Colleen. Early Experiences, Milestones, Roadblocks, Obstacles and Support

posted November 13th, 2009 by Janet Graham - One Comment

Early Experiences


I asked Colleen to tell me about the experiences in her early life which she believed had the greatest impact on her work life and career. She told me she grew up on a farm and loved it.  She believes it’s a healthy way to grow up because farms operate within the  context of a strong work ethic.  She says: “Everybody on a farm has to work, so whether it’s haying or feeding and mucking animals, no one is let off the hook in terms of doing something and no matter what it’s good, honest work. So I think that growing up on a farm is one of the early experiences that shaped me”.  She says she thinks another thing that shaped her in her early years was that both her mum and dad worked, so she was exposed early to an environment where there was a sharing of economic power. The final thing Colleen mentioned in terms of being shaped by her early experiences was the fact that she always made her own money. She always had jobs, whether it was working at the ball park concession stand or selling encyclopaedias, to pay for school. Work was always part of her life.  She says she thinks these things impacted her in terms of instilling a strong work ethic and she believes a strong work ethic gets you most of the way there in terms of career success.


Milestones and Roadblocks


I asked Colleen to tell me about her career in terms of the milestones and roadblocks which stand out when she looks back and what she learned from them. She said there were lots of things she is really very proud of when she looks back at her career. She says there were lots of times when things might have stopped her if she had allowed them to but she didn’t take that view.  She thinks in terms of choosing to be a retail broker and entering the brokerage business she was lucky because she didn’t originally have a goal of joining the financial services business but starting out as a retail broker opened the entire industry to her.   Initially, retail brokerage appealed to her because you could make as much money as you wanted to and she was motivated by money. She says: “So the fact that early in my career I became a broker let me craft my future as an entrepreneur. It was a great lesson for me and it was one that I applied throughout my career.  What I learned was that if you want to work hard, you can do or be anything you want.” 


Colleen said in terms of milestones there are a few she thinks about. She was the first female manager of a retail office at Merrill Lynch. She got a shot at doing it because she had people who supported her and she is grateful to them.  She thinks chairing the Children’s Miracle early in her career opened her up to understanding how you could impact people’s lives through philanthropy, so she feels being a spokesperson on that and helping run that campaign was a milestone.  In fact, she described it as “fun and wild and interesting”.  She thinks her position at E*TRADE is probably, career-wise, one of the things that she got the most personal satisfaction out of because starting and succeeding in a new business is “hard-earned ground”. Getting the licence for E*TRADE, building the business, brand and team, taking the company public, going through a takeover all of which involved lots of steps was very scary, exciting and personally satisfying for her and she believes it resulted in a lot of personal growth.  After leaving E*TRADE, she worked on a task force focused on modernizing securities legislation which was intellectually stimulating and very different from her past experiences.  Upon reflection, she wasn’t certain these positions/roles were “milestones” but they were things that led her  “to play differently than she had been playing”. 


Colleen says she thinks one of the constant themes of her career is that she has, on every job she has done, been comfortable taking risks, including career risks.  She always asks herself what would be the worst thing that could happen and attempts to think through all of the possibilities. In her words:  “I ask myself what would be the worst thing that could happen and once I’ve thought about that I go ahead and do it. This strange rationalization process allows me to take more risks with my career than maybe I would if I had examined each opportunity more simply, on the face of it”. 




She says in terms of obstacles, she believes there are lots of obstacles in any career.  There were times people said no to her.  The first time was when she was at a retail brokerage company and all the retail brokers were poached to go to a competitor and she was going to be the only person left in the office, other than two people who were well past the age of 65, in her words “on the back end of their retail career” and she went to the management in Toronto and told them she would like to run the office and they said: “No, we’re going to hire somebody from the competition but we’ll make sure  it won’t impact you.  Will it make you leave and go to the competitor?” Colleen said:  “No but I will leave because I don’t think there are career opportunities here for me.  I won’t go simply because you said no to me”.  She thinks this is a good example of how she thinks about things.  “Somebody can say no to me and then I get to choose what I do with the information. I think that’s the way I think about obstacles too”. 


In terms of other obstacles, Colleen says she tapped out in retail.  She was at CIBC at the time and she didn’t get the “big” job to run retail.  She felt the right person was chosen but this meant that her career would go into a holding pattern for a period of  three to five years.  She chose to move into the trading side of the business to get around this obstacle.  In her mind, although it was a lateral move, it was the best thing to do.  She changed course and kept moving forward. 


Colleen says she faced another obstacle in August 1996, immediately before the birth of her first son. The trading room had been reorganized in the middle of July and her job and role were to be eliminated. Management told her that when she came back from maternity leave there would be another role for her.  And although they were confident that the role would be something she could do, they would or could not make a stronger commitment at the time, given she’d be gone for four months. In her mind, management wanted her to be complacent and wait for her future to be determined by them. However, their commitment was not strong enough for Colleen. She says: “I define my career based on my jobs, on what I’m doing, what contribution I’m making.  So to agree to wait for six months with no idea what I was going to be doing at work when I returned wasn’t okay for me.  It was a real obstacle for me and it was a period of time that was hard for me because I was about to give birth, so it was a very emotional time for me and I didn’t know how to define myself career-wise.  It was a real tough period in some ways and a period filled with great joy too”. She says something outstanding came from this period of time and experience.  In this context, she wasn’t simply talking about the birth of her son, she was talking about the opportunity to take on the E*TRADE challenge.


She says at E*TRADE there were loads of business obstacles for example, regulations on suitability and trade vetting, funding the company and transactional volume issues.  Doug Steiner, the founder of the company and the entire leadership group had built a great team, one with the ability to roll up its sleeves and solve problems by swarming them.  In a sense, lots of obstacles created lots of opportunities to work on and find solutions to challenges. 


In her last CEO position, at Nexient, the company had just completed a significant acquisition when Colleen joined. There were lots of integration issues to be resolved;  working to grow revenue and reposition and rebrand the company, while down-sizing people and managing cash flow and business issues, while thinking about funding or restructuring the company.  And she says: “Those were real, real hard problems and the solutions were not pretty”. 




I asked Colleen where she turned for support when she faced an obstacle or difficulty. She said: “I don’t think it is wrong to get legal or professional advice when you need it. As I have worked through raising my children, I’ve used education consultants and I don’t feel there is anything wrong with finding someone who does a better job than you or has subject matter expertise you are lacking and I’d say it’s the same thing with obstacles, become as informed as you can be about whatever is blocking your way and determine a way to move forward.”



What Strikes Me?


If you want to work hard, you can do or be anything you want and achieve any goal you set for yourself


The importance of having the support of others, specifically, in terms of opportunities being made available to you


Ask yourself: “What is the worst thing that could happen here?” Once you have contemplated the worst, it is easier to move forward and take a risk


When somebody says no, you get to choose what you do with that information and it’s a good way to think about the obstacles you encounter too 


There is nothing wrong with asking for help or support from subject matter experts or otherwise


What Strikes You?


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One Response to “Colleen. Early Experiences, Milestones, Roadblocks, Obstacles and Support”

Comment from Geri Lea Russett
Time November 14, 2009 at 11:26 am

Colleen forgot to mention one of her great accomplishments – mentoring other women in the business, helping them fulfill their career – she insisted on hard work but led by example

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