By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Karen Wimbish, Director of Retail Retirement at Wells Fargo, refers to herself as a “second half champion.” Having been in the industry for over 35 years, and worked in several functions, she saw her career pick up significantly after her kids were high school age – and she said, women in particular can benefit from a new, more flexible vision of the workplace.
She explained, “The old notion is that you have to sky-rocket up through the ranks. You can actually do it a little later.”
At a time when people are living and working longer, Wimbish said, women shouldn’t feel locked into a particular career path. “I never managed anyone besides my part time assistant until I was over 40. I was always an individual contributor. But now in the second half of my career, I manage hundreds of people. I don’t believe in career paths – I believe in opportunities.”
A Wide Range of Experience
Wimbish explained that while she has spent most of her career in the financial services, the path has been “circuitous.” She started out in community banking, working in relationship management and then project management. “Then I left the industry and tried small business for two years, but in the second year, I just found out that I’m not a small business person.”
She continued, “Then I began working in asset management for a brokerage, and then I ended up in the retirement business at Wells Fargo.”
Wimbish explained that she’s thankful for the experience she’s gained working in so many parts of the financial industry. “In this role that I’m in today, so many of my past jobs have all contributed to make this the perfect job. I absolutely love it,” she said.
In fact, she continued, successfully navigating across different channels within the industry is something she is proud of. “I have seen a lot of people now who have grown up one primary path. You don’t get an opportunity to cross over a lot – particularly as specialization has increased, and there are some issues when it comes to licensing. It’s challenging to move across if you try to do it, but I’ve had the opportunity to do some really different things within the business.”
Pounding the Table about Financial Planning
Wimbish said one issue she is driven by is the importance of financial planning for women. “It’s a message that I continue to pound the table about,” she said. “You cannot delegate it and you cannot ignore it.”
“Women have achieved parity in so many disciplines. But we are still lagging behind men when it comes to taking responsibility for our financial planning. We’re so busy taking care of everyone else rather than our own financial futures.”
And, she continued, there are three reasons women must begin to take this responsibility more seriously. First of all, she said, we tend to live longer than men – so our assets need to last longer.
Second, she continued, women tend to make less money than men over the course of a lifetime – so we have less to work with. And third, because many women take career breaks, we have less time in the workforce to accumulate wealth.
“We almost start out with three strikes against us,” she explained. “It sounds trite, but it’s true. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. But having a written plan will give you so much more confidence.”
Wimbish added that she has begun blogging on Wells Fargo’s new retirement website for women, Beyond Today.
Challenges for Professional Women
Wimbish believes that change needs to happen more quickly when it comes to gender parity within her industry.
She explained, “We’ve been so slow to achieve parity in leadership in the financial services. Women are highly concentrated at the bottom. In my career – over 35 years – I see many more women in management now than there were when I first started. But, that’s 35 years! It’s been inexcusably slow.”
“I knew it was going to take a long time, but this has just been excruciatingly slow.”
One challenge, she said, is the human tendency to hire people that look like ourselves. “We’re less comfortable giving stretch assignments to someone who is not like us.”
Additionally, she said, work life issues come into play. “I still see women making choices around marriage and children. I see a lot of women who have chosen to forgo children, or who have found a partner who is willing to be a stay-at-home dad.”
She continued, “Or they’re like me, and never traveled until their kids were in high school.”
“I’m really what they call a ‘second half champion.’ I didn’t move very fast early in my career. But then, when my children got to be high school or college age, I really have done a lot,” she explained. And given that people are working longer these days, she continued, “you’ve got a lot of time.”
Nevertheless, Wimbish believes that she could have gotten farther in her career in a shorter amount of time if she had been less intent to follow the rules.
“I was a very disciplined student,” she recalled. “I was very focused on achieving academic success. In school, you have a set of rules, and if you follow them, you will succeed and get an A.”
She continued, “I was very much a rule follower. But progressing your career is not about following the rules. It’s about taking risks, being innovative, being flexible. There’s no syllabus to getting ahead and I had to stretch in ways that were uncomfortable to me.”
“Looking back I was much too timid,” she added.
“My advice to young women is ‘don’t be in such a hurry,’” Wimbish said with a laugh. “Who you are is so much more important than what you do, and don’t forget that.”
“Be flexible, be willing to take a lateral move. And be willing to take stretch assignments whenever you can. It has risks, and you’ve got to deliver, but it can be worth it.”
Women at Wells Fargo
Wimbish said she participates in several programs at Wells Fargo designed to attract and retain women. “I love working with women in our company,” she said.
Wells Fargo’s affinity groups, called Team Member Networks, are located in each of the company’s geographic locations. She has served as an executive sponsor in diversity groups in two of the cities she’s lived in. “A lot of our members are younger women looking for guidance, and I love doing that,” she said.
She has also participated in focus groups for senior women at Wells Fargo, and speaks regularly to women’s groups in the organization.
“I’ve always believed that women need to help other women. There was a time when you used to hear about how women weren’t good at helping other women. And I think we absolutely have to be advocates for each other and mentor other women at any chance we get.”
In Her Personal Time
“My family is very, very important to me,” said Wimbish, who has been married for 36 years and has two children and one granddaughter.
“I’ve told people before that I don’t believe you can have it all. Was I the kind of mother I thought I would be? I was a good mother, but, no, I didn’t get to go to every event. You have to make sacrifices.”
Wimbish said she loves to travel, and also enjoys working in the non-profit world with the Girl Scouts and United Way. And, she added, her guilty pleasure is reading mystery novels.