One-on-One with Armen Avanessians MS’83, Seasoned Executive and Quant Pioneer

No matter how much career success one achieves, always continue to learn, and to learn from others, notes distinguished alumnus Armen Avanessians as the inaugural Silberstein Family Executive in Residence at Columbia Engineering.

May 12 2023 | By Melanie A. Farmer | Photo Credit: Timothy Lee
Armen Avanessians speaking with Columbia Engineering students

Credit: Timothy Lee

Armen Avanessians MS'83 (P:’12CC, '17CC, '17SIPA) spent an afternoon on Apr. 24 with a select group of Columbia Engineering undergraduate and graduate students as the first Silberstein Family Executive in Residence. The former trustee of Columbia University and retired global head and chief investment officer of quantitative investment strategies at Goldman Sachs offered students advice gleaned from his professional life, mistakes and all, and shared personal anecdotes that, in hindsight, informed his career decision-making over the years.  

In 2019, Alan M. Silberstein BS’69 and his wife, Carol ’69BC, endowed the Silberstein Family Executive in Residence to recruit distinguished short-term visitors in fields across industry, business, government, and the nonprofit sector. Disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the program adapted with a soft launch in 2020 by hosting three virtual “Silberstein Family Leaders and Innovators'' sessions for students with Ursula Burns MS‘82, Bob Bakish BS‘85, ‘89BUS (P’22SEAS), and Ya-Qin Zhang (P: ‘20BUS, ’22SEAS). By offering perspective on career pathways and serving as mentors in nonacademic sectors, Silberstein hopes the Executive(s) in Residence will help students expand their understanding of leadership in business and industry and ways they can build their skills as leaders early on to make an impact in the world.

During the in-person session with Avanessians, Dean Shih-Fu Chang highlighted the exceptional opportunity presented by the new Executive in Residence program for engineering students. He emphasized the program's ability to provide invaluable insights and high-level career guidance directly from accomplished and experienced leaders in various fields. Dean Chang encouraged students to ask questions and take advantage of the chance to learn from Avanessians' remarkable professional journey.

Avanessians started his journey at Goldman Sachs in 1985 as a foreign exchange strategist, and by 1994, he had risen to the position of partner. Throughout his 37-year tenure, he held leadership roles that leveraged mathematical, quantitative, and algorithmic approaches to drive revenue across the firm's securities, investment management, and investment banking divisions.

Before the term 'quant' became widely known, Avanessians worked as a quantitative analyst. He met with students to share insights and lessons learned from his extensive career. Here are some key takeaways from the session:

Columbia Engineering student Madeleine Kearns speaking with Armen Avanessians

Students engage in discussion with Silberstein Executive in Residence, Armen Avanessians MS’83, former global head at Goldman Sachs. Credit: Timothy Lee

Lead by learning 

Avanessians held global leadership roles at Goldman Sachs for most of his career. But he didn't set out to be a corporate leader. He joined Goldman to be a "quant" on a small successful team of other quantitative analysts. But early in his career, he became a senior group member and was ultimately tapped for management.  

Avanessians humorously reflected on the beginning of his leadership career, saying, "Suddenly, people were reporting to me, but honestly, I wouldn't have wanted to report to myself." He initially grappled with understanding his value to his team. Over time, he realized that his true value lay in the lessons he learned from his employees and others, which he could then share with his team. Avanessians emphasized that the key to being a good leader is maintaining open communication with your team and fostering a culture of mutual learning.

"Whatever I did as an individual pales in comparison to what four people can do, or eight people can do. The leverage that you get when more people are working on a project or problem is something you can never get as an individual."

Avanessians emphasized the importance of learning from colleagues in business. Some may be less analytical and less technical, others more. But there is something to be learned from all.

When building a successful team, he recommended, "Whenever you hire, you must find somebody smarter than you and better than you. That's the only way you'll go forward." His approach to interviews is straightforward. He aims to learn something from the candidate during the interview. If he can do that, the candidate gets the job.

Armen Avanessians

Armen Avanessians shared moments from his own career path and also personal anecdotes and life lessons. Credit: Timothy Lee

Differentiate yourself and add value

"In all of your interactions with your boss, ask yourself, 'What can you do to make your boss successful," said Avanessians. Before coming to your boss with a problem, try and see your question from their perspective. Frame your questions carefully to get to the solution that you want. 

Care about someone other than yourself. "How are you adding value to the team, to the project you're working on? What are you doing for your manager? What are you doing for the institution? … Remember, it's not about you. Differentiate yourself by caring about somebody other than you." 

Don't be a Logan Roy [of HBO's Succession]

On the topic of work-personal life balance, Avanessians referenced Logan Roy, Succession's lead character and a cutthroat, egocentric media mogul. "Another approach to thinking about my life is going out of my way not to be Logan Roy," said Avanessians, who credited his success in business to the support of his family, stating that he couldn't imagine being successful in his work life if he had to go at it alone. 

Throughout your career, "Take every moment that you can to be with your family." 

Armen Avanessians and Columbia Engineering Dean Shih-Fu Chang with students

Columbia Engineering students pictured with Dean Shih-Fu Chang, who attended the Apr. 24 event to introduce Armen Avanessians MS’83, Silberstein Executive in Residence and distinguished Columbia alumnus. Credit: Timothy Lee

Career plans can change. That's OK. 

"At every point of my career, I knew what I wanted, and I was wrong," said Avanessians. As a child, Avanessians wanted to be a U.S. Marine, following in his father's footsteps, who also served in the military. When he was about 12 years old, that career aspiration came to a halt after a cousin raised the point that Marines are one of the first to go to war–plans to pursue that dream ended right there. 

Later, Avanessians was set on going into law; as a junior high student, he'd read through technical books on tort law. While he enjoyed math and science, he was fascinated by the law and was convinced he would be a lawyer. But every decision following—attending MIT to study electrical engineering (instead of going to Harvard to study law) and earning an MS from Columbia Engineering—pointed away from his "plans" to become a lawyer. Plans can change, and that's ok, he shared. "Finally, as a freshman at MIT, I came to realize that if you're going to be a lawyer, you'll have to read and write fairly quickly. I loved reading, but it took me forever. So, I said 'the heck with it,' I'm going to be an engineer." 

After graduating from Columbia, Avanessians worked as an engineer. After three years, seeking more stimulation and challenge, he made a career switch to finance. Initially, he planned to stay at Goldman Sachs for just a few years. However, despite actively exploring other opportunities, he remained with the company for 37 years. His reason was simple–he "never found anything more interesting or compelling" elsewhere.  In that period, he not only built a remarkable legacy of leadership and mentorship but also significantly shaped Goldman Sachs' culture of teamwork and excellence.

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