New York Life Investment Management CEO Yie-Hsin Hung’s remarkable path shows the value of an experience-seeking and goal-oriented approach.
Yie-Hsin Hung is among the most accomplished people in the financial industry and part of a small but growing number of women leading one of its major institutions. As CEO of New York Life Investment Management since 2015, Hung has steered her company through years of rocketing growth, more than quadrupling third-party assets under management since she arrived – and there’s more to come.
Though few finance professionals aspire to the chief executive’s office, Hung’s career and wisdom provide insight into a kind of success nearly everyone desires – to set a goal and to achieve it: self-actualisation, in a nutshell. Working hard and doing that work well are critical, but good things don’t necessarily come to those who wait, she said. You have to keep your next step in sight so when the chance comes to take it, you can. In personal growth, just as with corporate growth, strategy matters.
“We have to own our careers, now more than ever, because the pace of change is so great,” Hung told Aspire. “With change comes opportunities, so we really have to have our eyes open and be the architects of our own futures.”
But fair warning, taking on a journey that starts with a big idea, winds through the woods of experience and could end somewhere you never expected means spending a lot of time outside the comforts of familiarity. And then doing it again.
The Value of Discomfort
Hung started her finance career in investment banking and came to dread the day an American football would come sailing toward her – an office ritual to celebrate the big win of the week. She had no interest in participating, but she also wanted to earn her colleagues’ respect and she wasn’t convinced she could catch it.
In hindsight, it was a heck of an environment for a young woman to earn her stripes, she said, but “because of the way I experienced life, I didn’t think so much about being the only woman in the room. I was already used to being the only Asian in the room.”
Hung took inspiration from her parents – her father was an engineer, her mother was a nurse – who immigrated to the U.S. to pursue the American dream. And as they built a family, their American dream meant the success of Hung and her two sisters.
“We now recognise structural inequities,” she added, but “I’m honestly glad I didn’t know better then. The fact that I was in the game was more important.”
As she gained valuable experience in the early days of her career, Hung took on a growth mindset not only for the business but for her future, looking to the next step but also the one after that. She realized that growth always required leaving familiar confines.
Hung had gained a level of comfort in investment banking after about a dozen years, so her decision to leave the unit ended up being one of the most difficult decisions of her career. It was also among the most important, Hung said.
From there, “I had a different role, a different responsibility, a different function every two or three years. It was tremendous training, but it also put me outside my comfort zone. Each time I took the step, it just got easier, it increased my confidence a little bit.
“I developed a capability mindset rather than focus on a specific function,” she added. Rather than prioritise expertise in a particular niche, she came to see the value to the enterprise as a problem solver, strategic thinker and leader.
The second inflection point of her career, Hung said, was when she moved into investment management at Morgan Stanley. It was less transactional and “the piece that I loved was that we were so much closer to helping people realise their financial aspirations.”
It also provided her experiences in a new area of the financial industry and tangible proof of her work, allowing her to differentiate her approach from others.
“Both (turning points) were uncomfortable situations. I was embarking on something I hadn’t done before. I wasn’t sure how they would work out or how I would do,” she said. “But I’ve learned it’s a pretty good bet to take a chance on yourself. I think we can be reluctant to do that because we all want to succeed and we don’t want to fail.”
The worth of experience is not only in the value you can bring to the table once you have it, but also in how it can help you discover what you really want.
Hung was a mechanical engineering major at Northwestern University when her internships diverted her attention from the micro to the macro.
“I kept finding myself much more interested in what the business and strategy was and not what the product was,” she said. “It’s how I’m wired. I want to understand the bigger picture, and see how the product or initiative fits into it.”
She knew she would want an MBA eventually, but those experiences convinced her to move up the timeline. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she attended Harvard University and achieved her master’s degree.
Contrary to the stories about incredibly driven people knowing what they wanted from a very young age, “I didn’t have a grand plan,” she said. “Earning my MBA was something that emerged as an opportunity. It ended up being a good decision by opening up so many avenues for me.”
When opportunity knocks, the adage says one should answer the door, but in the real world it can be difficult to separate real opportunities from the noise. This is where you rely on your instinct and experience, Hung said.
“Sometimes opportunities are obvious and straightforward. For me, that was choosing to pursue an MBA versus pursuing a career in engineering. Nothing is ever perfect, but I usually find that if there are a couple of things lining up, then it’s a real opportunity. If there’s an interesting growth opportunity ahead of you, you have capabilities and strengths you can leverage, and you find the challenge really interesting – then there should be more tailwinds than headwinds.”
And, culture matters.
“Culture is a set of shared values. It works so much better if you find yourself in an organisation where your values are really aligned with the company,” Hung said.
She also recommends people have candid conversations with their managers to get honest feedback. Is there something they think you should change to your approach? Or is there something that the company can do? This kind of insight and discussion can help you identify areas in your career or your business unit that are primed for growth.
After a little more than 10 years with Dean Witter Reynolds, Hung had risen to managing director when the company merged with Morgan Stanley. Under the resulting organisation, she continued to distinguish herself for nearly 12 more years.
Her career is an example of the kind of mobility and opportunity that exists in large companies where there is a diversity of functions and relationships can grow and be maintained over time. There may be times, however, when you have to go elsewhere to find the growth you seek.
After Morgan Stanley, Hung moved to Bridgewater Associates, where she was the Connecticut-based company’s management committee adviser for two years.
When the opportunity came to lead New York Life Investments’ alternative investments group – which combined her interest in the power of capital to change people’s lives on a very individual level and the complexities of high finance – she took her next step.
Within five years, after accruing more leadership experience in increasingly more influential roles as the head of institutional investments and then leading New York Life Investment Management’s global expansion as co-president, Hung was chosen to be its CEO.
When the first opportunity with New York Life emerged, “I saw all the ingredients in place,” Hung said. New York Life, the parent company of New York Life Investment Management, is a top Fortune 100 company. Further, New York Life Investment Management had good growth potential and she would be making decisions that affected the direction of the entire business.
A World of Opportunity
The industry has changed since the days of footballs flying through the office, and while we do not see parity for women in corporate America’s upper management cohort, “the conversation is in the right place,” Hung said. “I think we’re going to start to see the highest echelons start to change.”
On lists of the most influential women in the field, CEOs are becoming more commonplace, even among the largest companies. This is a trend Hung expects to continue.
One of the most empowering parts of finance as a career for women is the indelibility of the bottom line, she said, a dispassionate measure that’s near-universally respected in the field.
Show value there and opportunity will follow.
The Strategic Approach to Professional Growth
Whether you work in a home office, a practice or are building your business, Yie-Hsin Hung’s career path and insights provide an example for meeting professional goals.
• Be really good at what you do because, first, you have to deliver on the bottom line.
• Be a lifelong learner.
• Stay humble, grounded and open-minded.
• Relationships are critical, so take a broad approach to connecting and creating value with people.
• Growth opportunity lives on the revenue side of the P&L sheet.
• Creative discomfort is not chaos. Try changing one thing at a time – a position, a function, a company – but do it.
• Look to lateral moves if they can lead you closer to your goal.