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One Diverse CRO's Blueprint for Success: A Q&A with Philip Melville

Ascension to the highest risk management level is possible, even with a unique background and an unconventional career path. How can you get your foot in the door, and what skill sets, qualifications and individual characteristics are needed to rise to the top – and to stay there?

Friday, February 25, 2022

By Tod Ginnis

There’s more than one avenue to success as a financial risk manager. Some take an entry level risk job and work their way up through the ranks. Others begin in a different field and transition into risk management.

Regardless of which way you begin your career, once you decide to enter the risk management profession, there are actions and attitudes that support growth.

As a diverse risk practitioner raised on the islands of Jamaica and Bermuda, Philip Melville’s experience differs from many of his brethren chief risk officers (CROs) at large financial institutions. But he offers an excellent example of the blend of skill sets, personality traits and experience that are needed to rise to the most prestigious risk management rung.

PhilipMelvilleCFA.PicPhilip Melville, CRO, Brighthouse Financial

Melville has enjoyed an extensive career in the investment and insurance industries, working his way up from global fixed income strategist at MetLife Investments, to chief market strategist at MetLife, to the head of credit and strategy at Brighthouse Financial one of the largest annuity and life insurance firms in the U.S. In May 2020, after his three-year stint as the company’s head of credit and strategy, Melville was appointed CRO at Brighthouse.

Recently, we spoke with him about his untraditional and inspirational career course, the challenges he’s faced as a minority leader, and the advice he has not just for prospective FRMs and early-career risk managers but also for those who have CRO aspirations.

Tod Ginnis (TG): You never worked directly in risk management before you were asked to become CRO at Brighthouse. Can you tell us about your unusual path?

Philip Melville (PM): Investments are all about managing risk vs. the return you’re looking to earn. In my previous roles at MetLife and Brighthouse, I was able to add value in market risk and credit risk.

The shift to CRO was natural, but there was also a steep learning curve. For example, I had to learn about operational risk. When you’re shifting roles, some things fit naturally into your experience, but you’ll have to learn others.

You need intellectual flexibility and a lot of humility, since you must rely on others to teach you aspects of your job.

TG: What general advice do you have for people looking to begin a career in risk management?

PM: I’d break it down to four distinct actions. First, your career is in your hands. Invest in yourself. Earn whatever degrees or certifications like the FRM — that can help you. Don’t be afraid to try a few different jobs early in your career. 

Second, focus on the long game. This is especially true for diverse candidates. At some point, you’re going to run into a bad company culture, bad co-workers or a bad boss. You’ll have to decide whether it’s worth enduring the situation.

Third, be a good friend. Past co-workers may reenter your life years later and impact your career.

Finally, ask questions to help you figure things out. Young professionals particularly diverse ones — often are afraid to ask questions for fear of looking unprepared.

Risk managers must challenge the consensus and question assumptions. Sometimes, there’s a key mistaken assumption that changes the notion of risk. I’d encourage everyone to practice asking the right questions, and to engage in active listening to make sure the answers make sense.

TG: What specific skill sets or qualifications might open the door to that first job in risk management?

PM: Beyond degrees and certifications, which I strongly encourage, show that you’re willing to ask the right questions and able to connect the dots.

As a risk manager, you can’t stop when you’ve seen the initial impact of an exposure. You must trace it through to find the secondary and tertiary impacts that add up over time.

You also need to consider multiple concepts in your head at the same time, and you must be willing to learn. Show off your ability to dig into details and ask probing questions.

TG: Do you have a message specifically for diverse candidates, who sometimes face unique challenges launching and advancing a career?

PM: You should recognize quickly what kind of culture your company has, and hopefully you know your own values.

If there’s a clash, you must decide if it’s significant enough to make staying there untenable. There’s a tradeoff: are you learning things that might benefit you in the future?

I had a boss who was terrible, but I learned a lot. Staying there in the trenches and taking some lumps helped my future.

Remember that diversity of thought and experience can be great advantages, particularly in risk. But you’ll have to develop a thick skin and the judgement to pick the right fights.

TG: Do you have any final advice about succeeding as a risk manager?

PM: Don’t be a human speedbump. As a risk manager, your job is to learn what the business is trying to do and be a good partner by helping it succeed within a proper risk framework.

You’re there to head off problems, not just say “no.” But don’t sit on the sidelines waiting for trouble.

Get involved early with what the business side is doing to make sure the enterprise has the best chance of achieving its goals. Embrace new concepts and be willing to make mistakes. Errors shouldn’t happen often and, hopefully, should be minor but they can provide a learning opportunity. 

Tod Ginnis is a content specialist at GARP. He is the author of a GARP blog that is aimed at early-career risk managers and professionals aspiring to earn their Financial Risk Manager (FRM) certification.




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