Helima Croft: Transforming the Financial Services Industry through Influential Leadership 

The most significant corporations, institutional investors, asset managers, private equity firms, and governments around the globe recognize RBC Capital Markets as an innovative, trusted partner with in-depth expertise in capital markets, banking, and finance. The company is well-established in the largest, most mature capital markets across North America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region, which collectively encompass 80% of the global investment banking fee pool. 

RBC Capital Markets is part of a leading provider of financial services, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). Operating since 1869, RBC is one of the largest banks in the world and the fifth-largest in North America, as measured by market capitalization. With a strong capital base and consistent financial performance, the financial service provider is among a small group of highly-rated global banks. 

A Pivotal Leadership 

Helima is a Managing Director and the Head of Global Commodity Strategy and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Research at RBC Capital Markets. She specializes in geopolitics and energy, leading a team of commodity strategists that cover energy, metals and cross‐commodity investor activity. Helima is a member of the National Petroleum Council, a select group of individuals who advise, inform and make recommendations to the Secretary of Energy with respect to any matter relating to oil and natural gas. 

She also is a CNBC contributor, a member of the channel’s exclusive family of experts, is on the Board of Directors for the Atlantic Council, and is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Helima joined RBC Capital Markets from Barclays, where she was a Managing Director and Head of North American Commodities Research. Prior to that, she worked in Lehman’s Business Intelligence group, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Central Intelligence Agency, where she focused on geopolitics and commodities. Helima has received many industry accolades throughout her career and received her PhD in economic history from Princeton in 2001. 

An Impeccable Journey towards Success 

According to Helima, growing up in Washington, D.C, accounts for her interest in world affairs. After studying history and economics at the University of Edinburgh, she returned to the U.S., working as a researcher for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment on a 2-year project to upgrade the skills of the American workforce. However, the agency was eliminated in 1995 following a change in congressional leadership, leaving her to contemplate her futureHelima then decided follow intellectual passion and deepen her knowledge in global affairs and geo-economics by pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton.  

Describing her Ph.D. work, Helima says her thesis examined the Washington consensus and the ability for countries to undertake major structural reforms. She chose to focus her dissertation on Ghana, Africa’s longest sustained economic reformer and one of the first to embark on a major IMF adjustment program. She also looked at the role of market traders, who were predominantly female, on their role in creating more market driven policies. She also has fond memories of serving as a lecturer in undergraduate classes on history and African politics. 

After completing her Ph.D., a Princeton mentor suggested she leverage her knowledge towards working for the CIA. After 9/11, it was a privilege for her to work somewhere that had such an abiding sense of mission.  

There, she worked as an analyst covering West Africa. Nigeria, which had transitioned to a democracy after decades of military rule, is a very important oil producer, and after 9/11 the Bush Administration was very focused on energy security.  

She credits her time in the CIA with being able to ask tough questions of others — and herself. “You really had to be brutally honest with yourself and see where your weaknesses lay. You can be wrong, but you better be wrong for the right reasons,” asserts Helima. 

That mindset of checking assumptions and challenging conventional wisdom served her well after she left the CIA to work in the business intelligence group at Lehman Brothers, doing deep dives on countries like Saudi Arabia. Lehman went bankrupt in the crash of 2008, but she stayed on when Barclay’s bought the company. Helima later transitioned to RBC, where clients include asset managers, hedge funds, oil and gas companies, and the sovereign states she often visits. 

Rising Above the Primal Challenges  

As a mother of three boys, Helima says, “I’m thankful to have an amazing caregiver who helps my husband and me tremendously. I think we are so conditioned, particularly as women, to say that we can do it all and we feel bad if we are not spending as much time at home as at work.”  

As an accomplished leader in her field, Helima believes it’s important to acknowledge how hard it is to keep women in careers that can be so unforgiving in terms of time. She further adds, “You can do it, but you need help.”  

Becoming a Self-reflective Leader 

Discussing the vital attributes a transformational leader should possess, Helima says, “You can judge a leader by who they surround themselves with. The team you assemble and your willingness to give them responsibility defines your success.”  

How one finds and nurtures talent to enable them to be motivated and take creative initiatives is key to becoming a transformational leader. It is also critical to be self-aware and understand one’s weaknesses because that helps when hiring talent with complementary skill sets. Meanwhile, it is also key for aspiring leaders to be self-reflective and learn from their mistakes.  

Driving Innovation Through AI and Data Analytics 

One of the ways RBC Capital Markets has really been able to differentiate its research offering is through its alternative-data and artificial-intelligence group, RBC Elements. The benefit of using real-time analytic systems, instead of relying on government data, is that it gives the company a competitive advantage to identify market inflection points. In today’s markets, investors want information quickly and efficiently, so RBC Capital Markets incorporates a geopolitical risk table as part of its OPEC Watch List and Weekly publications to summarize its thoughts on which countries it thinks are at most risk and why. Furthermore, RBC incorporates social media analysis in its publications with the help of its Elements team to help quantify the importance and underlying themes of topics it is highlighting. 

Striking A Balance Between Technology-Human Factor  

RBC has had to learn how to incorporate nontraditional streams of information into its analysis quickly. Specifically, the company has been using data science with the help of its partners at RBC Elements to understand social sentiment or volume of posts when analyzing key issues it is studying. Despite the growing use of Artificial Intelligence in financial markets, it is critical for RBC to understand politics, society, and economy because the human factor is important in forecasting the trajectory of future events.  

The Road Ahead 

RBC has always prioritized hiring new and young talent. This is the best investment to help the firm lead and innovate into the future. Regarding industry, the company is in the midst of an energy transition and all forms of energy will be needed.  How hydrocarbon companies and sovereign producers adapt to this transition will be critical.  

Advice to Emerging Leaders 

Helima says, “Try to do something you love – it is a lot easier to go to work every day if you play your favorite sport.” Helima feels like she gets paid to play her favorite sport every day. Since childhood, Helima was excited by international affairs, the news, and debates at the dinner table. After receiving her Ph.D. at Princeton, the CIA was the best boot camp for her to further this passion. Later, Helima had an inflection point when she was selected as the 2004-2005 National Intelligence Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This experience turned out to be the best training ground for her to appreciate the nexus of international security and economics, and she had the opportunity to interact the some of the most important global leaders and thinkers. That experience served her well for her job today, and she continues to be involved with the Council on Foreign Relations as a Life Member. 

According to Helima, the takeaway is that “sometimes you may not appreciate the opportunity that comes by, but it could lead to open doors you may have not even thought of.” It is important to take the best opportunities presented to you and not to be afraid of failure. People have to run faster and be diligent in order to become successful leaders. In other words, they may not be the smartest in the room but have to be the hardest working. Additionally, how people rebound from setbacks is important as a leader. In fact, the higher they climb, the more quickly they have to be able to recover from setbacks. Finally, it is vital to have a great team around you and to give them the opportunity to both shine and thrive.

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