By Olivia Sleet, Career Centre Researcher
Michael Cunniffe, MiFPT2017, had his sights set on a new career in life sciences, and in New York City. Taking his experience in finance advisory at EY London (where his expert sectors were Life Sciences and Consumer Goods) and as Finance Director for an Influenza focused Life Sciences company, Michael used his LBS network to turn his dream into reality, accepting a role in NYC as VP of Finance for a gene therapy company. He continues to live and work in the city, now as Lead of Finance for ATAI, a clinical development company focused on new therapies for depression, anxiety and addiction.
What was the initial reason for joining the Masters in Finance (MiF) programme?
I had a background in controlling and accounting, and I wanted to make the transition to an Executive level position which required broader interaction with capital markets and fundraising. The MiF programme gave me technical expertise, practical application and access to a network of professionals I can draw on for guidance and feedback.
Going in I had a view on its alignment with my career progression since it was a large investment of time and money. I explored a number of areas that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise, such as distressed investing and Islamic finance. The School and cohort were really helpful in validating my future plans – I still use this network constantly as a sounding board especially as they bring a true international perspective.
What sparked your interest in healthcare? This is particularly interesting as MiF students often choose to do the programme to pursue a career within the buy-side or sell-side of transactions.
I’ve always loved working in Life Sciences and the MiF programme helped me to lead the Finance function in a life sciences company. There is a huge amount of technical expertise required and a lot of complexity to manage in order to develop new therapies and treatments. No one individual in the company has all the answers so you’re always working in cross functional teams to move the clinical trials forward. Biotech companies are constantly fundraising and often have a rapid pathway to being publicly listed. I love focusing on new drug development and learning about the drug interaction, clinical trials and increasing our understanding of diseases. We always invest time to understand the patients’ needs and experiences. It’s hugely motivating to meet the patients as you are working to improve their quality of life.
What do you think helped you secure your finance role in healthcare?
The LBS Masters in Finance programme gave me a grounding across all components of capital markets and helped me understand the intersections of all these subject areas. This gave me the confidence to take on roles with wider scopes; employers don’t expect you to have the answer to everything as long as you can demonstrate you have access to the answers and can get them quickly. Most of your job opportunities will come from the LBS network so future employers also have a shared understanding from their time on the programme. They know what you know, even though it isn’t on your CV.
What do you think made the difference between you and other candidates?
Most candidates focus on demonstrating their capabilities/credentials for the job they are being hired. Doing the programme part-time shows your commitment to your career – the two-year sacrifice and juggle required shows people that you can prioritize and execute. While working full time and doing a Master’s at the same time is an exhausting venture, you are equally energized, empowered and motivated by purpose by the programme and LBS community. But this is of course what you make of it – I made a point to take cross functional classes and met a wide variety of people outside of just my MiF programme. I have made close friends, and they’ve become sounding boards through my roles. Additionally, the broader experience of the LBS programme gives you a wide experience that pushes you to be more entrepreneurial and creative.
What challenges did you face when searching for and securing your role during the programme? How did you overcome those challenges?
One of my main goals was to move to NYC, but as a European, my network was less developed in the US. I heavily leveraged the LBS network and created events anytime I travelled to build relationships. Sometimes you have to be prepared to invest – it’s not all coffees – sometimes you have to hold an event and buy the first round of drinks. Don’t be too focused – some of my best introductions came from LBS people who brought along another LBS friend.
The challenge of moving locations is that few people hire you outside your existing location. You have to invest the time and money to establish yourself physically in the new place. Employers expect you to have solutions to any barrier to entry, no matter how small. Make yourself not only the perfect hire but also an easy hire.
Balancing the PT programme with a full-time job can be very challenging. What personal and/or professional sacrifices did you make in order to make this career change?
Juggling personal and professional priorities is the hardest aspect of the part-time programme. Most of the cohort will be strong performers in their existing roles and it’s important to prepare mentally that your individual contribution may have to be scaled back at work. Prepare to lean on your team more and delegate the work. Invest in those work relationships before the programme and set clear expectations at work. The friendships formed during the programme will be strong because of the intensity and excitement of being in an environment with like-minded people who are realizing their shared ambitions and personal growth so make sure you have the time to invest in those relationships and happy hours. In your home life, make sure that the programme is a shared goal as it will require support from both of you. Integrate your School and personal life where possible, so you feel less torn between the two. Unfortunately, that also means that things might slip in your personal life such as friends you can’t catch up with, lunches you need to leave early from and keeping the gym schedule is definitely difficult.
What was your job search and networking strategy when it came to targeting roles you were interested in?
I definitely used the programme as a topic to reintroduce myself to former colleagues. People will be interested by the programme and supportive if you share your purpose in doing it. In early stage companies the Finance roles are rarely advertised, and the opportunities really come from introductions and referrals. Headcount decisions are usually delayed until absolutely necessary and it’s often the lawyers, bankers or existing employees who know about the role and refer the candidates. So, it’s important to be proactive and keep your network updated so they refer you when opportunities come up.
Where are you working now? How has the MiF programme supported your career to date?
I’m currently the Finance lead of ATAI Life Sciences. We are a clinical development company that operates a group of portfolio companies leveraging a shared platform. The MiF programme has been a huge support since while my focus is on the core Finance operations there is a constant flow of deals and fundraising transactions. Every deal is different and they evolve rapidly – without the foundation of the LBS MiF I wouldn’t be able to keep pace.
What advice would you give to fellow students looking to break into the sector and also those students completed a PT course, who are balancing their current roles, their studies and finding a new role?
If you are studying, working and searching – then recognize that what you are trying to juggle is hugely challenging. If you are still at the School, then focus on building those relationships and networks with your fellow students as you are in a really receptive community. Not everyone will be an engaged alumni so you may not get a second opportunity. Follow the Student Association Clubs for the sector and start attending those events – you can easily get five introductions by sitting in the audience and meeting the people around you. Get into the habit of networking and helping to introduce others and inviting new people to events and catch-ups. Don’t sit in your hotel room while on a work trip – go through the Portal and find an alumni to meet up with. There is an LBSer in every city worth having a drink with. Don’t listen to anyone who says there is only one career pathway to achieve your target position. I hear it all the time and it might be the case the for some or most, but it’s never the case for all. Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks. For Life Sciences, definitely consider going to an industry conference and invest in those meetings. Set up some meetings ahead of the conference and ask friendly people to introduce you to people. Early stage companies are always looking for good people recommendations and free strategic advice. If you’re going for an interview or coffee meet-up, ask if there are any topics they want a perspective on or connections that would be helpful in advance.
Interested in our MiF programme? Submit your profile to our recruitment team for an informal chat about your eligibility.