Dr Ashley Frank talks about having several careers in a single life path

Career Transitions: We caught up with Dr Ashley Frank – investment banker turned business school professor turned executive coach – recently to learn more about the ever-increasing trend to have several (often very different) careers in a single life path.

Having multiple careers in a single lifetime is increasingly becoming the norm. Research conducted by Management Today shows that, beginning with Generation Xers, the traditional, linear career path is dead and many are excited by the ‘career cycle‘ that is taking its place. Their lives, increasingly, feel less like a locked-in, one-way trajectory and more like a set of recurring cycles, offering them the chance to have multiple careers, mixing and matching their interests and passions with the need to pay the bills and put food on the table. In fact, as many as 70% of Generations Xers regularly consider taking mid-career ‘left turns’, whether that’s starting their own business, embracing slash careers or leaping to a different industry/sector. We spoke to Dr Ashley Frank, a black South African, who grew up under Apartheid, who now in his third substantial career to understand this phenomenon.

How has growing up black under the Apartheid regime affected your career trajectory?

I grew up in the midst of immense social crisis in my home country, South Africa, and in fact, my generation is often referred to as the “struggle generation”. The generation that came before us (the “protest generation”) – the “Mandela generation” if you like – were the ones to openly defy the Apartheid regime and face detentions without trial, banning orders or treason charges. By the time we were born the Apartheid regime appeared all the more secure in its position of oppressing the black majority in the country.  We were the ones to finally take the steps which led to the regime’s collapse. We believed that if we couldn’t achieve a democratic dispensation in the country then we would simply make the country “ungovernable”.

Growing up in that kind of environment could not but have affected the way I saw my own strengths. Not only did I develop a great deal of idealism and a commitment to social justice, it also made me an incredibly resilient person. There was really no option – I had to believe that there was nothing I couldn’t do and no opportunities I should be prevented from accessing.

What was the motivation for your first career, that of investment banker? How did it come about?

The Roman philosopher Seneca taught us that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” and I think that’s a good way to describe my entry into investment baking. After all, a significant portion of MBA graduates are looking to build careers in the industry after business school and competition is stiff – a certain amount of luck is required no doubt! I was hired by the London based Robert Fleming & Co. (now part of JP Morgan Chase), an independent bank with a great deal of exposure to the emerging markets of Asia, Central Europe and Africa, at a very important juncture in the South African political economy.

Having just become a democracy, South Africa had abolished much of its foreign exchange regulations in favour of a floating currency, and there was a great deal of cross-border corporate action happening – there was increased interest in investment into South Africa following the end of an international economic boycott and many South African corporations were ready to expand their footprints internationally, spurring several to either seek dual listings or move their primary listings to the major bourses overseas. My bank saw this as the right time to hire South Africans who would best be able to manage the South Africa-London deal pipeline. And, having just graduated from a British business school, the timing was just right for me to join the firm.

As you’ve said, many look to investment banking as the ideal place to develop a long-term career. Why the change to academia then?

I think it’s a combination of three major factors. First, in my family and our home community, the way anyone demonstrated both a high degree of intelligence as well as personal success was through becoming a medical doctor. In fact, growing up, there were really only three major professional career choices: If you were really smart it was assumed you’d become a medical doctor. Then came Chartered Accounting and finally developing a career as an attorney. Many really didn’t know what to make of an economist – investment banker. Given the economic exclusion the community had to bear under Apartheid, these careers, which were previously reserved for whites only, seemed just too much to wrap one’s head around. So there was a much social pressure to gain the title “Dr”. Second, I think I just fell in love with Finance as a subject and the opportunity to do graduate work in the field was highly appealing.

But I think most important was the reception I received when I worked with my white South African colleagues from our bank’s Johannesburg’s office, where it was very clear that they saw me as “less than” both in terms of competence as well as the potential for upward career trajectory. Off course, this was way before all the legislation that now requires employment equity measures be taken to promote staff from the historically disadvantaged groups. So I faced the situation where I reached my glass ceiling very quickly. I knew that if I really wanted to demonstrate my competence in the field, the only viable option would be to do that in a graduate school by getting my PhD.

And you developed a career in academia for over a decade, you must have achieved much success there?

Well, I’d like to think that the people I worked with in the academy were quick to recognise my talent – and make me feel that recognition. And so I became, at 27, the youngest person appointed to an Associate Professorship in South Africa and then to Full Professor at 35. I was already Discipline Chair just a year later.

Of course, I had to produce the goods to be taken seriously. This meant getting good student evaluations for my teaching – even receiving a Distinguished Teacher award from global accounting firm KPMG. And demonstrating my abilities as a researcher, so much so that I received a rating from the country’s National Research Foundation, for the quality and impact of my published research.

With that kind of success, just how did the third career come about? How did you now end up an Executive Coach?

Actually, when I announced that I was leaving academia for a third career, some of my own colleagues though that crazy. I even had one ask me if I was on drugs. The announcement shook so many people that it was actually featured in BusinessWeek (Africa Edition).

First, I think that the “male mid-life crisis” is something very real. In previous generations, I think it wasn’t a viable option but from my generation onwards we’ve come to expect to find meaning in the work we do. It’s no longer just about the paycheck at month end.  Second, we see the freedoms the younger millennials have to job-hop, switch sectors, launch businesses and travel abroad as well … and we too want a piece of the action.

Finally, I see passion and purpose as two different aspects of the human experience and I think it’s only when we use our passions to fulfil what we believe is our purpose, that we achieve real meaning. For me, my earlier life was dominated by my joint passions for business management and helping people grow. And so I think that working as a Corporate Executive Coach helps me bring both elements together harmoniously.

Did you find there was a necessary downtime as you prepared for each move?

Oh, most certainly! No one really takes you seriously in investment banking unless you have your MBA (perhaps now the MSF) as well as having passed your securities exams. That applies to academia as well, where you’re not really considered whole until you’ve defended your PhD thesis. Many people find it hard to believe that I had my first real date when I was 28, so absorbed in my doctoral research I was. And of course, while you may think that you don’t really need specialised training to offer business advice – if you consider that Executive Coaching is a profession in itself, this will require you going back to school to gain a coaching credential and then meet the requirements of an international accreditor regarding your coach-specific capabilities. I loved seeing the perplexed expression on people’s faces when I told them that I was becoming a full-time student again.

Developing your professional career required you to live in several different cities, in several different countries. What were the benefits of this experience?

I suppose the easy answer most people would give to that kind of question was the personal growth of experiencing many different cultures and interacting with people whose world-views as so different from what you might consider “main-line”, to the point where you realise that there is no such thing as a “main-line” world-view – but that’s only half the story. I think quite often people don’t fully appreciate just how socially isolating this kind of moving around can be. You’re just never in one place long enough to make really meaningful social bonds. Yes, often people who pass through your life, leave their mark, but it’s not the same. This is particularly as you get older and people become more focused on themselves (their careers and families), that you realise just how difficult it is to build real friendships and not just the Facebook types.

You have studied at some of the most prestigious institutes in the world: UC-Berkeley, UW-Madison, the London School of Economics, and Cornell – just to mention a few. But you’ve also studied at state schools as well. What did you find were the major differences?  

Well not only have I done the whole Ivy League/Russel Group experience as a student, I’ve had the opportunity to serve on the faculty at a variety of business schools in my career. Some just solid institutions, while others highly prestigious. If you’re asking is there is a quality difference, then the simple answer is no. Certainly, at the international conferences I’ve attended where there has been a diverse mix of institutions, I have never found myself lacking in any way to contribute to debates or discussions. Provided staff are well trained, motivated and appropriate quality controls are in place, graduates come out just as competent from good state schools as from the Ivy Leagues. Where Ivy League’s really score is in the networking opportunities, among students who come from backgrounds that help position them and their friends for upward mobility after graduation, among faculty who have a greater span of opportunity for things like collaboration between institutions and access to grant funding and finally among alumni, where the “old school tie” is still able to open doors for you.

But I got my MBA at what is known as a “new University” in the United Kingdom (Buckinghamshire New University) – An institution which was granted degree-awarding powers by the Labour Party government to help young people from less advantaged backgrounds enter the working world just as well trained. And I found that I felt much more comfortable to socialise with classmates who had the same kinds of family socio-economic backgrounds as I have.

What were the most difficult aspects of making your various career changes?

I think dealing with uncertainty for sure. And, as you get older, the greater the risks involved. At first, the uncertainty is just about whether the move you’re making will help you fulfil a greater degree of your potential. Change is never easy and the familiar is always the safer option. But as you get older there are real concerns like financial planning, retirement savings and the like that make moving from one career to another a difficult life choice.

What were the benefits to each career of having the ones before? Any regrets?

None at all! All of my earlier experiences have helped me be better at what I do next. The fact that I came from investment banking was very appealing to my students who appreciated the real-world knowledge I was able to bring to the classroom, from an environment many were interested in, for their own careers. And now having had the experience of these two careers, not only makes me better able to mentor my executive coaching clients, as I share my professional experience, but it’s really a very maturing life experience on the whole. It’s truly helped me develop a vital component of leadership – “executive presence”.

Of course, you’re not just about work! On a more personal note, you openly identify as a gay man. Briefly, what was your coming out experience like? Is there someone special in your life right now?

I actually began to come out to close friends from around my junior year in college, at around 19. But it was only 11 years later that I finally came out to my family. Looking back if getting my PhD was the hardest thing I had to do intellectually, having that talk with my family was probably the hardest emotionally. I had three major roadblocks that I had to deal with. First, that my family is one of the oldest Catholic families in the country with all the repression that comes from that kind of environment. Then that my family is of Indian origin, a culture that tends to be deeply conservative, particularly on matters of sexuality and finally, that we live in Africa, which is not just homophobic but often violently so. Maybe because I had to overcome these three huge roadblocks coming out was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.

As for someone special? I think I have a great deal of value to add to the right person’s life and so I’m just waiting for that right person to come along. Why shouldn’t I get my Prince Charming? After all, historically royalty has always tended to marry royalty!

You can find more information on Ashley here:






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