People told me it was over. I didn’t listen.
Call it getting reorganized out. Call it getting fired. Whatever you call it, the result was the same. One day, I was running Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. The next day, they’d “simplified their leadership structure,” and I was on my couch, without a job for the second time in my adult life. It’s a difficult thing to go from leading a team of tens of thousands to doing nothing. It’s more difficult when it feels so sudden. And it’s even more difficult when you don’t know what you’re going to do next.
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My thoughts kept drifting back to a conversation I’d had with a high-profile editor when I was fired for the first time. It was back in 2008, and I had just been shown the door at Smith Barney. We were talking about what led up to the firing: how we at Smith Barney had mistakenly positioned high-risk products as low-risk, how our clients had lost far more than we had led them to believe they could, and how I’d gone up against the CEO (and won the support of the board) in favor of partially reimbursing clients.
Then the conversation turned to what would happen next, and what she had to say was a punch in the gut: “A man could come back from this. A woman? Not a chance.”
I refused to dwell on it, and I eventually was offered the job of running Merrill Lynch. Same type of job, but a bigger firm, a more storied history, in need of a turnaround. One that I and my team delivered.
But, then the CEO who hired me retired and the new guy got busy putting in his own team. And so now I had two strikes on my record. Could I come back a second time? I remember pausing to stare out the window, and thinking, What if this is it? This could just be it for me. This could be the end.
It didn’t help that I went to lunch with one of my dear friends a couple of weeks later. I was expecting a pep talk; what I got instead felt like a professional funeral. She asked me why I simply didn’t move back to my hometown of Charleston, S.C., and throw in the towel.
I felt like I was going to throw up. Two super-accomplished women, both of whom had my interests at heart, telling me it was over.
I made the decision that I simply wouldn’t believe them, despite evidence that they were right. I kept making calls and returning emails. I kept setting up lunches, and coffees and drinks. My phone started to ring. My inbox started to take on a life of its own.
As life returned to normal, I started to realize one important thing about success: There’s not just one road to success. It’s not that you are successful or you aren’t, or that failure and success are endpoints. Instead, every single one of us has multiple opportunities to be successful: Each of those opportunities may be a long shot, but it can be the case that only one of them needs to work out for us to “be successful.” We just need to stay open to the possibilities.
So, exploring possibilities became my plan. I spent the next year or so learning what was out there. I called it “playing in traffic”: engaging with people, learning about new industries and networking like it was my job. Because it was my job!
I’ve since come across the research that tells us that networking has been called the No. 1 unwritten rule of career success. Opportunities are far more likely to come from loose connections than close ones. And, through a string of those loose connections across a number of years, I had the reboot my career.
My first step was buying the old 85 Broads, a global professional network for women. I only found it because one introduction during that period of searching led to another introduction, let to another introduction, let to another one, and so on. Today, the old 85 Broads is Ellevate Network, a global community tens of thousands of women strong. It is a a community that believes in the positive impact of women in business, and the community has made it our goal to help women advance at work. I later went on to found Ellevest, an investing platform for women; what unites the two is the recognition that advancing women — and, frankly, getting more money into the hands of women, is an unmitigated positive.
Getting reorged out of Merrill Lynch was a low point. But, the challenges and self-discovery that followed gave me a tremendous opportunity: the chance to be an entrepreneur, and to use that platform to impact the lives of thousands of women around the world. It’s been more difficult than running Merrill Lynch, and more rewarding by far.
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