Heather Brilliant
Photograph by Chris Strong

This is Working for Me: Heather Brilliant, ’05

The CEO of Morningstar Australasia shares her passion for the individual investor, her attitude toward risk, and her love for the great outdoors.

A financial whiz who studied economics at Northwestern, Heather Brilliant, ’05, worked full time as an equity analyst while attending Booth’s Evening MBA Program. After rising to the role of Morningstar’s global director of equity and corporate credit research, Brilliant moved from Chicago to Sydney in 2014 to take the role of CEO of Morningstar Australasia. Brilliant is passionate about Morningstar’s mission to help investors reach their financial goals. “Whether we are working with advisers, asset managers, or directly with an investor, we always have the end investor in mind as true north, guiding our decision making.”

We operate in an industry where the obligation to act in the best interests of your client still seems open to question. It is up to us in the industry to uphold a fiduciary standard and put our clients’ interests first, whether the law requires it or not. I have seen so many people with limited financial knowledge get taken advantage of by people who are trying to make money from their clients’ ignorance. That is just plain wrong.

Investing is a very scary area for most people. It is critical for people to achieve the retirement they want, to save for sending their kids to college, and to meet all their financial objectives. I’m really passionate about helping investors make better decisions.

In my first job, as an analyst at Bank of America, my boss, Lynn Stetson, set a great example of work-life balance. He measured the contributions of the team based on what they contributed rather than on their hours of sitting in a chair. Later in his career, he moved his family overseas for a job opportunity, and the personal and professional rewards he gained from doing so set a clear, positive example for me.

Moving to Australia was a personal and professional risk. I had to move my family across the world, and also take on a role with aspects that were brand new to me. I have grown so much professionally, and my family has benefited in many ways. When I think back to making the decision, I can’t imagine us having any doubts. At the time, however, it seemed like a huge risk.

Taking risks is a critical part of being a leader. You have to make decisions that other people may be unwilling or unable to make. The more opportunity you have to take risks, the more you understand when risks are worth taking, and when they are just foolhardy.

I am really focused on how technology will impact the financial services industry. I believe there will be material changes to how technology is used by individuals to manage their financial future. Technology will also change how advisers and asset managers seek optimal outcomes for investors.

Investing is a scary area for most people. I’m really passionate about helping investors make better decisions.

Heather Brilliant

To be an effective CEO, you need a mission and a vision that inspire your team. You need to set the course for your company. You have to communicate that mission effectively to your team, and then help them feel connected to it. It’s also important to interact with your team on a collegial level—to work side by side and build camaraderie, so people feel comfortable to come to you when they have a challenge to overcome. At Morningstar, we have an egalitarian culture. Every single person—including me in Australia and our CEO in the United States—has an open-floor-plan desk. There are no offices. This communicates to employees that we’re all in this together.

To unwind, I love hiking. There are great areas to go hiking or bushwalking around Sydney. I go with friends, my family, or by myself. My best ideas come when I can step back from the day’s issues and think abstractly, and hiking gives me that opportunity. Also, the pure joy of my kids when they’re on a hike instills pure joy in me.

I studied Latin American history while at Northwestern and had Cuzco and Machu Picchu in Peru on my list for a long time. It was a powerful experience to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which takes four days. Arriving at sunrise, it really felt like we were rediscovering Machu Picchu. The way that trip combined history, hiking, and natural beauty was magical.

In my first decade or so working in financial services, I noticed there were few women, but it didn’t really bother me. I grew up with two brothers, was on the debate team in college—a very male-dominated activity—and believed anyone who worked hard could advance in any career they chose. My perceptions on this topic have changed over the last several years. I have gained a strong appreciation for the value of diversity and the ability of diverse teams to make better decisions, and I do think unconscious bias is a real issue, so I have become an advocate for ensuring women are well represented in the financial services industry. 

I took a career survey after graduating from Northwestern: my most likely career path was CEO. But you can’t exactly just be a CEO. So I developed an expertise in equity research, which I loved. I thought it was honestly the most exciting and exhilarating career. I chose the Evening MBA Program because I was looking to extend my existing career of equity research, but also to be able to leverage those skills and develop new opportunities in leadership. 

I love my job. I feel lucky to work with a fantastic group of people who are excited about what we’re trying to do as a company and really want to put in the effort required to get to a good result.

—As told to Sam Jemielity