Simmons Leadership Blog

Keynote speaker Sallie Krawcheck shares personal insights on her career path

A pioneer as a Wall Street executive, Sallie Krawcheck is our opening keynote speaker and we can't wait for her to offer her views on women in business today and where she sees us on the road ahead. 

What woman in business - current or former - do you most admire? 
My late grandmother, Esther Krawcheck. She worked in our family clothing store for decades, during an era when wives and mothers did not work outside the home in especially large numbers. And she had a baby - my father - when she was in her 40s. Again, something that was not really "done" back then, and particularly in a traditional southern city like Charleston, South Carolina.

What did she teach you?
She taught me to go "full steam ahead" in the direction I chose, regardless of the conventional wisdom or the opinions of the chattering classes.  Her answer may not have been the right answer for others, but it was the right answer for her and for her family.  We each need to define what success means for ourselves (and it can be different for everyone) and be confident in pursuing it. 

How did you get started in your career?
I really struggled in my 20s; in fact, I think of that period as my years of wandering through the career desert. I was in investment banking, which I did not enjoy at all (long hours, big teams, all-nighters), but I couldn't figure out what I really wanted to do, even during business school. I felt really trapped. 

The idea for becoming a research analyst - which I consider to be my first "real" job - came to me one afternoon while I was standing in my kitchen. It hit me like an absolute bolt from the clear blue sky, and I knew that its attributes lined up exactly with how I wanted to spend my days. From then on, it was just a matter of executing upon a plan to make that happen.....and not letting the rejection letters I received from every major Wall Street firm dissuade me from it. (In fact, I got three rejection letters from Lehman Brothers alone. I should have framed them.)  

What do you like most about your job?
Well, I am in what might be euphemistically called a period of "career transition." It has been an unbelievable gift, because I have had the opportunity to explore a number of areas I couldn't while working at break-neck speed in a large company. 

The first has been some of the innovations in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley. This has led to my advising some start-ups, both formally and informally. And the second is that I have been spending time in Washington, DC, offering to be a resource and source of information on financial services. It's an important topic right now, to say the least, and I want to be helpful where I can be. 

What's the best piece of career advice you've gotten along the way?
People espouse a lot of secrets to success, but I haven't found anything that works better than a great deal of hard work. I have found that there seems to be a high correlation between hard work and luck.

Why do you think women still have not attained more leadership positions in all industries/careers?
Oh, dear. How long do we have to discuss this? Because the answer is not a sound bite, but a very long set of reasons that cover the waterfront.

Yes, overt discrimination can still exist; but probably more important today are the subtle biases, in which people tend to be more comfortable with - and to promote - people like themselves. In addition, the cold, hard truth is that many women remove themselves from "fast path" during the period of their careers that coincide with having young families. We can exhort women to try harder to stay in the career fast lane during these years; but the smart companies are the ones that will figure out how to continue to access this talent during these years and enable them to successfully transition back into the fast lane when they are ready. I call this "flexibility without shame." 

Was there a mentor who made a difference in your career, and can you share his/her guidance?
I had several great mentors when I was at Sanford Bernstein. A number of them not only went so far as to read and critique my research, but a couple became my advocates as well. The message they gave me was to do a great job for the clients and then good things would follow. I knew that I was fortunate, and in the right place, when I received my first big promotion when I was visibly, heavily pregnant with my daughter. And there was no discussion whatsoever of the big belly between us as they offered me the job. 

Were there any turning points in your career where you had to make a pivotal decision that changed the course of your career? What did you learn from that experience?
Absolutely. The first real make-or-break business risk that I took in business was when I was Director of Research at Sanford Bernstein. At that time we made the decision to exit the IPO underwriting business because of the conflicts of interest we believed were inherent in serving two sets of clients with opposing interests. While the outcome is obvious in hindsight, we gave up a good bit of revenue in the near-term, with no idea that the industry conflicts laid bare by the Spitzer investigations would be so significant. I was fortunate that I had a supportive CEO who was willing to take on that business risk. 

What was the last book you read?
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I am pretty addicted to the approachable, semi-scientific, self-help genre.

Any tips for work/life balance?
I don't particularly have a tip because I think this is a very personal issue. What works for me doesn't necessarily work for others. Indeed, for years, I had very poor work / life balance, but my husband played a much more active role in our home. It was unconventional, but that doesn't mean it didn't work for us. And today that has flipped, with me spending much more time with the family. 

How do you think women can support other women on their path to success? 
It gets back to recognizing that the work / life choices are highly personal. Just because others make different choices is in no way a reflection upon my choices, or vice versa. Each woman is different, each work situation is different, each family is different. And thus the definition of success in navigating this can be different. 

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and whom would you take?
Japan, in March, with my daughter! And so that is exactly what we are doing. 

If you could dine with anyone, past or present, with whom would you dine and what would you order?
Gloria Steinem. I got very close to having that dream fulfilled at an event at which one could buy a dinner with her. I led the bidding, but when I went up on stage to make my speech, someone else bid a little bit more and edged me out right before the bidding closed. 

What would I order?  A lot of wine, of course. 

Fill in the blank. People would be surprised to know that I  ______ am the one with the goofy sense of humor in my family. My kids always remind me to keep it under wraps when they have friends coming over. 

Do you have a favorite quote? 
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I don't know that it's my favorite quote, but I've been saying it a lot over the past few years.  


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