When did consulting hit your radar?
Actually, it’s funny. It hit my radar during the second year of my PhD. As you probably know, these degrees can take four to six years to complete. BCG may not have realized that at the time, because they said, “We are doing a summer internship. You’ll intern with us, and we’ll hire you if all goes well.” So I did the internship. It was a race to the finish after that, and I joined the firm two-and-a-half years later. It was a mini-internship in New York that they did for folks in non-traditional backgrounds for consulting: PhDs, MDs, JDs. It was really an incredible and eye-opening experience.
What was it like for you to transition from academic work to consulting work, with decks and client presentations and the skill set required to be successful as a consultant?
To be honest, I found my groove by putting in a lot of hard work and long hours. The workload in the first couple of years was tough, and I saw it as an initial investment on my part. During that period of time I was very deliberate in trying to identify peers, Partners, and Principals that I respected and had a lot to learn from. I sought out their knowledge and their advice and I listened really carefully. I emulated them as much as possible. I really took advantage of the feedback culture at BCG, because I realized that was really the only way I was going to learn: to get out of my comfort zone, to get feedback, and to try it again. It was tough, but I made some great friends along the way and had fun.
A number of PhDs go into consulting for only a year, and then leave. Was that ever something that you considered?
When I took the job at BCG I had just gotten married, I had just moved to New York, and I had seen a lot of people do exactly what you said: Spend one or two year in consulting, and then leave. I realized BCG was a big risk. I didn’t know if it was going to work out, and when I joined I insisted to my husband that we actually not spend any of the signing bonus, just in case it didn’t work out and we needed to give it back. Literally. I was a little naïve! He came from consulting and tried to convince me it didn’t work that way. So, I think leaving after a year or two was a possibility, but I was also very stubborn and I saw it as an opportunity. BCG was something I was going to jump into with both feet. I remember the head PhD recruiting for the Americas sat us down and explained, “If nothing else, this is a really steep curve that’s going to feel very uncomfortable, but you are never going to have the opportunity to learn like this again, so take advantage of it.” That message resonated with me and that is how I thought about every project I did at BCG and every role I’ve taken since leaving the firm.
And you enjoyed it?
Absolutely. I loved it. I could definitely see myself going back at some point down the road, assuming they wanted me back! After a while, though, it started to feel comfortable and got to the point where I wanted a different learning curve and to be part of a different kind of team. The opportunity at Schwab materialized and I made the jump.
Within consulting, how did you make your way into the Financial Services Practice?
By accident! I went to BCG believing that I would focus on consumer goods. I had the Ph.D. in Psychology and a background in Statistics, and I had experience with a lot of the analytics the Consumer team at BCG was doing. That was probably the most immediately applicable part of graduate school at BCG. But the staffing coordinator in New York City reminded me that I told her I had joined the firm to climb this learning curve. So, she encouraged me – strongly – to try out a few other areas of the business. I’m only half kidding when I say the most redeeming factor of the Financial Services case I found was that it was three weeks long.
Joking aside, I looked at the list of projects and literally walked around the floor asking my friends which teams were really phenomenal to be on – again because I always saw this as an apprenticeship business. Through that, I ended up working with a really phenomenal team. I went into the project believing I would do it for three weeks and then I could bounce back to my consumer work. But I really enjoyed working with this set of folks. In a lot of respects, the biggest “break” I ever got was the opportunity to work with this group.
So you made your way into Financial Services, you really enjoyed the other Principals, and that was that – it was that easy?
Well, I was a first-year Consultant at that time with no relevant background. My strategy from early on, and advice that I got from others, was to pick folks you really respect and you want to learn from, and then jump in and do whatever you can to help the team. And be very responsive to feedback.
And you must have had recruiters calling you on a weekly basis for different opportunities. Did you ever come close to leaving before the role at Schwab surfaced?
Yes, but it was less from recruiters and more so from clients, because you build really close relationships with your clients. Like many consultants, I got very engrossed and embedded in the work I was doing. So those opportunities definitely did come up and I was very close to making the change a couple of times along the way. I think the reason I didn’t was because I was fortunate enough to develop some great relationships with folks in my class and mentors, and I had a set of frank conversations about these opportunities as they came up. I can still remember sitting outside on a picnic table at a client’s office in New England in late November. Despite how cold we both were, he was incredibly patient about challenging my thinking. He encouraged me to think about a few things: whom I would learn from, what I would learn, and the trajectory that I was setting myself up for. When thought about that way, you do the math and compare two opportunities. If you’re a first-year Consultant, second-year Consultant, first-year Project Leader, or even a Principal, it is still an apprenticeship business and there is so much you can learn on the consulting side, and every time I contemplated it, it still felt a bit early to make that move. So it made sense for me to stay at BCG and to soak up as much as I could. I think that if I didn’t have those relationships and didn’t feel as comfortable being as candid as I was, I might have taken an “I’ve got nothing to lose” attitude and left the firm. Looking back, I don’t think that would have been the right decision, and I’m glad I didn’t leave any earlier than I did.
In spite of the fact that you are someone who didn’t spend her BCG signing bonus out of the fear that she’d have to repay it, did you at any point think to yourself, “Oh, I want to make Partner” or stay ‘X’ number of years?
I never expected to stay as long as I did. It got very sticky. Toward the end, the last year or two, it was starting to become comfortable. When I thought about leaving I would start to think, “Oh I am giving up so much,” which was exactly the opposite of the kind of decision-making I wanted to have. I didn’t want to stay in a role just because it felt comfortable to leave or for a fear of the unknown. As it started to get really comfortable and became the path of least resistance, I promised myself, “I’ve got to at least look outside and make sure I am staying for the right reasons.” And it was really that, plus some changes on the personal front that led me to not want to travel as much. We had our first child and that made me start to think, “Well, let me at least just look,” because I wanted to make an informed decision. I was never one of those people gunning for Partner. Like many folks in these roles, I’m fairly driven but it wasn’t that I had to be in a certain role at a certain time or anything like that.
A certain group of consultants decides to leave after two years, and they usually say that they’ve learned what they “came to firm X” to learn. What are people missing out on by leaving after two years instead of four?
I want to make one point first and then answer your question. If I have learned anything along the way it’s to be humble. Looking back that is one thing that I think is incredibly important. But more specifically, looking at two years versus four years, I think that consulting firms are run by incredibly bright people. They built a system so there is a learning curve with in-step change every couple of years. And the question for me was, “What could I be learning at that step inside the firm and what I could learn at that step outside the firm?” That may be a very selfish way of looking at it, but for me that was the value proposition. Inside a consulting firm experiences are more homogenous. You know what will be expected at each level. When you leave consulting there is a lot more variability and ambiguity around the role and the expectations. After two years at a consulting firm, you are just being promoted into a people-manager role and, at least for me, this was the first time I was really managing a team of any size and it was really the first time I was managing up. Then, at four years, the period transitioning to the pre-Partner level, this is when the stakes change in terms of managing client relationships. Now, for the first time, you have to start trying to take on that trusted advisor role, and that is a tricky thing to do given the level of experience and tenure and differences in background. So you’ve got to have the industry knowledge to understand the problem and then a bit of the empathy to help your client through that. I was hard-pressed to find that opportunity anywhere outside of consulting so I didn’t want to give up the opportunity to work on either of these challenges.
What you gained by staying through those roles of increasing responsibility – empathy, working with clients, and managing up – how instrumental have those skills been for you in corporate, either now or as you see they will be in the future, versus those who left consulting earlier and didn’t gain those skills?
I think that the first couple years of consulting for me were figuring out the “what” of a business problem: what is the problem and what is the answer? Then, toward the end of consulting, you are starting to get into the “how”: how do you actually make this change? How do you implement this? I think that is what you are really doing, You are advising your client, you are partnering with your client on how they might do this. The thing that is so exciting to me about corporate, and what I love about my job right now, is that it is all about the “how.” Getting the “what” right, answering that question, is table stakes, but the folks who are really successful are the people who are really able to make something happen. Making something happen in corporate is all about relationships and understanding your partners and understanding where they are coming from and then collaborating really closely and figuring out what role you can have that will add value to the firm and your colleagues. So I think that latter half of consulting, the “EQ” if you will, becomes incredibly important. I mean, there is nothing worse than having a really great answer that sits on the shelf. That is the nightmare for everyone, and I think in many companies if that happens you will be hard-pressed to have your role that many years later.
How did you get to Charles Schwab? Was it a client?
Schwab was not a client of mine. My husband and I spent six years in New York and never planned on it lasting that long because, remember, I was planning on staying at BCG for less than a year right? [Laughing] Then we made our way to the West Coast, and I knew I wanted to stay in Financial Services. I was very excited about Schwab, their history, and reputation, their orientation toward clients and position in the market. This role opened up, I had a set of conversations with folks at Schwab, it felt like a team that I could have fun with, and I believed in what the company was trying to do from a corporate perspective, including their business model and what that meant for their business as well as the impact it would have on clients’ lives.
Did you use transition time with BCG or did you do all of this exploration while still consulting full-time?
I pretty much did this exploration while consulting full-time. It all happened very quickly. I had a grand plan: I would finish up at BCG at the end of the year, and then I would take the next six months just to transition, and I would find that perfect role. The truth of the matter is that happens very quickly and organically. I had a few good conversations and it led to a role. I was opportunistic and it moved a lot more quickly than I originally thought.
What was the structure of the strategy team at Schwab when you joined?
I joined the Retail Strategy team. I was focused on a particular set of priorities that centered on the scalability of our business model. Then we had three or four Managing Directors, equivalent to the Project Leader or Engagement Leader, and a team of Senior Managers and Analysts. In all, the team is about 15-20 people and serves as an intake valve for talent at Schwab, so people typically spend a couple of years in the group and then they role out to another part of the business.
A lot of folks who are at the tenure that you were when you left BCG are reluctant to join a Corporate Strategy team unless they’re leading it. Many have grown apprehensive or jaded about working for large companies, and many are eager to have an operational role right away rather than transition through strategy. Some specifically say that if they’re going to be doing strategy work, they’d rather do it in consulting. You obviously did not share those beliefs. What do folks have wrong by saying that they don’t want to be a VP, that they only want to be the SVP, or that they don’t want to do strategy? What are they missing?
I am so glad you asked that question, because I actually got advice like that when I was leaving. Looking back, I was incredibly fortunate to come to Schwab through the Strategy group. There were enough things changing in that transition from consulting to corporate that it was valuable for me to hit the ground doing work I knew how to do well. The day in and day out process of defining and executing on Strategy projects was something I was very familiar with – I had been doing that at BCG for six years at that point. So I could focus on building relationships and understanding the nuances of the business. The transition was a humbling experience and it helped me realize that the view I had from BCG, while broad, was not complete. It’s also important to be honest with yourself on what excites you about the work you’re doing. I am excited about being able to see the change in the business. I was always focused on the “how.” For some folks, if what you are passionate about is really the pure strategy piece, then maybe you will have a different take.
So the big question is, did you spend your Schwab signing bonus?
I saved it. When I left BCG, I had very frank conversations where I said, “I may be back in three months.” That was the tone of my exit! [Laughing]. I was joking with people, telling them, “Don’t take my name off the door!” and I was only half kidding. I was having conversations with people throughout, wondering if I was going to be going back in three months, six months, or five years. There was a transition initially and the best on-boarding process was like the one at BCG, which was the informal mentorship and coaching from colleagues. You have to seek that out of course, but I think it is really important to invest in those relationships up-front with the folks that you are excited to work with and ask for their help in return, for example, “Help me understand the culture, help me understand where I can add value, help me understand where I can work with you on something that is going to have a lot of impacts.” Those are all things that made the transition stick.
Do you have tips on what consultants can do to best hit the ground running during that transition, let’s say the first 90 days – things they need to make sure they do and things they need to make sure they do not do?
I think that’s a great question. For me, there were two things that really mattered. One: get real responsibility. Don’t take the fluffy projects, so to speak. You want to be doing something meaningful, and it is hard to engage with your partners if you do not take on that responsibility. Two: focus on the relationships, and be very candid with folks about where you are coming from and what you are thinking. Let them know that you want to be successful and you want to add value, and seek out their advice and coaching. I was very deliberate. I had a 90-day plan that I wrote, and I worked on that 90-day plan with my boss. I wanted to make sure that I was thinking about things the right way and that they were invested in it as well. That made a lot of difference. It made what was an ambiguous process very tangible for me. For a lot of folks who are strivers and achievers, having a 90-day plan can be really helpful when you know the results of your work are probably going to be seen three, four, five, six months out. At least you have something you are tracking toward and can measure progress against.
And the 90-day plan was your idea?
Oh yes, and everyone was open to it. We can imagine in certain environments, people going “I have to do this? You are the only person who has ever asked to do that.” You have to read the room a little, and it depends on who you are working with. Some people engaged with it in detail, some wanted to give me a little high-level guidance; you have to meet people where they are.
After less than two years at Schwab you become SVP, Client Experience. How did that new role come about? Can you tell us a little bit about your responsibilities?
I was asked to take this role about three months ago. We had undergone a reorganization to consolidate client experience under one leader, and that is the role I filled. My team is responsible for leading the teams that take the strategy and drive that into the actual offers and experiences we will create for our clients. That is the best way I can describe it. For me, this is the perfect role – that is what I am always telling everyone. We are able to have a tangible impact and see and measure that day in and day out. Doing this work also requires us to work closely across our Sales and Service Organizations, as well as Technology, Operations, Legal, Compliance, Risk, and Finance. I love the collaborative process that goes along with trying to drive that kind of work. That is what gets me excited day in and day out. Also, I am one step closer to the Financial Services professionals in the branches and the call centers and our clients, which I find very rewarding. After all, the work we are doing is to help our clients meet their financial goals and it is nice to be a little closer to that and to see that impact.
Does this feel like strategy or does it feel like you have left strategy?
[Laughs] I definitely feel like I have left strategy but we still partner closely with the team so it’s not that far away.
Part of the reason we find your profile exciting is because you left BCG to be a VP of Strategy and two years later you are an SVP of Client Experience. You show how quickly it can work out and go in the right direction, and you show to those who are a bit impatient that patience is a virtue because two years is nothing in the scheme of one’s career.
I would say that patience has never been one of my virtues and it never will be. For me, not to sound cliché, but I was excited about Schwab. I was excited about the business and wanted to be a part of that story.
You have only been in this role for a few months, so it’s probably too soon to think about what’s next, but where do you see yourself heading in the organization now that you know it better?
I think it is too soon to say that. I love the role that I am in and think there is so much more we can do and have an impact on from where we are sitting, so that is really our focus right now.
You have been involved with a couple of nonprofits: Minds Matter’s San Francisco chapter and The Center for Children’s Initiatives. When did you do that work? How did you make time for it? Do you recommend nonprofit board work to others?
Yes, I absolutely recommend it. I personally find it rewarding, but it is time-consuming. To be honest, most of this work that I did was while I was at BCG and before our second child. So after the second kiddo I have essentially taken a break from that. I feel like right now I have a ton of balls in the air. I look forward to getting involved again in some nonprofit work closer to home. There are priorities that need to get shifted as we go along.
So yes, I would absolutely recommend it when you can dedicate the time and energy to it, and I found it incredibly rewarding, personally and professionally.