Domain expertise is not sufficient for success, says Pamela Harper.
“Being able to navigate the political landscape is just as important as being technically competent.” And, she adds, it’s distinct from knowing the unwritten rules, but includes the ability to understand the subtle nuances that comes with time and expertise. “What is unsaid is often more important than what is said.”
Two Disciplines Create a High-Powered Career
After earning graduate degrees in both law and business, Harper worked at a law firm where her career took a turn to industries that she never would or could have anticipated, such as aviation, consulting and money management, with each position allowing her to use skills she had developed in grad school.
“People had questioned why I attended both business and law school, but both degrees have proven to be invaluable. I wanted to do whatever I could to gain a competitive edge, and this combination has supplied that for my entire career.”
One of the professional achievements she is most proud of so far was being part of a team that built a comprehensive compliance program for an institutional money management firm. To ensure they were as thorough as possible, they took the extra step of subjecting it to a voluntary third-party audit, a precaution that is rarely taken.
To this day, she says her former team still receives recognition for the robust compliance controls that were put in place. “Many small money management firms don’t realize that compliance can be a competitive differentiator,” she notes; instead they see it as a cost and therefore don’t allocate sufficient funds. “Forward-thinking companies consider it a form of revenue protection and therefore a risk management tool.”
As chair of her firm’s Corporate Transactions and Compliance practice group, Harper is intrigued by two current issues in corporate compliance: First, she notes that the level of misconduct that has been witnessed recently has been staggering, but she believes it will lead boards to pay an increased amount of attention to the impact of corporate culture on business strategy and reputation.
“Ignore it and the result will be decreased brand equity and diminished shareholder value. Boards will start taking these issues seriously and give them the attention they deserve,” she says, adding that while culture is often perceived as a HR issue in reality, it is a risk issue. “There will be a higher level of scrutiny and attention, and the complacency that has allowed boards to willfully ignore misconduct and aberrant behavior will no longer be acceptable.”
Second, she finds that very few boards have separate stand-alone compliance committees and even fewer have members who are knowledgeable about corporate compliance. The prevailing trend has been to draw potential board members from the ranks of current or former CEOs, but she noted that as board refreshment occurs, hopefully companies will begin to consider candidates with backgrounds in corporate compliance and risk management.
As part of her focus on compliance, Harper is undertaking the process of becoming a FINRA arbitrator. She says that given the repercussions of the Madoff affair, she has been surprised by the number of people who are neither savvy about their investments or their rights as investors. “Being part of a panel that can deliver recommendations on how to resolve those types of conflicts is very interesting to me.”
A Firm That Supports Women – Every Day
Currently Harper is thriving at a woman-owned law firm, which she says embodies the highest caliber of legal services, while creating an environment where women don’t have to make an artificial choice between succeeding in their careers and having a thriving personal life. “Those shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, and we have created a unique culture that doesn’t assign origination credit, which contributes to a collaborative team environment and deters intra-office competition.”
She has found over the years that women in the industry face one challenge that men don’t: “Regardless of your credentials and intellectual bandwidth, you still have to prove yourself every day. Period. Women do not have the luxury of mediocrity.”
One key way to bolster your career is to recognize the difference between what a mentor and a sponsor can do for you. “A mentor is nice to have and will give you general advice, but a sponsor — someone who typically occupies a positon of power and is invested in your success — is a must-have,” she says, adding that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
And she urges even women who have achieved a high level of success to remain intellectually curious. “It’s easy to become stale when you reach a certain point professionally and personally, but it’s vital to keep growing.” That’s always part of Harper’s plan; in addition to her work with FINRA, she is planning to earn a certificate in the business of art.
Further indulging her passion for art, Harper serves on the board for the Center for Emerging Visual Artists and also is an avid supporter of cancer research.