role now to have that good solid knowledge.”

When she’s not working, McMullen is focused on her family. She has two children, aged five and seven. She’s an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction. “It’s a good way for me to switch off. I’m always on the lookout for another book,” she says, smiling.


Sarah McMullen, CFA

Sarah McMullen, CFA, Managing Director and Head of EMEA for PGIM Fixed Income










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