Voice of Experience: Wanda Wallace, CEO of Leadership Forum, Inc.

wanda_wallace_mg_0020_higherrez.jpgWanda Wallace, Ph.D. is President and CEO of Leadership Forum, Inc. The firm specializes in working with organizations to enhance corporate capability in leadership including strategic thought, customer insight, people and inclusive cultures.

Dr. Wallace has worked with many firms in the financial arena, including Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Ernst and Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Prior to founding Leadership Forum, Inc, Dr. Wallace was Executive Vice President of Duke Corporate Education, Inc, which she helped found after her tenure as Associate Dean of Executive Education and professor of marketing at The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

What prompted you to use your psychology background in the financial arena?

I believe the best strategies succeed or fail based on engaging hearts and minds in the opportunities and the requirements for success. To do so, one must understand people – how they think, how they react, how they make sense of their world, what communication style is best, and so forth. To me, this is the essence of what I bring from my psychology background.

Five years ago, the financial world was interested in high quality coaching, strategic planning and teamwork development. They still are, but in the last year there has been an increasing focus on improving the ability to manage people in a business where numbers count for everything. As an industry, I see financial professionals placing an increased emphasis on retaining the great talent they worked so hard to recruit. Improving retention requires improving management practices. Even in diversity efforts, which are critical for financial services firms, better management practices increase the chances of developing and retaining diverse talent.

What I enjoy most is the ability to go into an organization, identify and clarify the issues and present solutions, using training and development activities and/or coaching.

What do you perceive as the main barriers to success for women in this field?

Women excel when they get to know someone well and have an opportunity to build a deeper connection. By doing this, they create strong relationships where they are in client-facing roles and operate one-on-one. The problem is that the financial world allows very few moments for that deeper kind of professional relationship in the course of a working day – so much of the work is rather fleeting and transactional. Women do not easily use their relationship skills to their advantage in this scenario.

Women need good advice, good feedback and good advocates. As everyone rises in his/her career, getting the right opportunity can be critical. Since so many people are competing for so few opportunities, having an advocate who supports you can make a huge difference.

Peers and superiors often perceive women as lacking confidence, unable to relax and be themselves, difficult to get to know, not sufficiently strategic and not as able to use power effectively to engage the organization. Whether or not these attributes are fairly portrayed, they can keep women from the opportunities they seek.

Women need to improve their ability to navigate competing demands, both within their companies and with external contacts. There are a number of different forces that an effective manager needs to negotiate if they are to come out on top.

Do you have any suggestions for women trying to negotiate workplace difficulties?

Build a strong coalition – people who can help you think about and position your cause – people who will support your strategy.

Become astute to the political context in which you are operating. Recognize that you may be working in a tribal environment. In a sense, some managers operate fiefdoms, and the tendency is for like to hire like people. If women are to ensure that they and their work are valued, sometimes they need to tiptoe through the minefield: if you get too valuable to one tribe, another could oust you; stay under the radar and your worth will not be noticed. It comes back to relationship skills.

Also, I recommend finding a person or persons who can give you advice and feedback.

Has any particular person inspired you, and if so, how?

There have been four or five people who have inspired me. They have been true leaders. A couple have now retired, and are able to be very open about their experiences and the challenges they faced and what they did and didn’t do in given circumstances. I’m inspired by people who stay true to themselves – who are really authentic. Those individuals are on a constant search for excellence. Inspirational people are nearly always blessed with a heavy dose of self-awareness. Emotional intelligence is just as much about understanding yourself as it is about understanding other people.

What are the specific career challenges for women in finance?

The financial world still operates as a star culture. That means that if you deliver, it doesn’t matter what your gender, background, ethnicity or preferences are – people will flock to work with you. The downside of that is that some people who deliver are bullies or narcissists. Organizations are getting smarter at identifying these traits earlier on, but they still exist across the industry. Bullying would stop if it didn’t work – that doesn’t make it right, or acceptable, but it’s a fact of life. In some ways, narcissism is worse, because a narcissist will surround him or herself with people who will never say no to them, to the detriment of the team and its results.

Women need to improve their skills in self-promotion: toot your horn. Men do this well because they understand the need for it. Women need to learn to do it in an authentic way – not self-aggrandising or boastful. I know some women who say they’d rather leave than do this, but it really is important not to miss the chance to be noticed when you have achieved something positive.

If you could give three soundbites of advice for professional women, what would they be?

  • To advance, you have to be judged as “strategic.” Figure out what that definition means. Strive to support that definition and gain requisite experience.
  • Confidence and presence matter enormously – cultivate both. One trait begets the other.
  • Perfectionism can be both an asset and a liability.

Recognize the downsides of each behavior, and make a conscious choice about what is truly needed in a given situation. Sometimes an 80% solution is the better option.

What business books are on your bookshelf?

Reaching the Top: Factors That Impact the Careers and Retention of Senior Women Leaders, Wanda T. Wallace, 2008.

Little Black Book of Connections, Jeffrey Gittomer, 2006.

In the Company of Women: Turning Workplace Conflict into Powerful Alliances, Pat Heim and Susan Murphy, 2001.

Her Place at the Table, Deborah M. Kolb, Judith Williams and Carol Frohlinger, 2004.

The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene and Joost Elffers, 1998.