Lauren. Advice, Wisdom, Courage and Inspiration

posted May 5th, 2009 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

I asked Lauren what advice she would give to a young woman and she said her best advice was to pick your spot and be really conscious of the choices you are making. Lauren says she looks back at some of her job choices and knows she shouldn’t have made them, so she would advise a young woman to pick her spots. Lauren went on to say that this advice is particularly relevant with respect to choices about the people you are going to be working with and in this vein she added be true to yourself. Looking back, she said: “there’s a lot of crap out there and I think people… I think of some of the characters I was disgusted by in head office. And I think if they were reflecting on their lives they might be disgusted too because I don’t think they are bad people; I think they just behaved badly and it’s important to stay true to yourself in this type of difficult situation.”

I asked Lauren whether she would advise a young woman to establish alliances with other women and if so would she advise her to have them in her own firm or outside her firm. And she said both absolutely! In her view, there are great women everywhere. Such alliances don’t have to be established within their own firm, however, she would definitely encourage a young woman to do so.

She continued in a slightly different vein: “I mean you build… in a career you’re building a brand you know. I had the Lauren brand and every step of my career either strengthened that brand or detracted from that brand. So that’s the kind of coaching I’d give a young woman. Just make sure that every step of the way you’re building a brand and you’re building it with the collaboration of and connections to other people.” She would encourage women to have female and male mentors or friends or colleagues or acquaintances or whatever, both inside and outside their firm, people that they can go to and close the door and say what do you think I should do in this situation? She says that’s helpful inside the firm and outside the firm where you get a much broader perspective.

I asked Lauren whether she would advise a young woman to acquire technical or management skills and she said both. She thought it was somewhat company dependent and offered the example of an engineering firm where the young woman was not an engineer and said “but hopefully she’s an MBA because these characters think differently.” In her mind, there is a level of technical skill which is required for any job but she believes management skills are critical. She says: “I guess I would say management skills are more important if you are heading for general management or senior management but you can’t get there without a hell of a lot of technical skills as well. It’s not just management skills. You have to understand the business and a lot of times that requires technical skills.”

In terms of the best advice she has ever been given she said: “Oh I had some excellent advice that I didn’t follow which I… what’s that movie with Gwyneth Paltrow, Sliding Doors, where if she gets on the subway or doesn’t get on the subway, her life is altered. I think of this.”

And Lauren gave the example of when she was coming back to work after graduation from MBA school. She had declined being paid her full salary in her second year of MBA school by the bank she had left to go back to school because she didn’t want to be beholden to them. She had gone back to school on her own dime and she was deeply in debt because she had financed the whole thing with a bank loan. However, she didn’t want to feel she had to go back to the bank because they had paid for her schooling. In fact, the bank tried to put strings on the proposed arrangement that if she was paid her full salary in her second year, she would have to come back to the bank upon her graduation. In any event, she ended up going back to the bank against the advice of a senior guy she adored.

She had talked to him because she had an excellent offer from another bank, a better offer than her previous employer had made to her coming out of MBA school, (she had offers from Schedule B banks too but she didn’t want to go to a Schedule B bank because she thought she would have to stay in Canada with a Schedule B bank and she wanted international experience) and his advice was for her not to go back to her original employer. He explained she had been at the first bank from the time she was a teller and he thought the other bank would look at her differently than her first employer. However, she ignored this advice because she was so tied to the first bank by her relationships and otherwise. In her mind, they had been “so good to her.” In the end, she feels his advice was right; she can see it looking back now.

In terms of the major obstacles she faced, she said she thought being a woman in the 80’s, the early 80’s, in her career was difficult. She remembers, in fact, she said she’ll never forget something which happened to her while she was in London and it was done by someone about whom she says: “And I love this guy to death, I mean, I had a great relationship with him”. In any case, a member of senior management was visiting London from head office in Toronto and management in London wanted to have him meet a few of the staff but not “a horde of staff” so they cut “eligibility” off at a certain level. However, the level they cut it off at meant there wasn’t going to be a woman in the room and the fellow making the arrangements said to Lauren: “oh shit, we haven’t got a skirt in the room; we’re going to have to lower the level for women.” And Lauren said: “if you lower the level for women I’m not going.” And he said: “well, that’s what we’re doing.” And Lauren said: “you can’t have a woman get up from her desk and go up and sit with this senior person while her male colleague at exactly the same level can’t do the same. You can’t do that.” They did it and Lauren didn’t go.

I asked Lauren what she did when she faced an obstacle like the one she had just described, where she turned for support and what she learned from this type of situation. She said she usually turned to her husband or her girlfriends. She says: ” because I probably… in a couple of instances I was probably a bit of a bull in a china shop when I went after something… I remember one incident and the guy was so floored. It was over my compensation and I think he thought that he could just give me better than average but nothing to write home about and I would be happy. I had had an exceptional year and, oh boy, I just went barrelling in there and said what are you thinking and I went boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. I got what I wanted but after that he was kind of tentative with me. So I didn’t do myself any good on that one and it was probably over all of two grand too.”

She says she just got to the point, especially after having worked really hard and knowing she was not moving fast enough and being paid well enough that she had had enough.

When she came back to the bank after working in London, she had a baby and took a year of maternity leave. When she returned to work, one particular guy she measured herself against was in a more senior role than her and she rationalized to herself that she had taken a year off for maternity leave but she could not help looking around and saying this isn’t right. And she left.

The head of personnel phoned her the day she handed in her resignation. He said: “What are you doing? We’re just about to get moving on women and you’re leaving. You know we’re going to have all these programs and blah, blah, blah.” And she told him it was taking the bank too long. In fact, she said: “It’s too late. I’m done.”

She went to a regulatory agency and about three years after she left the bank, she had the opportunity to make a presentation to the CEO and the chairman of the bank she had left and one of them said to her: “I never, ever thought I would see you on the opposite side of the table” and Lauren said: “Well, there are reasons for that.” And he said nothing. He did not ask a single question. He didn’t ask why. In Lauren’s opinion, he didn’t want to hear it. He knew exactly why she had left.

I asked Lauren when you consider your career in its entirety, what would you do differently? She said she would never have taken the last head office job at the first bank she had worked at when she returned to Canada from working abroad with the NGO. She says she should have left before returning to head office in Toronto. She thought her regional experience with the bank was an excellent one, however, she regrets her move back to head office in Toronto.

In retrospect, Lauren says when she looks back to the advice she was given when she was coming out of MBA school when she had offers from two Schedule A banks, one of which was her original employer, she believes the other offer which was the better one on paper was the one she should have taken. The same advice would have had great applicability to her circumstances when she was returning to Canada from abroad. However, her beloved mentor phoned her while she was out of the country and told her she would never, ever, ever, feel as comfortable in another institution as she would at the bank, and he wanted her back there and because she adored him she agreed to return. And he promised they would top up the salary etc. When she looks back, Lauren says: “I should not have gone back.” And I reminded her she did the same thing twice. And she said: “Yep, yep, don’t learn very quickly eh?”

Lauren says, this would be good advice, for any one who can hear it. Specifically, do not keep returning to the same institution, other institutions will hold you in higher regard and allow you to grow. From her perspective, she feels her problem was that she had so many emotional ties to the organization where she started her career. She had basically grown up there and although she left several times, she kept going back.

What Strikes Me?

The messages senior officers send when they simply don’t ask the questions which need to be asked and answered

The impact a respected mentor can have on an individual’s career choices

Sometimes we have to make the same “mistake” twice in order to learn our lesson

Pick your spot and be conscious of the choices you are making especially the choices about the people you are going to be working with

Be true to yourself

In the course of your career, you are building your personal brand with the collaboration of and your connections to other people

New and different institutions offer greater opportunities for growth and they will hold you in greater regard

What Strikes You?

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