Black Women on Wall Street: Getting to the top and staying there

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The Executive Leadership Council’s Third Annual Black Women’s Economic Summit ended with a panel of Wall Street’s leading Black female executives discussing the challenges they faced in their climb to the top. The discussion, held in June at the New York City offices of Merrill Lynch, was co-sponsored by Merrill Lynch’s Black Professional Network. Panelists were Carla Harris, managing director, Morgan Stanley, member, Executive Leadership Council; Wanda Hill, managing director, The Bank of New York; Arlene Isaacs-Lowe, senior vice president, Moody’s Investor Services, member, Executive Leadership Council; Marsha Jones, managing director, Merrill Lynch; Glenda McNeal, senior vice president, American Express, member, Executive Leadership Council; Tracey Travis, senior vice president-CFO, Polo Ralph Lauren, member, Executive Leadership Council. Joyce Roche, CEO, Girls Inc., was moderator. Here is an edited excerpt of the discussion.

Carla Harris: The biggest challenge, and the biggest lesson that I learned, was perception is the co-pilot to reality. How people perceive you will directly impact how they deal with you. Once I figured it out, I had to think about what I wanted people to think about me when I was not in the room because that was the other big lesson that I learned: Important decisions are made about who you are, what opportunities you get and what you get paid when you are not in the room. Think of the three adjectives that you want people to use when you’re not in the room. Those should be consistent with who you are because you need to behave that way all of the time. They should also be consistent with what is valued in that organization. For me, being a woman of color on Wall Street, “tough” had to be one of them and, obviously, “analytical” and “quantitative” and “commercially oriented.” So whatever is important in your organization, you should find those three adjectives and walk that way, talk that way, sing that way; everything you do has to be consistent with those three adjectives.

Financial services is about understanding people’s agendas, understanding what they are not saying when they are talking to you and what their objectives really are. I really had to figure out how to manage who I was in the context of understanding what it took to get to the objective that I was trying to reach and what the client really wanted…understanding what baggage they brought to the table and what they thought when they saw me…I got very adept at saying…I went to Harvard undergrad, magna cum laude. Harvard Business School. My thesis is in Harvard Archives, any other questions…I had to find a subtle way to do it, depending on who the audience was, to reestablish that you didn’t get the C-team, you didn’t get the B-team, you got the A-team, so now let’s get on with business.

Wanda Hill: Early in my career, the biggest obstacle I faced was not really understanding what was expected of me. I remember working very hard in a job. I thought I was doing very well. [But when] it came time to do the review, my manager said to me, “Wanda, I’m going to defer your review, because if I had to write a review, it wouldn’t be very positive right now. But yet I see something in you, and I know that there’s more.” That opened a discussion whereby I really got to understand better what my manager was expecting of me and I performed very well. [My manager] went on to be a great mentor to me. So I’d say that early in my career it was assuming and not asking, or not staying in touch frequently enough with my manager to really understand what was expected of me. Later in my career…getting an opportunity to do something more than they knew that you were clearly able to do was a challenge to navigate. Lastly, and still today, it’s managing change in this age of mergers and reorganizations and different relationships with different people. It’s really important to have broad-based relationships with a number of people in the organization and to be able to manage the changes that are coming your way, because change is constant.

Arlene Isaacs-Lowe: I wasn’t very strategic in my career planning very early on. I understood the importance of having a good education and pursuing professional designations, but I really didn’t think about it strategically in terms of what I wanted to do. When I was in my late twenties, it became evident to me that what I wanted was to have responsibility for a bottom line. I chose to pursue a career in real estate investment. That industry is very insular, even today. There are very few women and even fewer minorities. One of the things that became evident to me quickly was that for that audience, you needed to get into a room, you needed to demonstrate expertise very quickly, to mitigate some of the perceptions that Carla talked about and be able to come to the table with the boys. And so that was a particular learning experience for me early in my career.

Later in my career [and] what I’m still sort of getting my hands around is embracing changes and opportunities. Even at this stage, a completely different career path is something that should be looked at as an opportunity, both in terms of variation in industries as well as the roles that you may be playing in your company.

Marsha Jones: I was educated to be a teacher, and as an educator I always looked for the opportunity not only to serve, but also to be able to make a difference. The very first challenge that I had as an educator was to be able to learn what Wall Street was all about. I resorted to what was natural for me–to find out all that I possibly could about a certain situation. I was lucky in the very beginning to become the assistant of a gentleman who was starting up a mutual fund analysis company, Michael Lipper with Lipper Analytical. I was able to grow with him as he began. He got me registered with the Exchange, which gave me the insight to know that mutual funds were only a small part of it. From there I began a journey of education, which took me to a number of firms that are now merged, and which also took me to a number of different departments, which gave me a broad insight in terms of what Wall Street was really all about.

I chose Merrill Lynch for a number of reasons. I felt that it had the greatest type of a culture that was going to enable me to succeed. I believed that it had a tremendous amount of support in terms of research, in terms of guidance, in terms of what I was looking for and also because I believed that there was an opportunity for me to be able to add value to clients’ lives. Part of my personality is to be able to give back to the community, and I felt that the name recognition of Merrill Lynch was going to enable me to go into the community, our community, and help make a difference. Challenging? Absolutely. I have learned over the years that your experiences from the time that you have been christened until where you are presently is what you are bringing to each one of these experiences that you have. You have to capitalize on every one of those experiences, as disparate as they may be, because I have to tell you that, in my role today, every single experience that I have had, I’m utilizing, and it’s what you’re capitalizing on on a daily basis.

Glenda McNeal: Two of the challenges that I faced when I started remain the same today, and I’ve added a third. The first one is really focused on understanding politics and understanding what power means. The third one is about personal balance and parenting. That’s the tougher one. People say you can’t have it all, and there are some of us who are trying to have it all. When I think about the politics in an organization, I think about my beginnings. I come from a simple background, one that is highly principled, one where there was a tremendous amount of integrity expected in our family, but at the same time one where we didn’t sit around talking about the corporate life and Wall Street and stocks and bonds. I grew up on a farm. The rural streets of south Louisiana are very different from Wall Street. So I had some quick learning to do. Politics can be used and leveraged in your favor, but you have to really understand it because at the same time it can be extremely dangerous. You want to understand your environment, you want to understand the culture, you want to understand the role that you play.

Before you begin to engage in politics, the one thing you have to bring to the table is performance. Relationships are extremely important, but performance is what’s going to give you the staying power over time. When I think about power, it’s really important to understand how to acquire it, how to manage it and how to leverage it. Power is what allows you to influence the direction and course of events, it allows you to influence people and, most important, it allows you to play a role in the organization. Your vision, your leadership, is critical to people who you can influence both up in the organization and across the organization. Who you are and how you influence people set an example for people who come behind you. The third piece I guess I never really focused on until about 11 years ago, when I had my first child. What’s important to me is trying to strike a balance so that I understand the professional decisions I make and how that impacts my children, my personal life and my family life.

Tracey Travis: I actually started my career at an automotive plant, in engineering, in Michigan. I was very focused on results on the fact that I was the youngest person in my department, in engineering, the only minority and the only female. So I was very focused on proving myself and focused on results. All of the reviews that I got from engineering and then when I got my M.B.A. and went into finance were “very smart, great results but very intimidating. You really need to lighten up a bit; you’re too intense.” In terms of being very focused on performance early on in your career that’s what people are looking at. At the same time it’s important to understand the corporate politics around you, the environment that you are working in, and it’s also important to focus on building relationships. Early in my career I was less focused on building relationships, and that can be an early career derailer. I was about four or five years into my career when I was working with a gentleman, and had established a good working relationship with him, and he told me, lighten up. Have a little fun. Go have a massage or something. I recalibrated at that point. It’s very important throughout your career and throughout your life to self-reflect on a regular basis and recalibrate your life.

My challenge, as the chief financial officer of Ralph Lauren, and having been a CFO in a few other places as well, is clearly the work-life balance that Glenda mentioned. As someone who is very driven to wanting to accomplish the best in terms of results, not only in your professional life but also in your personal life, you have to recognize that there are trade offs that have to be made. You have to really understand yourself and what’s important, you need to build a very strong team underneath you that can deliver results, so that it has the same standards that you have and you need to take time for yourself. Those are the things that are constant recalibration points for me at this point in time.