Colleen. Relationships, Role Models, Mentors, Heroes and Leaders

posted November 26th, 2009 by Janet Graham - One Comment

I asked Colleen to tell me about the relationships in her life which she believes had the greatest impact on her and in particular her work life and career. She said: “My parents had the most impact.  They taught me work ethic, values and to be a positive influence. After that, I had teachers that helped shape me and mentors in the business who guided me and trained me and whose admirable traits and characteristics I have emulated. I had three mentors in the business at Merrill Lynch; they were all guys and in different ways they each impacted and shaped my abilities to move forward in a positive way. One was a charismatic leader, well loved and a positive influence. Whenever you asked him how he was, he’d always say great. That sort of positive and affirming attitude is important to me.  Another one of my mentors was intent on making sure that I could make my career be what I wanted it to be. He helped me plan my career path and I still look to him for guidance today.  He was very successful in the US later on but he taught me to go where I wanted to and not allow myself to be held back.   The third gave me many opportunities at a young age and taught me how to run a business, which sometimes meant making tough decisions.  He was always giving me a message to be tougher. I look back today and ask myself whether I developed a different style (potentially more “male”) because of his guidance and would I have been successful at that time with a more inclusive style.  I believe it may have been the right style for the time because the brokerage business was a tough business in the 80’s.  I think I was still able to do it my way but with an understanding of the way the men expected me to behave.”


After that, Colleen says there were a group of women at Wood Gundy/CIBC who were her peers and they provided a strong advisory board to help her navigate the business.  She says given their relative strength in numbers at the firm, they also had the ability to make their voices heard when required. The most important thing she says: “If you had a strong view you could check in with your peers, ensure you weren’t way out there and then act and I think that helped me succeed in an investment bank in the early 90’s.” 


She says the working relationships she formed with individuals at E*TRADE including Doug Steiner and for a lesser period of time John Reilly (who brought her into E*TRADE) and others were important ones for her.  However, she mentioned Doug Steiner, in particular, because he was the CEO and she says he was brilliant, crazy, fun and had a very different way of thinking and was always there as a great partner, counsel and role model in terms of how to work collaboratively.  Also, she recalled Leslie Milrod, their Chief Legal counsel and said she was another person who was always there for guidance and advice on how to get something done in a way Colleen might not have thought of.  In essence, there were many people at E*TRADE who profoundly impacted her views of teams and leadership. 


And she acknowledged her relationship with the CFO at Nexient.  “For a while, on the bad days, we would call each other Thelma and Louise. We were working as hard as we could and shared the responsibility for the company, people and decisions.  She’s the CEO there now and I still talk to her regularly. We got through that period of time successfully and I will always value her intellect, drive and ethics.  She thinks about things differently than me; she’s analytical and has strong financial skills.  I had different skills and we made a great team”.


And she said she thinks her relationship with her husband is important in terms of her career because not only is he her life partner but he also knows the business.  When she has a real issue she can ask him what he thinks and he’ll always use the preface… you’re going to have to do whatever you think is right and you’re not going to listen to me anyway but… and then he goes through and tells her how he’d think about it, which she says is always valuable but often different and she thinks that his perspective is really helpful to have.  In any case, at the end of the day, she says she has to make her own decisions.


She said in terms of mentoring, she sees the importance of having not just mentors but people you trust and can be confidential with and who will give you the right advice.  In her words: “Your sister will always tell you she loves you.  She’ll always tell you that you are right and you should tell the other guy off, but sometimes you need advice which may not be what you want to hear”.


I asked Colleen whether she had any role models, mentors or heroes, we had not covered and she responded: “This will seem a bit crazy but I actually read Ayn Rand’s books when I was young and they were important influences for me. I believe the heroes in those books were important to me in a formative way. Her books were important because they were about being true to yourself, fearless and strong and feeling comfortable with that. Maggie Thatcher was one of my heroes because the country needed an Iron Lady when she came along.  She accomplished so much by working harder, staying focused on the needs of the country and being absolutely relentless in the pursuit of her goal.  It is sad that she accomplished so much and then the world changed and the leadership style required changed too”.


I asked Colleen whether she saw herself as a role model, mentor, and leader and she said yes. She said:  “I think one of the things that a good CEO or leader has to be is a great communicator. Communication is probably the most important thing you can do to be a good leader, to explain where you are trying to take the organization and what you need from all of your partners. Always be willing to make time for people when they need it. It’s probably one of the biggest joys I get out of my career. So I’ve had an opportunity to work with women at E*TRADE, at Nexient and some at CIBC.  One of the things I feel good about, that makes the journey so worth it, or maybe it just strokes my ego, is when people will take a moment to tell me how I’ve impacted their life in terms of the career choices they made or the time I took to support or guide them or by just giving them the chance to fail. For example, I was at an event a couple of weeks ago and there was a woman who started as a retail broker at Merrill Lynch and that would have been, well, that would have been 1988 or l989, and I knew her but I didn’t remember her name, and she said, you know, nobody else would have given me a chance, you gave me a chance, you were running the recruitment for brokers and you hired me. “. 


Colleen says she ran training and recruitment as part of her job while she was running a retail branch. And she would tell all the Branch Managers that they had to give her a slate of candidates and the slate had to include a minimum of two women.  She had picked  two because she didn’t want a token woman.  She wanted them to have some process to find great women they thought were qualified for the job. She says although probably not as many women as should have got through, some did and became very successful retail brokers as they had known they would. She says: “It’s not nice to codify rules for diversity but the system needed help and at the time it drove outcome because people did things they wouldn’t naturally do.  Anyway, this woman came up to me and said, you know what, here’s my business, here’s what I am now and that’s all because of you, thank you so much.  We all know she made it happen, not me but maybe I had a small part. I am so proud of what a number of great women at  CIBC, at E*TRADE and at Nexient have achieved and if I was a small part of it because I was there, could be a role model, provide support or help them develop their ambition, as I reflect on my career, it is a big part of how I feel about my own success.  Maybe I am more reflective sitting at my stage, right, which is 51.”


“I helped found The Judy Project, an Enlightened Leadership Forum for Executive Women with Rotman in honour of a wonderful leader Judy Elder who passed away in 2002. ( )   I think this was another opportunity to create a venue for organizations to reflect on their senior women and their career goals.  For the women that attend, it allows them to take time they never have to reflect on their career ambition and their strengths and to work with some amazing academic and business leaders on leadership material.  They build a very strong set of peers at the week long program.  The women I know who have attended think it was game changing.  It has also let me think about leadership more and women as great leaders.” 


I asked Colleen to think about the people she considered to be leaders and what qualities she associated with them and what she saw as their impact on the people around them. She said she thought about leadership a lot. She said: “So I think of a leader as being empathetic.  I think of them as being able to articulate their vision and their view.  It needs to be an inclusive vision.  A great leader is ambitious for their team, their organization and themselves. In whatever style you employ being an empathetic, communicative leader is, I think, one of the best things you can do. I do think there is an element of fearlessness to being a good leader.  There are always moments that you’re not sure how the world is going to evolve but not everybody needs to know what you are thinking or that you have doubts.  The other thing I think a leader has to do is be reflective.  An example of that would be that in building a leadership team you have to continually think about the skills you need to add.  You need to continually refresh a leadership team not by moving people out but sometimes by making the table bigger and letting people join the team and contribute”. 


I asked Colleen to think of the people she did not consider to be leaders and what qualities she associated with them and how she saw their impact on the people and world around them.  She said: “Egotistical.  People who close you down.  People who listen for 30 seconds and then tell you what they think.  People who can’t listen aren’t good leaders.  People who are mean.  You have to make choices every day and sometimes you have to do things you would rather not. You can always do them with the understanding that everybody has the right to their dignity. You can always be caring about people as you manage your way through a corporate environment.  Great leaders leverage people.  They don’t minimize people.  The moment you come to me with your idea and I take over your idea and start to tell you versus work with you to make that idea better is when I am not leveraging the human capital that you offer me. You don’t get good outcomes.  You cannot be the only brain on a leadership team”.


I asked Colleen to think of the people she had the greatest difficulty with and how she would you characterize them and their impact on the people and environment around them. She said: “Well, I don’t tolerate people who talk down to me or others very well. People who expect the worst often get it.  I had  a work relationship, with someone who would have been a peer at Merrill Lynch and they were just nasty and had a reputation for being derogatory.  It is a small street and eventually, they too needed a hand up. No one in the industry would help them when they needed it.  They hadn’t earned it because they had never helped anyone else.  I think people deserve good leadership and peers need to demonstrate respect for each other.  If you can’t deliver that, I find it objectionable.  I think of business leaders that I haven’t respected and I realize I just don’t respect that huge prima donna thing. A great leader is authentic and empathetic”


What Strikes Me?


A good CEO has to be a great communicator, it is probably the most important thing you do


Although we don’t like to codify rules and process for people, some times by doing so we get the right outcome because it forces people to do things they wouldn’t naturally do


When you look back and reflect on your career, the people who were successful because you reached out to them will have a huge impact on how you feel about what you accomplished


Sometimes, good leaders are simply fearless


You need to continually refresh a leadership team not by moving people out but by making the table bigger and letting people join the team because they can add value to the whole team and you get more out of it


You make choices every day and sometimes circumstances require you to do things you wish you didn’t have to do but you can always choose to treat the people impacted with dignity


Great leaders leverage people 


Great leaders don’t minimize people


Great leaders recognize they cannot be the only brain on a leadership team


Employees deserve good leadership and respectful treatment by their peers


What Strikes You?


Please add your comments.


Be Sociable, Share!

One Response to “Colleen. Relationships, Role Models, Mentors, Heroes and Leaders”

Comment from Vincenza
Time January 20, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Last night I was asked to participate as a mentor in a speed mentoring program for young women in priority neighbourhoods. The mentors were provided in advance with a list of questions that the participants had developed. Prior to attending, I spent some time reading through the experiences of a number of your ‘babes’. Reading them all together was not only incredibly inspiring, but it no doubt gave me a much broader perspective that I was able to pass on to these amazing and receptive young women. So here’s a big thanks!!

Write a comment

You need to login to post comments!