Ok, my exit from running the wealth management businesses of Bank of America was called a restructuring. But it sure felt like I was fired. I learned a lot of lessons the first time I was fired. (See “What I Learned When I Got Fired…The First Time.”) Here are the lessons from the second go-round:
Lesson Number 1: If it feels too good to be true, it probably is.
Were you ever offered a job that seemed to be tailor-made for you? When I was asked to join Bank of America to turn around its Merrill Lynch and US Trust wealth management businesses, I couldn’t have scripted a more perfect opportunity: one that was challenging but that I believed was do-able. It was so perfect that when I received the offer, but was not allowed to meet any of my soon-to-be peers (to maintain confidentiality) or anyone on the board (because that was never done), I shrugged it off. What could go wrong?? (I know, I know, cue deafening alarm bells.)
Lesson Number 2: The power of culture.
Happily, my bet that the Merrill Lynch Financial Advisors retained a culture of underlying client focus was correct.
Unhappily, my implicit bet that the parent company culture was one I could navigate effectively was incorrect. Heck, I thought, I had managed to do well at Smith Barney and at Sanford Bernstein, and those two corporate cultures had little in common, besides an openness to energetic debate. But in fact, at this new shop, there was a melding of several cultures brought together through acquisition and changing through a leadership transition; thus, while I was learning the culture, it was itself shifting and changing. I asked for, and was given, lots of advice from lots of people on how to navigate it, sometimes conflicting. I’m no shrinking violet, so I knew there was no real alignment of values when I found myself second- and third-guessing my comments in management team meetings before I made them.
Lesson Number 3: Face time still matters.
I was based in New York, the company’s headquarters were in Charlotte, the real center of power was in Boston and other senior managers were based in California. And most of the management team spent a good deal of time traveling.
As the new kid on the block, I found it hard to achieve a camaraderie with the team; it’s hard to be part of the inside jokes when you’re not there or you aren’t having a few minutes swapping stories while grabbing a coffee between meetings. I was never part of the meetings-before-the-meeting, or the meetings-after-the-meeting, or the “real” meeting; I was just part of the official meeting (which in some companies can be the least important meeting of them all). And, no, Telepresence and all the other technology didn’t help a bit with this.
Lesson Number 4: A sponsor matters even more.
And in part this was because I didn’t have time to develop a real sponsor at the company. The CEO who hired me had told me he would stay in his role for at least two more years; he announced his retirement less than two months later. This left me without the person who was most invested in my successful transition to the company, and with significantly changed marching orders. While I asked (and asked and asked) for feedback on how I was doing, I lacked a real sponsor at the senior leadership table…and my peers who were also negatively impacted in the restructuring were similarly “square pegs.” This was in contrast to prior jobs, when I’ve had people who invested a lot of time in me; in some cases, this took years off of my career trajectory.
Lesson Number 5: Business results are not everything
I am not a dumb woman; I realized I wasn’t part of the “inner circle.” But I mistakenly believed that if my team delivered strong business results—and, as I repeatedly told the team, if we were the business no-one had to worry about—we would be successful. But on the day I left, the business was ahead of budget and gaining share.
The good news: A strong outside network helps a lot. I was fortunate that I have maintained a strong outside network over the years. While my internal network faded pretty quickly (many, many fewer holiday cards from former BofA colleagues that holiday season!), I was touched by how helpful people outside of the company were.
Research has identified networking as the number one “unwritten rule of success” in business. It also shows that one’s next professional opportunity is more likely to come from one’s extended network than from friends. And, in fact, my recent investment in 85 Broads (itself a professional woman’s network) was the result of a string of nine business introductions, one contact leading to another, starting with a conversation with a seatmate on an airplane a few years ago and resulting in the announcement a few months ago.
The best news: Gratitude helps even more. I don’t want to get too “new age-y,” but I am grateful. Even on the day I was fired, I was grateful. Not to take anything away from all of the hard work over the years, but it’s pure dumb luck that I had the good fortune to be born into the extraordinary circumstances of this day and age, and that I have had the opportunities I have had. It could have easily gone another way.
Oh, and a big glass of wine (or three) the night I was chucked out didn’t hurt either…
The classic was when I was told by a Very Important Senior Person that Merrill Lynch needed to be “led, not managed” within days of being told by another Very Important Senior Person that Merrill needed to be “managed, not led.” (Cue music from “Jaws.”)