By Cathie Ericson
“Women, and everybody else in the professional environment, must recognize that sponsors and mentors are critical to your success. Maintain your relationship with them – it’s like a bank account; you can’t withdraw what you haven’t saved,” says Olamide Bello, who credits these strong relationships as a key factor in her career ascension.
Bello is the first to admit that her career is atypical – although she studied physics in college, her first job was at a bank in Nigeria. She soon realized that banking wasn’t for her so she joined Accenture, a global management consulting firm, where she quickly realized how much she enjoyed working in the team environment. She decided to pursue her MBA at Emory University, and after graduating accepted a position with Voya Investment Management (Voya IM), where she has been for more than six years.
Learning Calm During the Storm
Bello had just started her career at Voya IM when the global financial crisis began. As the market went crazy, she began to wonder if her career choice had been a wise one, because when she finished business school she had also received an offer to go back to consulting. “That would have been the easy choice, but I decided to try out another path and do something I’d never done before,” she says.
When that world began to unravel, it sparked self-reflection but at the same time, it also taught her a valuable business lesson as she turned to her networks to find out what was going on in her firm and what the future might hold.
“I would listen to people who had been in the industry for 20 years, and they had never seen anything like it before – the shock in the industry and the overall economy.”
Looking back, she maintains that even though it was a rough time for many, joining the asset management industry right in the middle of unprecedented chaos had an unusual uniqueness to it. “It was a very interesting period to be in the midst of it all, with government, politics, regulators and capital markets all working together,” she says. I wouldn’t want to revisit it, but I survived, thanks to the flexibility of the program I was hired into and the strength of our organization.”
Currently, Bello is part of the Private Placements fixed income team at Voya IM which is currently focused on expanding their products to additional third-party clients. “The future is bright and I’m excited to be working with my team,” she says.
Silent No More
When Bello first started in the corporate world, she wasn’t nearly as upfront with her superiors as she is now. “I thought the path to success entailed keeping your head down and doing your job — that you didn’t need to actively seek recognition because your work would speak for itself,” she says, noting that she quickly learned the opposite.
“I now know that yes, you have to do your job and be smart about it, but that formula doesn’t work by itself. You also have to stick up for yourself. Your boss is not a mind reader and so you have to tell him or her what you are thinking and what you want.” She admits that her background contributes to her own reticence to speak up and extract praise, because it’s not considered appropriate in her culture. However, she has learned how to gently make her voice heard and still thinks there is room for improvement.
As she noted, part of getting that recognition is making sure that you identify people who will push and stretch you and act as a sounding board, whether it’s through a formal or informal mentoring program. She knows that their real value comes in ways you might not even know about when they are working behind the scenes to set you up.
“Many times you can’t tell until after the fact that someone was speaking up for you,” she says. “There have been times that I thought someone was just my sounding board, but in reality they were gently and subtly pushing me in the direction they thought my strengths lay. Many times mentors and sponsors recognize something in you that you yourself do not.”
Common Themes in Role Models
Having worked in essentially three different careers, Bello has crossed paths with a wide variety of professionals who have traits she appreciated and respected. But she has also made an interesting discovery – in addition to their differences, there was a common theme: she says she respects the people who have modeled persistence in their careers and are open to sharing “real” stories.
“These people don’t say they are the smartest or best people in the world. They share motivating stories, not fairy tales, and stress how they got better and ultimately became very good at what they do. Not everyone has a perfect career path so the people I admire are those who are not shy to tell you they have failed, and that they once were vulnerable too, even though they have now become very successful,” she says, adding that it’s taught her the importance of being self-aware.
The Three Legs of Success
Outside of individual set of beliefs, be it religious or cultural, Bello believes that although the definition of success changes with time, depending on where you are in your personal and professional life, it always holds three components: what she considers three legs of the success stool.
First, you have to be remarkably competent – if you are not very good at what you do, people will see through it quickly. Secondly, you have to be hard working, because even if you are talented it can’t make up for someone who is lazy. And finally, you have to have external or internal promoters – Bello believes that even when you are hardworking and good at what you do, you still need people championing you to get ahead.
But when Bello’s thoughts turn toward her family, she has another factor to success to add: her supportive husband. “I cannot overemphasize the benefits of a supportive spouse,” she says. Though her hands are full with two growing, active kids, she says that she can’t think of anywhere she’d rather be.
“It is a choice to be happy, and I am thankful for the simple things in life.”