The Habits of High-Performing IROs and How to Build a Career in Investor Relations

The Habits of High-Performing IROs and How to Build a Career in Investor Relations
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The role of an investor relations officer (IRO) requires a wide range of skills. At the baseline, publicly listed companies expect an IR professional to bring strategic input, financial knowledge, technical skills, and vast experience. In return, today's IRO will have a more significant influence on company strategy while reaching new heights of success. 

But what qualities and actions separate the top-performing IROs from their counterparts, and how can CEOs and CFOs determine the best candidate for their company?

To help us provide you with these necessary insights, we teamed up with Smooch Repovich Rosenberg—Founder and Chief Talent Innovator at Smooch Unplugged. Smooch is an expert at building high-performing teams and has helped businesses ranging from pre-IPO startups to Fortune 100 companies hire over 400 investor relations officers. 

She recently sat down with Irwin COO Mark Fasken on Winning IR to share her learnings from over three decades as a human capital expert. Continue reading to learn more about:

  • What the current career market looks like for IR
  • How the expectations for IR professionals have changed over the last five years
  • The unique leadership attributes that stand out in IRO candidates
  • What IROs should prepare to discuss in an interview
  • What traits separate the top 20% of IROs from the rest of the pack
  • Career progression for IROs

What does the current investor relations career market look like?

There have been tremendous impacts on the investor relations profession since the COVID-19 pandemic started to affect the markets in 2020. Flash forward to today; things are finally beginning to settle down again after two and a half years of seismic changes. 

Smooch herself saw that as a result of the pandemic (paired with a change in mindset seen in executive management and board members), the market for IROs underwent a significant shift. While no one knew when restrictions would lift and the world would stabilize, most companies were aware that the economic climate wouldn't (and couldn't) last forever and that a pivot would come eventually. This led to C-suite executives and board members assessing if they had the best-fit people that could see, create, and execute a more comprehensive strategy. This way, the business model would be ready when the pivot began. 

Due to their stewardship of the relationship with the investment community, those in the position of IRO went through what some would say, the most extensive evaluations. Some companies even conducted confidential searches while still having an acting IRO to find the best possible fit for the position. As a result, the role has been tremendously elevated to new levels of respect and importance, validating that the IRO is a crucial part of the conversation—not only with the investment community—but regarding all business decisions. 

What are some unique leadership qualities in an IRO?

An IR executive is expected to bring the necessary technical competencies to meet and exceed the expectations of the role. But to truly be seen as a successful, unique IRO, the acting professional must have the following qualities: 

1. Organizational influence

If IROs want to be viewed as a part of the C-suite, they must have a command of broad business acumen where they can have a viewpoint on all departments across a corporation—whether that be IT, HR operations, or marketing. 

When IR professionals are sincerely interested in the enterprise's overall well-being and success, organizational influence will follow. IROs should operate with the mindset of being a leader that other employees look to with respect and for guidance. 

2. Intellectual curiosity 

CEOs, CFOs, and other members of the C-suite want to have a business partner in their IRO that shows intellectual curiosity and the desire to know the company from the inside out.

By having the natural desire to understand the inner workings of the business while simultaneously diving deeper into subjects other employees may find tiresome, an IRO proves to be an invaluable resource and addition to the team.

3. Continuous improvement mindset

High–performing IROs know that business improvement shouldn’t be a temporary short-term fix or occasional upgrade. By having a strong dedication to development, an IRO should be able to see a clear way of turning challenges into opportunities.

A continuous improvement mindset encompasses methods such as constant evaluation—and enhancement—of said organization's processes. In turn, operational flaws can be detected and solved, while workflows can be fine-tuned to achieve maximum efficiency. 

What should IROs be prepared to discuss in an interview?

While IROs should expect to discuss their technical competencies for the role, there's another angle they should consider—their unique, personal characteristics. In this current climate, executives seek intangible leadership attributes that show an individual's character. 

One example of a question IROs should expect to hear is: 

What are your career aspirations? 

The answer an aspiring IRO provides must demonstrate to executives that they’re invested in their career and know where they want to go. Otherwise, organizations risk falling into a dated model of IR, when talent simply went from one role to another and then another—which is no longer accepted as part of the landscape. 

Another question interviewees should be prepared to answer is:

What is an example of a moment you’ve successfully influenced someone or a decision?  

This question aims to give the organization the confidence that an interviewee has a knack for influencing decision-making in an appropriate, neutral way. 

Overall, interviewees should be prepared to answer broad, open-ended questions. This gives the organization a more comprehensive picture of their potential new hire's critical thinking skills and how they anticipate what's around the corner. It all circles back to intellectual curiosity and preparing accordingly. 

Candidates also need to know and understand themselves, their career goals, and what truly brings them joy in a job. IROs must adequately convey these details in an interview so the hiring manager clearly understands the value being brought to the table. 

What traits separate the top 20% of IROs from the rest?

1. Be an influencer and a thought-leader for the organization.

Being keenly and astutely dialled into the organization's ethos directly results from an IRO positioning themselves to be respected and sought out by others.

An IRO taking it upon themselves to be intellectually and emotionally available to the broader staff is a paramount behaviour seen in top executives. In turn, IROs can develop incredible relationships while cultivating deeper organizational awareness.

2. Be a psychological business partner to the CEO and CFO. 

More often than not, C-suite-level executives of public companies don't hear the inner workings of every department across the organization, which can lead to difficulty understanding employee sentiment, goal progression, etc. 

This is where an IRO comes in. By immersing themselves across various departments and being dialled into the organization's ethos, IROs can share and help the CEO, CFO, and board on a confidential basis. This includes details such as where the team is seeing success (and where they're not), inner-team situations that need to be addressed, and more.

3. Have self-awareness and be a team player.

Top–performing IR executives need to have a level of self-confidence that allows them to express their views, even if they’re different or conflicting with the CFO and CEO. However, IROs also need to be able to practice self-awareness while being aware of the fine line between hubris and humility. 

Should the CEO and CFO land on a strategy that varies from what the IRO suggests, the IR executive must have the humility to get on the same page. It’s okay to disagree on business decisions, but once a team has made a decision, an IRO needs to commit and follow through.  

How important is culture fit for companies looking to hire an IRO? 

When looking to hire an IRO, companies tend to put culture fit to the side and focus on technical competencies—which are also incredibly important. However, when it comes to the top three candidates, it may boil down to company values and how good of a fit the potential candidate is with said values in mind. Remember, organizations hire the character they see in a candidate. 

Given the current economic climate, these characteristics and intrinsic values seen in IROs are more important than ever. It’s easy to be brilliant when the financial markets are doing well, the economy is balanced, and the company is succeeding. However, when things take a turn (like they are now), CEOs and CFOs turn to the IRO to help dig them out of the economic ditch. At that moment, C-suite executives don’t have time to learn about the values said IRO brings to the role. It’s critical to make a hiring decision based on the fact that the candidate can be trusted, as they can build their additional credibility over time. 

Getting to know the fabric of a candidate will always bode well in the future, so companies should design the interview process to allow them to vet potential-IROs properly.

What should IROs ask in interviews to ensure the role aligns with their core values? 

When interviewing for a new role, IROs must know of shiny object syndrome (SOS). 

Description of shiny object syndrome

SOS can cause people to momentarily lose their critical thinking skills. An IRO must go into the job interview process with objectivity and neutrality. They should know what their values are and ask their questions in a way that mirrors said values. IR executives should also research the potential employer, its board of directors, and any C-suite leaders. If these executives have values that are not in line with their own, the IRO should consider whether the company is a good fit and avoid SOS. 

How can an IRO progress in their career?

A significant part of an IRO’s career progress depends upon their professional background and aspirations. But another aspect depends on their individual and intellectual appetite for mastering skills outside of what they already know.  

Another vital aspect of successfully progressing as an IRO is superb judgment. No C-suite position isn't relied on having this skill—general counsel, head of HR, or CFO. Great judgement is what CEOs need in their corner, and the earlier in their career an IRO can prove they have it, the better. 

Smooch Repovich Rosenberg suggests that IROs should find a way during their first year in a role to spend time with each of the CEO's direct reports. By conveying an interest in their subject matter and potentially working on a project together, IROs can establish their internal credibility while building their brand. This also helps IROs to acquire knowledge on a vast amount of different subjects. Should the IRO want to shift into a different leadership role, they understand the subject matter and the responsibilities that come with it.  

How can an IRO know if their current role isn't the right fit?

A key indication that a current IR role may not be the best fit is if the CEO and the IRO are consistently not aligned on strategy. This doesn’t mean the two executives must be on the same page every moment. Still, if there’s a constant battle on how to build relationships with the investment community, the disconnect will splinter the relationship.

Another sign that the role isn’t the best fit happens when there’s a significant shift in business strategy. If an IRO struggles to get on board, there will most likely be conflict that can lead to a change in career direction. Once again, it comes down to the IRO knowing their values and worth needed to make a mutual decision with C-suite executives to move on.

For IR talent thinking of making a career change, it's suggested that you select four or five people in your network that have known you your entire career and ask their genuine opinion on what role they think would be a good fit for you moving forward. Remember—people see us differently than we see ourselves. These network connections have watched you mature as an executive and have seen behavioural growth points about you that you would have no way of knowing. Getting an objective perspective on what you would be a good fit for will be an excellent catapult for the next step in your career.

What’s one skill IROs should focus on to help them be a top performer?

For every candidate Smooch Repovich Rosenberg prepares for IR interviews, she instructs them to conduct the following exercise:

“Take a piece of paper, and write down the top three intangible leadership attributes you consistently exude in priority order. These attributes should be so ingrained in yourself that if someone were to ask your last three managers about their opinion of you, the values you've written is what they would say.”

This exercise pushes IR professionals to consider the last 20 years of their careers and what themes about their behaviours have brought them the success they have. Reflecting on your career journey can—and will—provide valuable insights into the “why” of your career and will help you remember what you bring to the table.

For even more valuable career tips for IR professionals, tune in to Smooch Repovich Rosenberg's episode of Winning IR—Irwin's interview-style podcast that explores diverse insights within the IR community.

Irwin is currently recruiting guests for season two of Winning IR. If you have a fresh perspective on the investor relations industry and are interested in speaking on the podcast, contact us at podcast@getirwin.com. 

Listen to the Episode

Listen to the full episode with Smooch Repovich Rosenberg

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