Sallie L. Krawcheck once told an editor at Fortune magazine that going to an all-girls school in Charleston, S.C., was tougher than surviving on Wall Street. “I had the glasses, the braces, the corrective shoes,” she said in the Fortune article. “I was half-Jewish, half-Waspy. I couldn’t have been [more of an] outcast. There was nothing they could do to me at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s that was worse than the seventh grade.”
Krawcheck, 41, more than survived her middle school traumas, not to mention Wall Street. Every year for the past five years, she has been named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business and is now chief financial officer and head of strategy for Citigroup.
To be a leader, Krawcheck told students during a recent Wharton Leadership Lecture, “you have to have really thick skin, and in order to be successful you have to learn to take rejection.” Plus, she added, “there is just no substitute for hard work, none.” And you have to accept that people are occasionally going to be mad at you, and that you may have to “zig when everyone else is zagging.”
And one more thing: You cannot “embarrass easily,” she said. “When you do things that are different, people will tell you that you are crazy, you are wrong, they will attack you, argue with you in meetings, say things behind your back. But I cannot embarrass any more. I fell on national TV, and my children have it on TiVo and they love it. As I was going down, I was thinking, ‘Oh dear, this is going to be bad.’ But I went right back up and I didn’t let it bother me for a second. So you just have to say, ‘I’m out there, things are going to happen,’ and you have to be ready for it.”
But even more important, Krawcheck told the Wharton audience, is accepting the fact that “leadership can be very lonely. Leadership is sometimes consensus-building, but leadership is very often making decisions and leading a group to a place where they may or may not want to go. I learned very quickly that you better be pretty darn comfortable being uncomfortable. Leadership can be a very uncomfortable experience.”
Wall Street’s “Mrs. Clean”
Krawcheck traced her rise from investment banker and research analyst to one of the most prestigious jobs on Wall Street, sprinkling her lecture with self-deprecating stories delivered with a wisp of a Southern drawl.
She was funny: “I hate those magazines that say, ‘You can do it all.’ I do not do it all. I do not. I work. I work, and then I work. And if any of you are disillusioned and you want to be CFO and not work very hard, I’m sorry to give you the bad news. I’ve got my kids, I’ve got my husband… We don’t go out. We do not have those ‘Saturday night dates’ that everyone says they have…. I didn’t exercise until six months ago [when] I was over 40. But you can’t do it all. I’ve made joyful choices. I’m thrilled to do what I do and I couldn’t love it any more, but it is all about hard work.”
She was animated: She snapped her fingers to drive home a point; she whistled once to illustrate a story; she tapped on the podium (“Touch wood”) while admitting that “there is an element of luck” to finding success in any career and that she is very superstitious. “I keep my fingers crossed, I don’t have a black cat walk in front of me, and I don’t walk under ladders.”
And she was serious, particularly when alluding to business maxims that helped drive her efforts to restructure Citigroup’s Smith Barney equity research business in the wake of a corporate scandal in 2002, or dealing honestly with today’s efforts to boost her company’s languishing stock price and deliver earnings growth. “I can tell you, as CFO, the first thing I say to folks who work in a financial organization, the first and most important thing is that the numbers have to be right,” said Krawcheck. “I can tell you personally that I have reported quarters that disappoint the Street. It hurts … and it shouldn’t. As CFO, you should be able to wake up on the morning of the earnings call and say, ‘Hey, it is what it is.’ But you can’t. So what I’ve done, personally, is I’ve stopped giving earning guidelines to the Street.”
Krawcheck’s insistence on corporate ethics, honest numbers and solid, research-based reporting has earned her a reputation as Wall Street’s “Mrs. Clean.” Her photograph once appeared with the headline, “The Last Honest Analyst” and developed further when she was a prestigious Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina. After graduating with a journalism degree, she moved to New York and a job as an investment banker with Salomon Brothers. She didn’t like it, so she went to business school at Columbia University “to break out of investment banking, graduated during the recession, couldn’t find a job” and went back to being an investment banker at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. After a year, she decided that she didn’t want to be an investment banker any more. Pointing to the audience, she added, “And I did not do what you’re going to do: You are going to take your time, discuss the pros and cons of what to do next, find a new job. I got married, got pregnant and quit.”
Krawcheck claims that being pregnant and being home with a baby is “when my business education started…. I discovered pretty quickly that I am really not a fit mother,” she said jokingly, although her humor didn’t hide the point, which is that Krawcheck achieved a clarity about her career path that few working mothers resolve so quickly. “My husband and I decided I would be better off if I went to work,” she said. “And after that, for me, it has never been a question.”
Learning from past mistakes, Krawcheck carefully thought out her next career move. While she enjoyed the qualitative work and adrenalin rush of deadlines that characterized investment banking, she wanted to have time for her family and not be “beholden to the rhythms of a team.” She decided to be a research analyst, and in 1994, she sent her resume out all over Wall Street. Everyone she applied to turned her down. Krawcheck listed them at a fast clip — Salomon Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Smith Barney. “Smith Barney rejected me twice; they weren’t sure I got the letter so they sent it twice. What I quickly learned is that in order to be successful, you have to learn to take rejection. You can’t give up. I got very thick skin. The only job I accepted is the only job I got.”
A Training Ground for Leadership
She was hired to be a research analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, a research boutique that did no investment banking or underwriting. “I have to tell you, I loved this job,” said Krawcheck. She knows that being a research analyst “is a little out of style, a little 1990s, but it is an unbelievable training ground for leadership.” Why? Because being a research analyst provides training in the areas that Krawcheck considers essential to being a good leader:
- Learn to work alone. “The research analyst’s job is a pretty singular responsibility, really depending on [one’s self] without gathering consensus from a team.
- Be comfortable being uncomfortable. “If you go out and recommend a stock, and everyone says, ‘What a great stock,’ and you feel very comfortable and happy, most likely that stock is not going anywhere. Because if everyone likes it, everyone has already bought it.” When she was talking to large mutual fund managers about why she liked XYZ stock, and they told her they didn’t like it, “I had the opportunity to change minds…. Leadership, to me, can be a very uncomfortable experience, going someplace where people are not ready to go. As a research analyst, I had years of practice in doing this.”
- Accept that you are not perfect. As a research analyst, “you have the opportunity to be wrong a lot. Every day, the market tells you if you are right or wrong. You learn pretty quickly that you must get over it…. Making mistakes is part of it. You use all parts of your brain, you get negotiating skills, and you are constantly learning from the clients as well. That’s very important.”
- Develop a healthy ego. “Maybe we are not supposed to talk about this, but the only way you become a successful research analyst is to have a healthy ego, revel in your success and make a name for yourself. Part of it is that if you want to be successful, you’ve got to be out there. Being a leader is not necessarily (about) shining a spotlight on yourself but going into the spotlight when it’s important to get your message across.”
- Maintain the ability to look forward. “You always think, as a successful research analyst, not about what happened but about what’s going to happen. You develop a point of view that is not backward looking. You are always looking forward, you execute, you communicate and you get it done.”
After a few years at Bernstein, Krawcheck had become known as one of the most influential analysts in the financial field. She was promoted to director of research. “It was a great learning experience. I immediately grew an even thicker skin because almost everyone in the research department quit because they didn’t want to work for me. ‘Gee, you got here after we did; you’re too young; you’re a woman; we don’t like you.’ How do you get back from something like that? Well, you recover, you rebuild, you grow. After having a job as an analyst where it was all about me, I learned very quickly that being the director of research was all about them, the other research analysts, and celebrating their successes. Being a director of research is a cross between being a teacher and a psychiatrist. You have to completely subjugate your ego.”
In 2002, Sandy Weill, founder and head of Citigroup, hired Krawcheck to be the CEO of Smith Barney (formerly Salomon Smith Barney), Citigroup’s stock research and retail brokerage operation that Krawcheck the analyst had frequently clashed with. At the time, the research unit was in crisis after one of its superstar telecommunications analysts was found to be championing stocks of companies that were headed toward bankruptcy.
From this position, Krawcheck fashioned another of her hard-earned leadership tips: “Keep your mouth shut for the first three months. Take the opportunity to learn. And what I learned during that period of crisis is that, first, you should not over communicate. And second, you need to simplify, simplify, simplify. People want to know where you are going to take us, how we are going to get there, and what’s in it for me. That’s all they want to know. They really can’t see different shades of blue or green.”
Two years later, in November 2004, after successfully restructuring the equity research business, Krawcheck was named Citigroup’s CFO. “I like to say that I’m the CFO, but I call myself the ‘CF NO,'” said Krawcheck. “Because I spend a lot of time saying ‘no.'” Though Krawcheck says ‘no’ quickly to financial deals that don’t measure up, she suggests another approach when it involves a career opportunity. Her advice here is that “when you are offered something, don’t say ‘no.’ Go home, think about it, and if you must say ‘no,’ say ‘no’ the next day.”
Krawcheck’s final piece of advice: “Lose the arrogance,” she said. “Some of the most successful people I know are smart. They work hard, they have great insights, and they know it. That really turns people off. So many great leaders are humble…. When you get to your company and you start working, no one will care for long where you went to school or what your GPA was. They are going to care what you are doing then and there. If you are arrogant, if you make others feel not as smart as you are, it really puts people off. Take it home and feel pleased at home, but at the office, let your actions speak for you.”