Sophia. War Stories, Accomplishments, Success and Significance

posted June 15th, 2009 by Janet Graham - Leave a Comment

I asked Sophia to relate to me one of her favourite “war stories”, a story she might tell if she were amusing a group of friends at a cocktail party. And she said the one which came to mind, although she was not sure why was a time when the president of her firm got a call from the president of a financial institution who wanted to sell one of their divisions. And the president of her firm called on Sophia who covered financial services and a female colleague who specialized in M & A to work on the file.

The two of them started working on the file, however, the president of the financial institution did not like them. He did not think they were competent and so he went to the president of their firm and asked for them to be taken off the account. Sophia was mortified. And her colleague who had just arrived at the firm from another dealer and had been at the firm for only three months said to her: “I’ve just arrived at the firm and the client wants us off the account, what am I going to do? This is my area of expertise.” And Sophia says although she had been at the firm a couple of years no one had ever asked to have her taken off an account. She says she doesn’t remember what they did wrong, if anything or what the client perceived they had done. In her mind, the client was simply not happy with them and the president of her firm said: “no “g… … d” way, no, they’re on the account, suck it up. They’re really good at what they do.” And Sophia asks, how many CEOs would say that to a big client with a huge fee hanging in the balance. “No, no, actually, no they’re staying on the account.” So they stayed on the account. Sophia says it’s just amazing to her now that the CEO would have done that and they would have gotten to stay on the account.

In the end, they structured the deal to include a big option and they had a number in mind that they would achieve and the client had a number in mind that they wanted to get and Sophia and her colleague got them one and a half or two times what they wanted. She doesn’t remember exactly. In fact, another large financial institution wanted to buy the division and they put a huge premium in their bid because they didn’t want someone else to get it, so they paid way more than the actual business was worth. Regardless, Sophia says they ran an incredibly good process; everything went precisely the way they had planned and it was a hugely positive outcome. Sophia compares it to how the process began and credits the CEO for knowing he had the best people for the job on the file. He knew they could do it and he stood up to the client and to Sophia this was a demonstration of leadership. He had other people he could have put on the team; he could have gotten rid of the two of them. It would have been easy for him to do but it would have been the wrong thing to do because they were the ones that knew the most about the business and he let them stay on and the client was thrilled at the end of the day, In Sophia’s words: “thrilled, thrilled, thrilled, thrilled!!!”

I asked Sophia when she considers her career in its entirety what she would do differently, if anything. She said she would take more risks because she thinks every time she has taken a risk it has paid off well and she would just take more risks and ask for more things. She says she never really asked for things.

And I asked her about her proudest accomplishments at work. And she said she was proud of the way that she trained and mentored the young people that worked for her. And when she actually had any kind of influence or authority, she says she always made sure people were promoted and that they were rewarded for working hard. She says she appreciated them and she thinks they, in turn, really liked working for her. They worked their guts out for her because they knew that she would be supportive and respectful and she is very proud of that. And she is very proud that she didn’t burn any bridges; she still has good relationships with those people that she worked for or with.

And I asked her what she considered to be her greatest success at work. And she said survival, with a laugh and asked whether that counted. And then she said: “You know what, I say that and I laugh but I’m actually not laughing because I think part of it is… it’s really draining in the investment banking area where you’re the only woman and often you’re the oldest person and it’s so cutthroat and it’s so negative and there are a lot of back handed compliments and all that kind of stuff. I think to survive with your integrity intact and with no major regrets is to be a success. I had a lot of respect from the people above and I could have used that to derail people or whatever and so I think survival sounds funny but I think it’s not funny. I think it’s a good thing and I think the fact that people that I worked with closely call me today and say do you want to sit on this Board or do you want to do that I think is to be successful… and I haven’t fostered that as much as I could. I think those are positive things that I left on good terms and that people respect me and I feel proud of that.”

And I asked her what she considered to be her work of greatest significance and she replied “my life”, although she said she thought that sounded incredibly selfish. In her mind, it sounds selfish because she feels she has a lot to offer and she should be raising money for cancer or fighting for this cause or doing that but ultimately she feels that she has a wonderful life and it is her work of greatest significance. She has great friends and she has a good relationship with her family and her nieces and her nephew and she has generally a wonderful relationship with her partner except when he doesn’t understand “what the f–k I am talking about” and she is thankful every day for all of that, just thankful every day, and she feels that’s a huge accomplishment. She doesn’t have any regrets, at least not any major regrets, or unfulfilled expectations or anything and she thinks that she would like to just build on that.

And so I asked Sophia what is next for her. And she said trying to discover how to build on that. How to take everything she has done to date and infuse it with some passion and make a difference. She says she loves the term “quietly effective” because for her anything she undertakes is not going be about making a big splash. It’s going to be about just chipping away at things. She says she feels very proud of her work on the board that she chairs and she feels that she is making a big contribution and she is having an impact and it’s not a “wow, look at me impact” but it’s small, baby steps, always moving forward. She says she feels that she is responsible for that and that feels good to her. And she says she would love to find other ways to do that which would bring everything she has done and learned and infuse it with real emotion and passion to use it for some greater purpose. However, she says it wouldn’t be something like Meg Whitman is doing, for example, entering politics. She is not going to run to be the equivalent of the Governor of the State of California. She says she observes this type of undertaking and just thinks wow, how cool. However, she is very clear that she would never want to go into politics. She says that’s just way to showy for her but she hopes to find something she can do. She hopes that she has the motivation and the determination to find something that can bring together her many years of experience in a meaningful way.

And I asked Sophia what she thought people would find most interesting about her story and she said: “I don’t really think it’s all that interesting. I guess the one question I would ask about my story is whether it comes across how hard we worked? Does it come across how hard people that get to any level of success have worked and the sacrifices they have made? I mean I just don’t think that I could have done this and had kids. I just couldn’t have. I just wouldn’t have had the wherewithal and would not have been able to find the time to work seven days a week and raise a family. I mean it’s just not possible with the hours we had to work in investment banking. I think it was an incredible amount of hard work for any woman of our generation that actually got to any level of success and so I think that just cannot be under estimated. I think the other thing about me is I grew up in an immigrant family where you didn’t get any guidance from your family in terms of steering you in this direction or that direction and they couldn’t help you with anything. They didn’t know anything other than that you have to go to school. You have to go to university, that’s it. So I didn’t have a grand plan. I didn’t have anybody telling me do this or do that and I just think you can be anyone from any walk of life and be successful. And I do not have a rocket science IQ; I’m a hard worker with a basic level of intelligence and you can go pretty far if you really put your nose down and want to do it and so I think that’s got to be motivating to young people that read my story. And my career was pretty glamorous, for example, being in the real estate lending business at a Schedule A bank and flying all over the world to do real estate deals, going to Asia and Australia within the first five years of graduating from school. It was pretty cool, it was pretty special.”

And I couldn’t agree more!!!

What Strikes Me?

Watch out when you hear the word “should”; whatever follows is sure to represent someone else’s idea of what is best for you

It’s hard to beat hard work

Nothing builds loyalty like a “boss” who stands up for an employee in tough circumstances

Looking at your life and believing it to be your work of greatest significance is awe inspiring

The liberation of having no regrets, burning no bridges, maintaining friendships and relationships

Watch the “quietly effective” in action; they offer many lessons in terms of accomplishment and they do not blow their own horns so sometimes we do not recognize their impact

The importance of taking risks

What Strikes You?

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