by Pamela Weinsaft (New York City)
A true pull-yourself-up-by-your bootstraps success story, Marianne Brown, CEO of Omgeo LLC, spoke with The Glass Hammer about her unusual path to the top and why she’s succeeding there.
A self-professed academic overachiever in high school, Ms. Brown described her university experience simply: “fun won out”. Since she was, in her own words, “debt adverse” and paying her own tuition, she left school temporarily to get a job and earn some money. That job with ADP Brokerage Services, initially as a clerk/secretary, was the beginning of her illustrious career in trade management services.
The first step down the path to success was the result of a shove from her boss. He had became frustrated that all the deals that he put together were falling through once the logistics teams were brought in to close them. He threw her into the thick of things by putting her on the integration team to make sure the deals closed. She told The Glass Hammer that at first she was motivated mostly by not wanting to have to go back to him to say the deal fell through.
From that discomfort came the creativity and perseverance to figure out how to get the deal done. It also taught her early on the power of believing in herself. “My launching epiphany came in a meeting with the integration group. I was given the task of writing the minutes of a meeting on how to integrate. I was intimidated by the people around me whom I perceived to be wicked smart and possibly even annoyed I was there. As I was writing the minutes — A,B,C,D — I was totally digging on myself, impressed that I understood what was going on. And then I realized they went from D to F,” at which point she began berating herself. She continued, “Motivated by fear of my boss, I forced myself to speak up…and found out that no one else had understood that missing piece either. It taught me not to be afraid to ask a question.” She stated that this lesson was one of the best in terms of her personal and professional growth.
Over the next 26 years, Ms. Brown worked her way up through ADP Brokerage Services Group, being promoted to increasingly responsible positions, culminating in a position as general manager of ADP’s brokerage processing services. While working, she returned to university and earned her business degree from Concordia College in 1997. Ultimately, Ms. Brown left ADP to become the Chief Executive Officer of Securities Industry Automation Corporation (SIAC), a wholly owned subsidiary of the New York Stock Exchange and the American Stock Exchange, responsible for the design, development, implementation and support of the exchanges’ computer systems and communications networks, as well as other technology ventures.
She said that there may have been times in her career that she struggled because she was a woman but she couldn’t put her finger on any. “I am a pretty determined person. There is not a lot I’ve attempted to do that I haven’t done. I think I have a strong sense of self.” But that doesn’t mean it was always easy. “To be sure, it was not a welcoming environment 30 years ago. There were certainly not the enlightened views [of today] that representing demographics of society is smart business.” But Ms. Brown stressed that, “at the end of the day the objective business results tell the story” and, when faced with a barrier, you have to sometimes “deploy creative solutions to get there from here.”
She shared a story about a customer of hers from the early 1980’s, a very nice man who could not bring himself to negotiate a contract with her because he couldn’t stand to be mean to a woman. After several attempts, she decided to “stop trying to go through the wall.” She engaged one of the guys who worked with her to do the face-to-face negotiations and the contract was finally concluded.
When asked whether having to go through her subordinate upset her at the time, she said her first mentor–her mother–taught her that you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself. “If I sense someone is perceiving me in a different way, I have the opportunity to change the way I am presenting myself. It is terrific empowerment because it puts all the opportunity in my hands. In all candor, [rather than being annoyed at the customer] I was impatient with myself that I didn’t recognize it sooner.”
She is not sure why there aren’t more women in the upper echelon of the technology and finance industries. She and the others at Omgeo are working on it. “The field is screaming with opportunity for women, both at the entry level and for women who are re-engaging.” At Omgeo, about 1/3 of the senior managers are women, with a large number of women making up the rest of the staff as well. She did say that she hopes to see more women at the highest level, as currently there is only one other woman, Marianne G. Doan, sitting on Omgeo’s Global Board of Managers.
Despite the oft-heard discussions of barriers to women moving up in the business world, she doesn’t want women to focus on the barriers that may or may not exist but on what the women themselves can do. “One of the things that impairs women is that they expect inhibitors. They think that it doesn’t matter what they do so why try?” She relayed a story of one time when she spoke with a group of young women of color at Marymount College. After asking them whether they think it is hard for women and even harder for women of color, she posed the question, “so what are you going to do about it?” This started a brainstorming session about how they could make their mark in spite of the difficulties. By the end of the day, the women were pumped up and empowered with all the possibilities.
When asked how she managed life/work balance, she concurred that it is hard to achieve. “The question of balance is never just trying to achieve an equal portion of 100% in each area. We always want 100% in each area, which means you are always second guessing your decisions.” The advice she gives to the women she mentors is to look at each decision about how to spend their time time from a long range perspective, and ask which decision will be more important to you in five years.
Ms. Brown told The Glass Hammer that women don’t champion themselves, tout their successes or leverage relationships for their benefit as well as they should. She stresses the importance of networking. “Make sure you have a network of people happy to advocate on your behalf. I keep a ridiculous calendar. I’m constantly renewing and strengthening relations. I love engaging people. I’m in the process of trying to look into opportunities to sit on corporate boards… that is all networking.” In fact, it was through networking–an informal lunch with Sharon Rowlands, the former CEO of Thomson Financial–that she was introduced to the opportunity to join Omgeo.
Her most important advice for now and future executive women is about being really comfortable with themselves. Early in her career, Ms. Brown, born and bred in Brooklyn, NY, was told to tone down her vivacious personality in order to get ahead. She chose not to follow that advice. “I am what I am. Let the chips fall where they may.” And they have fallen well.
* Omgeo is a global provider of automated post-trade, pre-settlement trade management services that is jointly owned by The Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. and Thomson Financial.