November 25th, 2008 | 6:00 am

Staying Power

filed under Office Politics

workingwoman_1_.jpgBy Paige Churchman (New York City)

There are plenty of stories and statistics about the women who leave high-powered careers, but The Glass Hammer decided to look at the other side of the picture—who’s staying in the game, how do they do it and why? We talked to four women to find out what keeps them growing, motivated, happy and unstuck in their careers. All are mothers. One tried life as a stay-at-home mom but came back. All have high positions at major corporations. They’re located in New York, Chicago and Washington, DC.

Epiphany on a Treadmill

Stacey Quinn made it to vice president at a mammoth financial services institution before she turned 30. She had worked her way up from “lower than the tiles on the floor” as an assistant to a media buyer in an ad agency. She had tried her hand in two industries and worked in Los Angeles and New York. She had proved to herself that she could make it in the corporate world. Married and pregnant, she was ready for her next identity. “I’m a suburban housewife from now on,” she declared happily, dreaming of golf, tennis and the good life.

Some weeks after the birth of her first baby, she was on a treadmill in the gym. A thin young thing stepped onto the next treadmill and said, “You’re never going to believe what I did this weekend.” Pause. “What?” said her friend on the other side of Stacey. “I ate a brownie,” said the first and described that adventure for the rest of the workout.

“That’s it,” thought Stacey. “I can’t do this. I can’t become a brownie lady.” Still, she didn’t picture herself jumping back into the game. Maybe she’d start her own antiques business. Maybe she’d write a book. Or work for her husband (“a completely insane idea”). She found some part-time gigs. “Somewhere in a turnpike rest stop is a book called Tow Trucks that I wrote copy for,” she laughs. Then she was hired by another can’t-stay-at-home mom, Doff Meyer (now chief marketing officer at Nationwide Funds ). Doff had a consulting business that did marketing for retirement plans for financial companies. It was perfect—three days a week. Plus she was learning about the retirement business and something maybe even more important to a young creative mind stunted from bureaucratic battles. “Doff had never had a Fortune 500 job, so she was devoid of corporatespeak. She was direct, concise, a breath of fresh of air.”

When Doff closed her business and moved client-side, Stacey used her new knowledge and connections to freelance. Then she wrote some marketing materials for TIAA-CREF and was asked to sign on full time. As a consultant, she worked only four days—one day from home, three in Manhattan. Was she ready to change that? Not quite. Could she work from home two days? “Let’s give it a shot,” said the decision maker. It worked. She’s been full time for two years and loves it. “I’m thrilled to be here,” she said. “This is the first financial services firm I’ve worked for that genuinely cares about the clients. We truly believe we work for them.” She’s also pleased with the benefits of not working from home. “No one here ever asks me what’s for dinner. None of my colleagues has ever looked at me and said, ‘I hate you!’”

Not Your Father’s Law Degree

Ever since she was six, Nicole Oustatcher knew she wanted to be a lawyer like her father. “I remember begging to skip a day of school to go to the office with him,” she said. “He spoke so eloquently, and people respected him.” She loved watching him pace the floor as he talked on the phone. She too excelled at talking, so it was only natural that she’d follow in his footsteps. Yes, but not exactly.

During law school, she used her summer internships to find her niche. When her third and final summer rolled around, all she knew was what she didn’t want. Nix to a law firm. A lot of grunt work and slim chance of seeing a court room early on. Nix to politics and government, though her stint for a Cook (IL) County commissioner was exciting and eye-opening. Nor did the court room win her over when she interned in the New York State Supreme Court. “It was day after day of robbery, arson, murder. I thought it would be glamorous. Sometimes there was an exciting case, but mostly it was depressing.”

She was getting down to the wire. Her last summer was approaching and nothing had grabbed her. A family friend offered to introduce her to the general counsel at Coopers & Lybrand in Paris. “But you’d have to spend the summer in France,” he said. Not a problem, her mother is French. She could stay with relatives. “Something just clicked for me on day one.” It was in the international tax division, which scared her since she knew nothing of taxes, didn’t like math. But that fear fell aside. What she didn’t know, others knew, and they in turn valued her legal skills. “I was walking the halls in this huge corporation with lawyers and non-lawyers—people who were talented experts and leaders. I was thrilled to be part of something so big and to be so close to important decisions.” She also saw that in a corporation, a lawyer’s world is far larger than a court room; there are many uses for a law degree. Business was where she wanted to be. Now she just had to get that first job.

At interviews, companies said they wanted lawyers with firm experience, so she applied to a law firm, got an offer but hesitated. “Call Mary,” said her parents. “Get some advice.” Their friend Mary had been at Bankers Trust for years. Mary said, “If you know that’s not where you want to be, then don’t waste your time.” Nicole turned down the law firm offer and, through some fateful introductions by Mary, became a trust officer at Bankers. “I never thought I’d do anything else, to be honest. I loved the people, the camaraderie. I was constantly learning and growing.”

Then Deutsche Bank bought Bankers Trust, and soon afterwards Nicole moved to Citigroup, where she’s spent the last nine years. “I came in with a very open mind,” she said. That led her through a variety of roles. She managed special projects for the CEO of the Private Bank. She was chief of staff to the general counsel of Citi Global Wealth Management. Now she’s head of CitiSelect , for which Oustatcher seems made to order. Citi has partnered with some top law firms to give law students the ideal foundation for a corporate career. It’s kind of like having your own version of Mary at Banker’s Trust to guide you and help out with strategic introductions. Nothing like it has ever been done before.

As for what keeps her motivated? “I love my job. It’s a way for me to do so many things I enjoy, without getting off track from the law.” The things she enjoys haven’t changed. She’s still the good talker she was as a little girl. “The network I’ve developed is my most valuable asset.” She still loves being close to the pulse of the business. “It’s thrilling, challenging, exciting. That’s what keeps me here.”

Natural Leader Gets Noticed

Susan Potter is remarkable in that her career path is a determined straight line, straight up with few zigs or zags. (She took one detour to another company to broaden her horizons but returned.) Her life began in Nebraska as the child of two teachers. She went to the University of Nebraska where she majored in math and computer science. That done, she moved to Washington DC where she got her MBA and then a job at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a human capital consulting firm.

Potter had all the ingredients for a well-balanced consultant: a flair for statistics and the ability to communicate with clients. To her, it was natural. She was just doing what her parents do. “Teaching and consulting have a lot of parallels. Obviously, they have different rewards, but both are about helping others, imparting your knowledge, offering advice.” She also had taken many leadership roles in college.

She is now practice leader of Watson Wyatt Worldwide‘s Washington consulting office, where she manages 33 people in technology and 8 in sales and marketing. Besides her leadership, technical skills and her ability to communicate, she cites commitment as one of the reasons for her steady advancement. Though she has three small children at home, nothing pulls her away from the company’s promise to deliver to clients 24/7. “When a client calls at five o’clock and says they need something by tomorrow, guess what—we’re going to do what needs to get done. I’ve pulled more than one all-nighter in my life.” The kids have made her more efficient, she says, and she’s learned not to try to do it all herself.

They’ve got an informal women’s network, and she’ll often take junior women to lunch to hear what issues they’re grappling with and to encourage them. She loves to mentor. “As women we tend to wait for someone to give us the opportunities. You really have to be more aggressive. But you have to balance going after what will challenge you with giving back to your clients. It’s not all about me. It’s about helping someone else. The clients gain from that and so does the firm.” She’s also got her own network of mentors: one person for one thing, another for something else. “All at the same time,” she said.

This month, Potter received one of Washington Business Journal‘s 2008 Women Who Mean Business Awards.

“I Do It for Me”
If Jennifer Rook were a man, she’d probably would be a CEO by now. She probably wouldn’t have doubted her own talents but nor would she have overcome that demon. She definitely wouldn’t have learned what motherhood taught her. Nor would she be having so much fun.

Rook grew up on the south side of Chicago (not far from Michelle Obama’s family), the daughter of a truck lift salesman. She joined the Air Force to pay for college and went to work. Her first significant job was at a multi-national PR firm. It wasn’t the 16-hour days she disliked so much. What drove her screaming from her cube and into the classroom for some more skills was the simple fact that the work didn’t excite her. “I hated pitching weak ideas to people,” she said. She got her masters in communications and landed a job in marketing communications at Harley-Davidson Financial Services (quite a switch from her job in the pink-collar ghetto of PR) and then as media relations manager at the Chicago Board of Trade . She was still working long hours and weekends but she loved the challenge and excitement, loved the intense newsroom atmosphere, loved dealing with reporters (about 30 a day). “Now you’re sitting with the smart kids,” her boss told her. “You’re used to being the only smart kid, cutting up in the back of the class.” She soaked it up. She remembers standing at a press conference, listening to the announcement that the Board of Trade would be merging with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. “Get your resume ready,” whispered her boss. “We’re all going to be out of jobs.”

Rook, now with a family of her own to consider, decided to see what else was out there for her. OfficeMax was looking for someone to manage external relations. “It was unlike any interview I’ve ever been on,” she said. “They said, ‘You’re going to do great things. Come on board.” They weren’t kidding. She oversees three external public relations firms and works under Bob Thacker, who is well-known for his sense of fun and what he did for Target’s image. When she came in 18 months ago, she went to work on Elf Yourself (marketing textbooks are using it as an example of a “viral sensation”) and A Day Made Better (schoolteachers get thousands of dollars worth of OfficeMax supplies). “I get to do cutting-edge public relations: multi-media news releases, things on the blogs. To me that’s fun.”

She started a working mother’s group at OfficeMax called MaxMoms. “Working mothers are caught between two worlds.” She felt like oddity both in and out of the office. Most of her friends with kids stay home, and at work her immediate colleagues are all single. “I needed to network, so I started MaxMoms.” Motherhood has changed her in a big way. “My heart in general has gotten so much bigger. I’m more patient. Working mothers are the ultimate multi-taskers. Seriously, we don’t have time to waste, so I’ve become incredibly efficient. I’m also very conscientious about people with families or just people in general. When I was single, it was ‘If I’m here until 10 o’clock at night, you are too.’ Now I say ‘You have a life outside here and so do I. Let’s work hard, get this done and get out of here.’ I guess I bring some of that mother instinct to work.”

There’s something else that keeps Jennifer Rook in the game. She looks back at times she held herself back thinking she didn’t have the right education, wasn’t a good writer, didn’t know something. “Now I trust myself. I do my homework because it’s for me. It’s not for somebody else. I do this because I expect excellence from myself and I trust myself.”

And now for some unofficial, unscientific conclusions as to why women stay:

  • They’re good at what they do, and they keep current.
  • While their careers don’t move in traditional straight lines (whose does anymore?), for each, the line makes sense when you look at in context of who she is.
  • They seek challenge, growth and learning rather than “success,” though they do aim specific targets (“I wanted to move out of support roles and manage my own P&L.”)
  • Demands on their time outside of work (in the case of the women above: motherhood) made them more efficient, helped them learn to delegate better and relax perfectionism. Jennifer Rook said motherhood “opened her heart” and made her a better manager.
  • They see the positive. All lauded, unprompted, the people who had helped them along the way. All spoke with warmth for their companies and colleagues, with no detectable strain in their voices. Two even said, “I’m thrilled to be here.” And, of course, they like their jobs.
  • They’re not aggressive about asking for raises or promotions, but they do ask for what’s really important to them: flexible schedules. Three work from home at least one day a week. No one was asked about work/life balance. Each brought it up on her own.
  • They enjoy their well-earned autonomy. As a fifth woman put it (also a mother but she wanted to remain anonymous), “I didn’t have work/life balance until I became the boss.”
  • They don’t wait for the ax to fall after a merger. They make their own way.

1 comment

  1. OfficeMax

    This is a great post documenting some great stories on women in business. I do remember the OfficeMax “Elf Yourself” campaign, so great to get the background on who was part of creating that.