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Thought Leaders: Cynthia Steer, Head of Manager Research & Investment Solutions, BNY Mellon

thought-leadershipAccording to Cynthia Steer, Head of Manager Research & Investment Solutions at BNY Mellon, the benefit of a mentoring relationship comes down to learning. “You always learn something from sitting down with someone else,” she explained. “Women are always managing something else – whether it’s your job, your marriage, your family – and there’s always something one can learn about. It’s very simple.”

“I’ve always been a mentor and I’ve always learned more than I gave,” she continued. Steer explained that she quickly figured out the value of cross-generational relationships when she began her career on a team managing foreign exchange rates. “The team was made up of new kids on the block like me and seasoned individuals – and I saw that every perspective was valuable, but the combination was more valuable than the discrete parts.”

“Portfolio management is like fashion in that it always needs to be remade at the edges, with new thinking or new foci, and having multiple generations’ perspectives furthers that.”

She added, “Also, I think it’s vitally important for women like me at this point in my career to stand up in front of the room and be counted. I’m always humbled by the opportunity to do it.”

Women Helping Women

Steer is a vocal proponent of building strong relationships and helping others down the line. “I can’t think of a time when a woman hasn’t helped me,” she remarked.

A graduate of Smith College and then Wharton for her MBA, she said she regularly attended talks by women at the schools, and then she started participating in her own right and hosting meetings with up and coming women in her own office. “I really thought it was part and parcel to the experience, part and parcel to learning,” she explained.

And continuing to build those relationships can help make your career path easier, she explained. “Really, later, when you’re starting to move up the ladder and getting a little more lonely, and you’re trying to figure out how to adjust to the challenges and do so in a way that is authentic to who you are, in the end, it is all about relationships.”

Steer shared two pieces of advice that have been particularly helpful to her own career. The first piece came from a friend, and was about managing her subordinates. “She said, ‘hold off on saying something yourself, and let your subordinate talk.’ It turned out to be an important learning for me. It’s not always about big moves – many times those small pieces make the big moves possible.”

She continued, “The best advice actually came a little over 20 years ago when I was in my first CIO job. A senior investor said, ‘Choose your topics and talk consistently about them. You’ll become known as an expert and create a reputation consistent in your peer group.”

“Become an expert and you can add value to your company.”

She also credits some of her early success to a happy accident. “For young women who have just emerged into the executive space and are beginning to manage their career and family, it’s important to choose your assistant or your admin wisely. I ended up – quite by accident – with a woman who was older than me. And I learned that if you choose someone more seasoned, who has older kids and who has been around the company for a while, your climb up the ladder can be augmented by the perception of someone who’s been around the block.”

She added, “Whether that means dealing with a daily emergency or benefiting from a more grounded perception of corporate life, for a young, fast rising executive, it’s one of the best things that could happen to you.”

Managing Balance

Steer began her career at American Express Bank, then moved to the Bank of Montreal for five years until she transitioned to a role at a life insurance company, where she ultimately became Chief Investment Officer. Her next move was to United Technologies, also as Chief Investment Officer. She was recruited to Phillip Morris, briefly, and then – life happened.

“I’d say my proudest achievement is not a job title, or an award I might have won,” Steer explained, “but actually trying to achieve balance.”

Steer’s three-year-old son, her second child, was diagnosed with developmental dyspraxia – and would need extensive care. She began working part time as a consultant and Chief Investment Officer for the City of Hartford, so she could spend the majority of her time at home.

“Actually trying to achieve balance to attend to the needs of my family – my child and my parents – as well as maintaining a competitive job and feeling like I was adding value to the industry – that’s what I’m most proud of.”

For women who have faced similar challenges, Steer’s advice is simple: “The first thing I would say is to breathe.”

She continued, “You need to look at it strategically – like a great painting. It’s not done overnight. It means trial and error. Create your own style. That’s the thing that is most important for women to understand.”

And if you’ve performed well in the past, she continued, most companies will work with you to come up with a solution to help you create the balance you need. “If you have worked hard to this point, and you have a conversation with your manager, say ‘I have these challenges and I want to work around them.’”

“For me, it was a job where I could telecommute. I have a voracious appetite for technology. Anyone who has worked with me will tell you I’m absolutely instantaneous on email. I wanted to communicate to my staff that no matter where I was they could reach me.”

Steer eventually became Chief Investment Officer at the life insurance company SBILUSA, and then moved to investment firm Rogerscasey as Chief Research Strategist and the Head of Beta Research Group. This year, Steer was hired to BNY Mellon as Head of Manager Research & Investment Solutions for Investment Management.

Steer’s other piece of work/life advice is also simple: “Let the little stuff ride. You’ve got to organize your priorities for what’s really important. And that simplification can be a boon as you move up the ladder. It’s all about your mindset.”

The Sandwich Generation

“I think there’s a myth out there that women’s careers end prematurely – that as we get older we are at a disadvantage,” Steer said.

“But because of our education and because many of us are delaying having children, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll be taking care of teenage children at the same time as elder parents. Inevitably, there is a crisis and many times the woman decides to quit. This is a tragedy for the woman and her employer. It is also a reason why our compensation remains capped. The woman loses her seniority and the employer loses experience. Having a conversation about this, and finding ways to be more flexible on both sides is key – even if this results in a part time situation or even a leave of several years, for the upside is that women who do this come back energized. They have fulfilled their familial obligations, gotten rid of a great deal of internalized guilt, and are ready to take on new challenges just when senior men generally want to check out. It is a win for everyone.

Steer said that it’s up to employers to recognize the need to work with women who face this challenge. “A wise employer will realize that you need to do this and will work with you.”

This challenge is just beginning to gain recognition, she said. “I don’t think there’s a solution yet – but if we ask these questions, we won’t have so many losses on either side.”

“Developing your own style and who you are is the most important ingredient if you’re going to manage the down and up phases in your career,” she said. “So, breathe, get your nails done, and go to the gym. Work on your style until it fits like a glove and communicate well. So when life changes the deck, you are ready and understand what you want to do.”

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)