“Sometimes feedback on the tangible results of leadership training is hard to come by because they may be indirect or hard to attribute to the training itself. This true story, however, is different. There is a direct line between what I taught and what happened. Read my Q and A with Valerie Brown and cheer her with me.”
Gloria Feldt: Valerie, I was thrilled when you called to tell me you got the promotion to Senior Vice President. You reminded me that you declared that as your goal when you took my 9 Leadership Power Tools Workshop last year. What was your career path leading up to this point?
Valerie Brown: I’ve been at Alliance Bernstein for more than seven years, but prior to that I worked for a number of companies in different departments. Early in my career I worked as a product manager in the pharmaceutical industry. But with all the money being made with the internet at the time, I had to wonder if I was in the right seat to maximize my earning power and the contribution that I thought I could make. So I proactively sought out an opportunity in finance. I was interested in understanding not just how you build a business but also how you finance it and how you invest capital. That led me to my first experience in investing, which was at a venture capital fund.
Later in my career, I worked in corporate development at Bristol Myers Squibb which allowed me to get to know one of the senior partners at Goldman Sachs. I asked him for career advice, and he suggested that I consider equity research. So, I started studying for my CFA and learning about the investment management industry. Out of the blue, I received a call from a head hunter representing Alliance Bernstein. I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do and I was prepared.
G: I’m interested in how intentional you were, especially with a career that many women don’t even think of.
V: In financial services you have a very clear and precise measure of your accomplishment and I wanted that. And generally it’s highly compensated.
But when I first entered the financial services sector I was shocked. I remember going in for my first line of interviews at Alliance Bernstein and they were walking me around the office to meet with different people and I was thinking “where on earth are the women?” Every office was occupied by a man.
G: What do you attribute that to?
V: I attribute that to a recruitment process that was not intentional when it came to diversity, and a tendency to attract and recruit people who were similar to the people who already worked there. And that wasn’t just based on gender, but also on personality type. And for a while that model works. It works until it doesn’t anymore, because there is homogeneity in the thinking and as a result they weren’t getting enough true debate around ideas and investment decisions.
G: How did the 9 Leadership Power Tools workshop influence you and your own career?
V: There was something in the title that made me think, “this is what I need.” I had been thinking about my career and wondering how I was going to get out of the mid level and into the executive level -- how I could be more intentional about this.
So I came to your workshop. You asked us to articulate clearly what we wanted to do, and I said I would like to be promoted to senior vice president at my firm. I remember you announcing one of the power tools, #3 - “use what you’ve got.” So I thought about what I had: A) I can perform at a high level, and B) I was leading an employee affinity group at the time, the Black Employee Resource Group. I saw an opportunity to use that as a platform for greater visibility, to differentiate myself, to really demonstrate leadership, and to interact across business units. I worked with colleagues from different parts of the firm to organize programs of broad interest that also gave me visibility to senior executives and partners. Using what was already available to me helped me push through. No one said "no" to me, and I got a lot of positive reinforcement for my career. I was doing something additional to just doing my job, and that made me a candidate for the promotion.
G: You focused the group on revenue generation and bringing in business. How did you decide to take that tactic? What had the group been doing before that?
V: The group had been focused on employee engagement. But we were seeing falling attendance. It was at a time where the firm was doing massive restructuring. Investment performance wasn’t good, colleagues were being let go and people were fearing for their jobs. No one was showing up because they were demoralized or disengaged. It made sense for a lot of reasons to shift our focus to help the firm drive performance or attract and retain clients. We then started engaging with different groups within the firm. Working with a cross-functional group of people brought a lot of feedback and ultimately helped us come up with a topic of relevance. We decided to focus on revenue generation almost out of necessity. What we were doing before that wasn’t working.
G: You were also using the power tool “carpe the chaos.” You found opportunity in the chaos.
V: Absolutely, and I was very conscious of that as well. Grabbing the things that were being neglected helped because people would look and say “Wow! Look at all the things Valerie got done even with all this chaos!” It's so important to manage your emotions. The emotional reaction is to be scared and tentative and keep your head down, and that’s not helpful at all!
G: How would you say these power tools helped you?
V: The power tools are helpful for getting you to take responsibility for what you want. It helped me to literally write down “I want to be promoted to Senior Vice President.” At the workshop I shared that agenda with the group. Being clear about what you want and then using the tools to figure out how to get there, where to start, what you can do to help yourself get there--it works.
And asking is really important. I went to my manager and said “I would really like to be promoted to senior vice president. What do I need to do to get there?” He gave me helpful feedback, and I was then able to focus my energy in the right places. The last thing you want to do is exert and direct effort toward something you don't need to be doing.
G: And my last anecdote is to point out that you took the time to tell me about your promotion and to credit my workshop with helping you get the promotion. Attention to those details of communication says so much about your character. You allowed me to feel part of your success. I thank you for that, and for sharing your story.
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