Questions I like to ask in meetings

“I don’t understand”

The number one, most useful phrase to use in a meeting, when:

  1. I simply did not get something and it seems important
    Perhaps there is a missing context, perhaps it is something very unfamiliar or maybe I am missing something obvious. To be a full participant in the meeting, it is important to pause here and get clarity.
  2. I did not get something and suspect that a mistake has been made                  Someone that can explain their conclusions from “first principles” without obfuscation, generally has thought through a problem deeply. Asking for a proper explanation in a meeting, generally exposes mistakes in the analysis or a mistake that I have made (point 1). The analysis is often entirely sensible, but may lack full consideration of other aspects or links to other parts of the project.

People often avoid saying “I don’t understand” as they don’t want to appear silly; this form of bluffing can create a huge drag on the performance of a team. To this end, I consciously trying to create a positive culture around it, showing no embarrassment when expressing the fact I do not understand.


“Can we go back to the beginning?”

(1). I suspect the project/meeting is going off track and I want to go back and check assumptions.

A very common error, which relates to my previous post, is to assume that previous decisions are irrevocable and so choices are limited and forced.
For example, let’s say that in the early stages of a project, a decision was made to prefer option A over option B. This was an entirely sensible and pragmatic choice given the information at the time and a sensible amount of due diligence. Later in the project, we have hit a problem and we need to do something we do not like to progress.

Typically, a team would think the options are:

i. Cancel the project (often not feasible)

ii. Find some creative alternative to move forward (let’s try but cannot find one)

iii. Move ahead – even if it is unpalatable

Options i) and ii) may not be possible and option iii) can often have terrible results.
What has been missed is iv):

iv. Go back to a previous decision and see if changing that, allows us to go around the issue.

In my experience, project teams often really dislike this option, as it feels like they are going backwards and destroying previous work. In practice, much of the work is still relevant and progress can be made extremely quickly, ending up at a far better place.


(2). I suspect we are making the wrong sort of “plan”.
Again, this is related to my previous post. Discussion seems to have moved on to implementation, when we ought to be talking about “ideas and suggestions” (i.e. what we should be doing). You may often feel like you are fighting a very strong prevailing current of thought, especially when you have a team of competent implementers who may consider the creative phase as going backwards or just wasting time. To make this happen, I often have to be quite determined and utilise personal capital to persuade people we should spend our time this way.

If I think of when I have added the most value to a project, it is often because I helped us go back and re-evaluate previous decisions. When I think of the worst projects I have been involved with, a common feature was ploughing on when we actually needed to rethink our entire approach.

“Can I have a worked example?”

Words often don’t mean the same thing to everyone, they often mean different things in different contexts; it’s the great and terrible thing about words and it has enormous scope for confusion within a team. Examples are a great way to help explain a concept, especially ones with numbers in Excel!

  • Do the numbers add up? The critical test, often missed. We miss that we have double counted something, missed an item entirely or simply made a miscalculation.
  • Does it have logical coherence? With an example, it is far easier to see where there has been an assumption or missed step.
  • Did the words mean what I thought they meant? Examples can often show a very different meaning to the entire concept and its previous description.



These key questions all display some lack of comprehension, a desire to go back a stage and to clarify or rethink. I think these are most useful questions, because culturally we have been trained not to behave this way. Few children want to put up their hand in class and admit they do not understand, risking the contempt and ridicule of their peers for not keeping up. In my early career, I saw people progressing by projecting confidence, which only much later I understood to be a thin veneer. It takes courage to behave this way in a meeting – but perhaps when someone else does you can support them because you understand why it is so important.

Decision Making

Decision making is an area of interest I frequently return to. Last week I explained how I like to work to a new starter at the firm, and thought it would be a good opportunity to share more broadly.

Building a robust process that supports decision making has been crucial throughout my trading career, but I now find it helpful more generally in many areas of my life.

I outline my approach below. To me, it is both simple and comes naturally. However, I wonder how common such an approach is, given how often confusion arises.

Before I go through the individual steps, perhaps the most important aspect to emphasize is the difference between the steps in yellow, which focus on what we should do, and those in blue which concern how we should go about it. This helps form a clear division between before and after a decision has been made.

Steps in the process


This stage is free and unconstrained – the objective is creativity

  • Do not dismiss anything
  • Be open to other people’s ideas
  • Do not worry too much about practicality or attractiveness



Suggestions are ideas that are liked, or at least plausible – the objective is initial due diligence

  • Intelligent pushback
  • Alternative suggestions (and perhaps even completely new ideas)
  • Plausibility analysis

(Note “suggestions” is plural i.e. still at the stage of multiple possibilities.)


The objective here is sufficient detail needed to make a decision.

  • Narrowed to a primary suggestion, or perhaps an examination of a small number of options.
  • Key area is to highlight major issues/red flags
  • No problem suggesting going back a stage for some more ideas and suggestions rather than moving ahead.



A clear moment and where the project transitions to a very different stage.


Objective here is work out how to do something and actually do it

  • Most people are far more comfortable at this stage


To illustrate the process, here is a trading example:

(1) Ideas

Let’s just list a few basic investment ideas:

Buy S+P

Sell S+P

Buy European equities

Buy EM equities

Sell US bonds

(2) Suggestions

We like the idea of long equity exposure
We narrow down to S+P and DAX as the prime candidates

(3) Proposal

After detailed analysis, the proposal from the analysis team is
“to buy $50m of S+P as soon as practical.”

(4) Decision

After review, the proposal is refined, and we decide to buy $75m of S+P exposure

(5) Implementation

At this stage, the process of ideas, suggestion, proposal, and decision can be repeated, this time for implementation. Thus, a decision could be to use S+P mini futures and execute within the first hour of the opening of the US cash market the next trading day.



What goes wrong?

Over the years, I observe that many people in a work environment show a preference for either the pre-decision “ideas and suggestions” zone or the post decision “implementation” zone, rarely both. Each style can be very useful, but I’ve learnt it’s important to be aware of the differences, to play to people’s strength and to avoid confusion.

Those who prefer implementation:

  • Premature decision making

It’s very easy to start the process with a decision already made, skipping the supporting steps, with any subsequent analysis purely a rationalisation to present to others and ourselves, in other words confirmation bias.

  • Rush to implementation

In the framework above, it is clear an idea is not a decision and also a suggestion is not a decision. In reality, what can sometimes happen is when I suggest an idea, people around me think I have made a decision and move straight to how we would implement. This is especially confusing when it turns out that those same people never thought it was a good idea! People often explain that previous bosses have strong opinions and just expect to get it done. In this respect, I have learnt to be very explicit to avoid causing confusion.

Those who prefer the ideas and suggestions stages:

  • Lack of details

Preferring the positivity and creativity of the early stages, people often don’t value the details or due diligence required to actually make a decision. Red flags or major issues are critical to consider pre-decision, as once the decision is made, momentum makes it hard to go back again.

  • Inability to drill down to a concrete proposal

We can always find another idea or another suggestion.
However there comes a stage of pragmatism in all decision making, when some suggestions need to be discarded, and others more deeply investigated to form a proposal.
This is also the stage where implementation considerations are important; but people who prefer “ideas and suggestions” may not pay sufficient attention to these and so it’s crucial to widen the team.



Note that I did not use the word “plan” above. This is because it is commonly used to describe a proposal and also relates to implementation. In fact, these stages share common materials; the details from the proposal will often cover some of the implementation. The crucial difference is one is before decision and the other is after.

Again, people used to working on implementation, can take the details involved in the proposal as indication that a decision has been make. The temptation to move the project along, rather that focus on any issues that may indicate a major mistake.



To make good decisions, it’s clear you need both types of people!

Having a team which excels at implementation is a wonderful thing, similarly having people around you that get energised by thinking about new ideas. But even more important perhaps, is making sure that you spend sufficient time and energy on both aspects and find a way to integrate the contributions of everyone.

Thinking about where you sit in the process above, being aware what kind of preferences you have, could be helpful to your career, making you much more effective within teams at work.

Career Tips

I was asked recently to speak at an undergraduate event. Part of it was to give some career advice in the form of 3 tips. Here is what I came up with:

Many people after leaving university find adjusting to the world of work difficult and become very unhappy. Focusing on a lack of “meaning” in their job while searching for a “mentor” to guide them, they can quickly come to resent their firm and co-workers.

It does not have to be this way.

The most important thing to realise is that the workplace is not going to feel like an extension of education – it is completely and fundamentally different. For at least the first two decades of your life, focusing on your knowledge and your skills is the key and the whole environment around you is geared to helping you develop. However, the ability of a student to successfully transition into a happy and productive career has remarkably little to do with the knowledge and skills they start with.

What really matters is how well they can change their mindset.

Here are 3 things to focus on:

  1. It’s not about you any more

This is the piece of advice students generally find the most upsetting. A big change in mindset is required to succeed in a work environment compared to the one needed for education.

In education, the student is the product. The ultimate aim for a student, with the help of teachers, is to gain the skills and knowledge required to pass exams. This does not mean that students have complete free rein to do what they want. There will be various restrictions on behaviour, such as a requirement to go to lectures, prepare for tutorials, do reading, problem sets and essays – however these are all designed with the success of the student in mind. The best attitude for the student is to be focused on themselves and their own needs.

In the workplace, the business is the product. The ultimate aim for a new employee is to become useful. Many graduates find this transition to the workplace a shock. Senior members of staff may not think that a key part of their role is to educate you and make you more productive or happy. In a few years’ time, you will also be more senior too and it will be obvious to you that this is not a priority either. You will want to be productive at work, impress your boss, get promoted, get a bonus etc.

Adjusting to this new reality, the best attitude is to be focused, not on yourself, but on the needs of the people around you and of the firm – Be useful! You will then find good things will start to happen to you. Given reciprocity (see “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini), people you help will also help you. Senior people will start to spend time helping you learn and improve. You will have signalled to the firm that you have the right mentality to succeed and so will be promoted more quickly, paid more and given more training.

Having a real job is extremely helpful in preparing you for work and choosing a career path. I spent my Gap year working full time as an economist, but working at McDonalds may have perhaps been even better. You need to understand what it is like to be the other side of the counter.

  1. Be flexible.

In education, a targeted focus and narrow determination are extremely helpful for excelling with high results. The world of academia is fragmented and siloed, with status derived from expertise in ever more specialised areas.

The world of work is very different. A modern and successful career will come with many parallel and some orthogonal leaps into new areas, combined with an ability to master a broad range of cross-disciplinary problems.

I could easily have become a consultant or economist and I think I would have really enjoyed it and been successful. In banking and hedge funds, my career could have gone in lots of different directions. The only way to take opportunities is by being open minded.

  1. Work with people you would like to become.

This piece of advice was given to me as an undergraduate, and it has repeatedly proven itself true as my career developed.

Don’t think that you can join an Investment bank for the money and not become like them. Either you will change to fit in, or you will not and you will hate it and leave.

You must judge it from meeting real employees, not from impressions from TV shows. Being a lawyer is not the way it is on Suits just as being a Hedge Fund manager is not like Billions (well mostly anyway). That is why internships are so useful.


The world of work is can be a stimulating and fulfilling experience. For that to happen you need to be able to have the right mindset to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.


As a member of many teams over the years, both leading and contributing, I have learned a lot about feedback. How it is dealt with is a core aspect, not only of work culture, but also in all our relationships. In this post, I will deal with the kind of feedback which is meant to have a purpose, that of improving performance, often thought of as coaching.

Coaching is at its most useful when it is an active exchange of mutual learning. On the one hand, I find I learn so much trying to explain concepts to others, whilst on the other hand I very much enjoy the experience of being coached myself. Effective coaching is rarely dominated by telling people what to do.

Encouraging self-reflection and evaluation within a context of mutual respect and desire for improvement are critical to achieve progress. You cannot presume that someone wants a coaching relationship with you, and they may perceive attempts to coach them as unwarranted criticism.

I think it is helpful to break feedback down into 3 types: praise, encouragement of self-reflection and evaluation, which can be either objective or subjective. It is also important to make a distinction based upon the type of relationships or power dynamics involved.

This leads to a grid, similar to the one used in “How to Write”.

Type 1 – Praise

Very often when people say they want feedback, they only want praise and it quickly becomes a vacuous form of feedback. We have all heard the disparaging stories of “millennials” who are conditioned to expect it. Indeed, I have come across this problem with juniors but I feel anyone adjusting to the world of work, especially straight from university, may find the real-world environment a challenge. I probably did myself.

People who have had a career in a more protected environment, or who have low self-esteem, may also need frequent reassurance that their work is valuable. We see that praise is the only form of feedback that Donald Trump can tolerate. Whereas seasoned and successful professionals tend not to seek praise as much. They know that when validation of their work comes, it is well deserved but their self-esteem is strong enough not to require it.

Like most people I enjoy being praised, but If I am highly praised for something I do not consider particularly worthy, then it has very little meaning to me. My greater desire is to learn and improve, so I actively seek other types of feedback. However, I do believe that praise is underrated as a feedback tool and it can be a very effective form of teaching, positively reinforcing good behaviours if used selectively. This is the way that I like to use it and to receive it.

As parents, praise is totally natural, we proudly clap our children at the slightest provocation. Children are naturally experimenting with behaviours and desperate to learn through new experiences, so selective reinforcement is very powerful. Genuine strong praise for a child who has tried hard at something is mutually rewarding and comes very naturally.

Overall, my approach is to try to use praise genuinely, but it is not as easy as it sounds. At work, I often start with praise but mix in other forms of feedback. This often carries the risk that the recipient may not hear the praise at all, and in fact perceive the whole conversation as pure negative criticism, especially given our power relationship. Furthermore, where the need for praise is too strong, then validation becomes an obstacle to learning in itself. If they receive a lot of praise, then why change behaviour?

A general principle is that people tend to give out the type of feedback they like to receive themselves. If I am managing a person who only wants praise, I struggle to manage them and these relationships have not worked for either of us

Type 2 Encourage self-evaluation

This is simply asking someone their thoughts on what they did or how they feel something went.
This is a type of feedback that may not register as feedback to many people, it does not involve any praise or criticism, no evaluation or active coaching.
The idea is to encourage reflection and to start a conversation from which you both can learn.

This style of feedback comes naturally to me and is most enjoyable if the other person wants to participate. Receiving this type of feedback from investors, it led to the most enjoyable and engaging conversations and I think I learned the most.

Remember the most common source of this form of feedback is yourself!

Type 3a Evaluation – Objective

This is a very important type of feedback if you can get it.

In modern sport, virtually every facet of the game is reduced to statistics which can be measured and help form the development of training drills to enable a player to improve. Purposeful practice requires a solid feedback mechanism.

Learning without a reliable feedback mechanism makes objective evaluation much harder. Learning to trade for example. A market making environment lends itself to objective evaluation as the number of transactions is likely to be high and the speed and accuracy of pricing can be easily observed. But it is one of the reasons that learning to trade by taking risk in markets is difficult, as in the short term the element of luck is large enough to create noise in the consequences of your decisions.

If evaluation is clearly objective and applied transparently to all staff, then it is likely to be accepted. But the attractions of this type of feedback are also its drawback. It is appealing to generate objectives which are measurable, but not necessarily relevant to the goals of the organisation. Think of the Blairite obsession with targets in health and education, which created distortions in incentives.

Type 3b Evaluation – Subjective

Subjective evaluation is the most overused form of feedback, and most people seem to think this is what feedback is. If you look at the forms that HR demand you fill out for conversations with your staff, you will see the word evaluation everywhere. This is often combined with a requirement to assign scores or rankings to various aspects of the employee, creating the illusion of objectivity but they are actually the opinions of the manager.

Subjective evaluation may have a place. If your intent is to make a complaint then this can take the form of a negative evaluation, for example if you want to complain to a hotel you can give a low rating on TripAdvisor. But there is wide variation in the quality of such comments. In large firms however, negative evaluations are used almost exclusively as part of the process of firing employees.

When I ran a large fund, I had hundreds of investors, old and new, continually evaluating me. If I agreed with the evaluation, it was likely it became an experience of being berated rather than a learning point. If I did not agree with the criticism, I still had to take it.

In close work environments, the giving and receiving of such feedback can be a minefield. It can be hard to receive emotionally, especially when the receiver doesn’t accept the view or worse the right or competence of the person to evaluate them. Unsolicited feedback is pure criticism – no one likes to be criticised. This is why, in practice, most work evaluations turn into exercises of giving praise, even when it is not genuinely deserved.

The relationship matters

What is striking about the workplace is how little useful feedback is given and/or taken.

If you are the in a position of authority, care must be taken not to blindly hand out feedback that could be construed as pure criticism. Remember anything you say has a magnified impact, given the nature of your relationship. Consider layering in the various forms of feedback I mention, remember the idea is to help your employee, not to add unnecessary strain or distance.

If an employee receives feedback that they don’t like, it can often be seen as confrontational or rude, and instead of trying to work out what was the purpose of such feedback the employee is more likely to grumble about them behind their back. A very poor outcome for both parties.

If you are a person who wants to improve, you need to actively seek out feedback from people you respect, this is key to improving performance. Avoiding criticism is an ingrained social habit, so bear in mind you need to be prepared for an honest evaluation. Keeping any defensive reaction in check is important as if you react defensively, you are likely not to hear honest feedback again. You should thank the person for the feedback and do your best to understand it. If you think it is completely wrong, then you still have an important learning point, that someone you respect perceives it to be true.


How to manage feedback is one of the most important aspects of work culture and defines whether your organisation is going to merely stagnate or rather learn and develop.

As a giver of feedback, it is important to recognise what kind of feedback the person wants and will be able to process.

As the receiver of feedback, you have the main power. You can be defensive and only accept praise, or you can actively solicit opinions which you can incorporate into your learning process.