Sophia. Difficulties, Obstacles, Lessons and Learning

posted June 10th, 2009 by Janet Graham - One Comment

I asked Sophia what she considered to be the major obstacles or difficulties she faced during her career and what she did when she faced them. She said she wasn’t certain you always see the obstacles or difficulties you face when you’re facing them; it’s when you look back you realize you have been through a difficult time. And she said: “Again, I just feel incredibly blessed, so I don’t know… ”

I asked her to describe the toughest thing she had ever faced at work and she said when she thinks about that she never thinks about failing to meet her targets or not getting a client or doing something wrong or anything like that because she either forgets those things or thinks they weren’t, in retrospect, important. She says when she thinks about it, the most difficult thing she ever did was leave the Schedule A bank where she had worked for eight years.

She says leaving the bank went to her very core because she left when she was not offered a role to do what she had always thought she was good at which was customer service, client relations and relationship management. She says when the group she was managing was reorganized and moved to another part of the bank (at her suggestion for the good of the bank) she ended up without a role. And she remembers saying to her boss at the time that she wanted to go back to relationship management and being told by him that she hadn’t been good at it. And she says that she said to herself: “I spent eight years of my life here and what I thought I was really good at the organization doesn’t value or a particular person in the organization doesn’t value or they are simply not willing to make a position available to me. And because it was before they allowed VP’s to be relationship managers, I said I’ll give up my title, I don’t want to be in management because I don’t enjoy it and I was told that really wasn’t an option because I hadn’t been successful doing that. It was very hard because it negated the previous eight years of my time there and everything I had achieved.” She says that was a very difficult conversation, a very difficult realization but it made her decision to leave the bank easier. As a result, after she left she never looked back and felt she had made a mistake. She didn’t say to herself: “oh my God I shouldn’t have left, I should have stayed at the bank, I would have had this wonderful career, I would be an EVP by now blah, blah, blah. I never thought that because at that time leaving was my only option and that was really difficult… that was a very difficult experience.”

And I asked Sophia where she got her support during that difficult time. She said she talked to a friend (and former boyfriend) who had become a research analyst and she remembers talking to a senior executive at the bank who she was very close to at the time who remains a friend today. She says she didn’t talk to her family. She doesn’t remember who else she talked to, although she is certain she would have talked to other people but her mind was made up. She says she would have talked to people for external validation only. She wanted them to tell her she had made the right decision but they were not going to influence her decision. At the time, she was in her 30’s and in her words: “So you’re in your 30’s and you’re thinking, okay, what’s the worst thing that could happen. Although my dad and mum said, we thought you wanted a career at the bank. You gave up getting married and everything because you were going to have a career in the bank and now you’re leaving to go to do what?”

She left the bank to go to a securities firm and be an investment banker and her parents didn’t understand. She says this “little girl” from a relatively small town in south western Ontario who never really knew what an investment banker was or did ended up being one. In fact, she says she had not heard of investment banking when she graduated with her MBA. She says she doesn’t think she was totally naïve, however, she did realize she was missing something when she was in her second year of MBA school and a woman got an offer from Wood Gundy which everyone was very excited about it and Sophia didn’t know what Wood Gundy was and had to figure it all out. Around the same time, her boyfriend became a research analyst at a securities firm and she discovered the industry.

In her mind, she said: “okay, you’re working at the bank and while you’re at the bank you say, this is good, I’m working in the head office of the bank, excellent, and then you think, oh, I’ve blown it and will have to start over, accept this offer to join a securities firms as an investment banking analyst and work my way up. And in the end, you leave and go to a smaller firm and become a Managing Director because they actually believe what you’ve done in the past is valuable. And you realize, you can do anything. I mean, really.”

And in terms of what she learned from her investment banking experience, she recalled a former female investment banking colleague who had some “theories” about the investment banking business and Sophia says she loves them. In Sophia’s words, her colleague said: “One of the reasons we get paid so much as an investment banker is because people can yell at us and we don’t cry. You just have to suck it up and not cry. We get paid a lot of money so people can take out their frustrations on us and do whatever they want to do to us and we don’t cry. And she said I always knew my role was to make my boss look good. My role wasn’t to prove how smart I was; my role was to make my boss look good, whoever that was in the hierarchy of things, they had to look good, they had to be prepared, they had to have what they needed and I always feel that I intuitively knew that is what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t about me looking good; it was about making sure that if my boss was making a presentation everything was there. It was making the team, making everybody really look good and being easy to work with and not about being a prima donna.”

Sophia says this colleague was a gold medalist at a Canadian business school and she was very, very smart. She went to work in New York at one of the major firms and she survived many cutbacks. And she told Sophia she would say to herself: “I can’t believe I’m still here. I mean I’m smart but these people are all from Ivy League schools, they’re all the crème de la crème”. And one time someone senior came up to her and said, “you’re still here because we like working with you. You are competent but… ” and so she came up with her “theories” about how to survive in the business.

And Sophia says she thinks that these “theories” contain some really important wisdom, although she acknowledges her former colleague’s thoughts on the importance of not crying do sound rather ridiculous.

Sophia says she knows she is not as smart as someone who went to Harvard, in fact, she says she couldn’t have gotten into Harvard; she didn’t have the grades. And she says she is not as technically capable as some people she has worked with. However, she says some of those people don’t understand that you actually have to get along in the work place. It’s not about whether you can do a complex calculation. It’s about how you relate to a client and all of that and whether people actually want to do business with you because they think you are a nice person. She thinks you can go a long way because people like working with you. She says you have to have a certain level of competence and she certainly doesn’t mean to say “you just have to be a girl and smile all the time”. It is simply knowing that you want to win and what it will take to win and at the same time knowing you don’t have to be right in every circumstance.

What Strikes Me?

From great difficulty, comes great reward

How blind senior management can be to the talents and achievements of their people and the consequences and impact of their failure to see

Do you want to win or do you want to be right?

The smartest person in the room or in the class or on the team is often not the most successful

The importance of making our bosses look good; it’s a lesson some never learn

What Strikes You?

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One Response to “Sophia. Difficulties, Obstacles, Lessons and Learning”

Comment from Anonymous
Time June 12, 2009 at 6:19 pm

I love these points, they are without the a doubt the best mentoring comments I have read to date, pay attention to the last one, very important !!!

Do you want to win or do you want to be right?

The smartest person in the room or in the class or on the team is often not the most successful

The importance of making our bosses look good; it’s a lesson some never learn

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