By Cynthia Simpson
The next generation of fund-industry executives will rise to leadership in an era of far greater flexibility than ever before. That’s largely due to women (and some men) whose professional excellence successfully challenged entrenched concepts like “face time.”
Now, flexibility has become even more widespread as a result of the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean taking advantage of it is straightforward. Nor is guiding others on how to do so.
Following are insights adapted from interviews with three executives in UMB’s fund-industry businesses. What stands out is how their individual career experiences—reaching all the way back to entry-level—made them ready for the managerial challenges of the past two years.
All three of the businesses these women run have experienced strong growth in the past two years. Being smart about managing shifting workplace dynamics has been critical to that success.
Amy Small—Institutional Custody. Be intentional about modeling flexibility.
As a leader, I want my teams to feel empowered to live their priorities, so I make a point to be transparent about how I’m approaching flexibility. My philosophy is this: we are each accountable for producing results. Provided we deliver quality results, flexibility (including where and how the work gets done) is a no-brainer.
Early in my career, long before coming to UMB, I had a manager who told me I shouldn’t leave work an hour early go to my child’s kindergarten graduation because “he’ll never remember you were there.” Of course I went to the graduation, and the work never suffered. Fortunately, those days are gone. Broadly speaking, it’s now acceptable to say you have a life outside of work—whether that is being present for your children’s events or something else. But only you know your priorities and deadlines. There are consequences for everything. In my case, my commitment to attending my daughter’s volleyball games (among other things) never impacted my career because I was willing to put in crazy work hours at other times. It’s a blurry line for me. I don’t mind answering a phone call during dinner or spending weekends at a work conference, because I also balance that with a flexible work schedule.
I don’t make it taboo to say, “I’m taking off early to go to my daughter’s game at 4. If you need anything, I have my phone. I’ll catch up tonight.”
Intentional modeling along those lines can help employees learn to set their own boundaries and priorities. That was crucial for me to learn early in my career. Fifteen years ago, when my second child was born, I was working 12-hour days and was on the verge of a breakdown. My manager said, “That’s your fault. Why are you letting us do that to you?” My manager didn’t know I was working 70 hours a week until I talked to him about it. After that conversation, we put in place additional rotations and training for other people that made a difference.
People have to advocate for themselves. As a leader, I invite people to know their boundaries and then make them stick. If my teams are missing out on life and saying I’m the reason why, they’re not listening!
Maureen Quill—Fund Accounting Administration & Transfer Agency. Hold managers accountable for building flexibility into the culture.
At the entry level, women make up a little more than half of our teams. But as we move up into 10+ years of experience, the majority are men. I have seen more women step out of our industry because managers weren’t making room for them to be mothers. If we want to keep women moving up in the ranks, we have to be flexible. The only way for senior management to look different in 20 years is to keep women engaged in the workforce.
One way to encourage diversity is to hold managers responsible for providing people flexibility—whether that’s the ability to be an active parent or for another priority. If managers aren’t really giving people the flexibility necessary for a person to be a parent or pursue an interest, then leaders need to hold managers accountable for that shortfall. We need to make sure we’re setting expectations for managers because a culture of flexibility is going to help you retain top talent. Ensuring your top talent is happy ensures your clients are happy.
I started my career in the ‘80s during what might be called the second generation of women coming into the workforce. Our generation started pushing back against what was then the conventional wisdom that we had to “act like men” to succeed. I started setting boundaries that let me stay engaged with my four kids. Early on, that hurt me in my career.
There were times when I didn’t move up because people made assumptions about the fact that I had four kids. Be careful about assumptions. If a woman wants a sales job that’s going to have her traveling often, that’s her call to make. Don’t assume that because she has kids, the job isn’t a fit. It’s up to each individual woman to balance her priorities and to set her own boundaries. Managers in turn need to honor what women are advocating for—then provide flexibility where possible and not assume anything beyond that.
I encourage mangers to ask themselves “Are people truly working?—or is it face time?” I once had a boss who told me, “If you get your job done in 35 hours a week and you’re awesome, then good for you. If it takes you 60 hours, you might need to think about how you’re doing it.” Teach your employees to work smarter and not harder. Don’t worry about how many or what hours they are working. Evaluate them on their output.
Jill Calton—Fund Services for Alternative Investments. Don’t neglect talent identification and development.
Flexibility is essential to company culture now—but it has to be matched with a strong talent identification and development strategy. Don’t just assume that getting the right people involved in the right projects will mean success. Managers and leaders must adjust the way they engage and motivate a team that is not physically together. Technology may feel impersonal, but it’s our best tool to keeping connected in a flexible world. Take advantage of the tools available to make it feel like you have that same ability to interact wherever the team is located. Ask your teams for feedback and really get to know what makes them feel most connected and engaged. Asking for feedback shows your employees you care about their satisfaction on the job.
Who you know is always going to be a factor in the projects you get access to, so managers need to provide people with opportunities to network and show off their skills and knowledge across an organization. Greater flexibility shouldn’t remove opportunities to get to know colleagues and leadership at your firm.
Early on in my career, I was committed to doing the right thing, working hard and hoping to be noticed. Later I learned to be more vocal and visible. I learned the importance of cultivating relationships. A combination of working hard and building and strengthening relationships is what I encourage employees to do. In this new flexible environment, we all have to reinvent the way we build relationships and not wait until the next in-person visit to make those connections. Build their confidence and help them see the opportunities ahead of them, taking advantage of what’s there.
In all of this, the tone starts at the top. The decision to embrace more flexibility should be deliberate. It should be part of a broader effort to embrace diversity of all kinds throughout the organization with the goal of having people from all walks of life in leadership positions.
Cynthia Simpson is executive vice president and chief administrative officer of UMB Institutional Banking.
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