Former Wall Street CEO Sallie Krawcheck on Bouncing Back After Getting Fired (Twice)
Molly Triffin
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Sallie Krawcheck may have started from the bottom as a research analyst, but she quickly climbed her way to the top on Wall Street—holding C-suite positions at giants like Smith Barney, Citigroup and Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

In her new book, “Own It,” she shares lessons learned from her topsy-turvy career path. (Did we mention she got fired from two of those top posts?)

We spoke with Krawcheck, who now runs a female-focused investment platform called Ellevest, about rebounding from high-profile failures, dealing with sexual harassment at work—and why work-life balance is a joke.

Just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. What do you think helped you get there?

A lot of hard work. Luck, of course. And smart risk-taking. I was never scared to stand out from the pack.

When I ran Sanford Bernstein, we had a strategy that was very different from other research firms, which were pursuing two businesses: research and investment banking. They were both very lucrative, yet in conflict. If you were doing a good job for one client, you were doing a poor job for another client.

I recognized this and moved us away from investment banking. For years, the business suffered—until the rest of Wall Street was revealed to have these conflicts and to have put out research that was conflicted, if not downright incorrect. When that happened, the company soared.

As a result of that risky stance, I was offered the opportunity of being the CEO of Smith Barney. I don’t think I would have become CEO if I had started there as a trainee.

In “Own It,” you encourage women to “embrace and invest in our innate strengths” to succeed. What strengths should women leverage at work?

Let me start with a caveat: This isn’t true of every person, but it is researched based. The skills women bring to work are valuable because companies with more women in senior leadership positions tend to outperform more homogenous companies by quite a bit.

Women are very good at relationships, which is a hard skill to outsource. [This] matters even at a big company [like Citigroup]. While there were processes and procedures in place for almost everything, the real game-changing work got done through relationships: convincing people of something, communicating with them and understanding the tradeoffs it would take for them to support a project.

Women also have risk awareness. Not risk aversion—but trying to quantify and understand risk. We are able to make decisions in complex situations. Men make faster, more efficient decisions, but we tend to be able to juggle more variables.

We have long-term orientation, whereas men tend to take a shorter-term perspective. The balance of both can lead to better results.

Your book also touches on sexual harassment you’ve endured at work. Do you think we’re making strides in this area?

For years, I thought we were, but the march to diversity in corporate America has stalled. Gender-pay parity is decades away, if not longer.

A series of events has popped up that can lead one to believe the worst of the sexual harassment is not as far in our rearview mirror as we thought…

CEOs need to fire people who perpetuate this, actively work to change the culture and promote women. Positions on boards are terrific because boards set policy. But the day to day of a company takes place inside the company. Having a diverse group of women in leadership positions influences office culture in a meaningful way.

After your fallout with Citibank, you bounced back, scoring a huge job at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. How did you process the career blow?

I gave myself a period to feel sad, embarrassed and angry. [Then] I recognized this was not the end of my life. I was still by any measure one of the most fortunate people I have ever met. When you recognize how blessed you’ve been, dusting yourself off and getting back into the ring is no big deal.

What’s the worst that can happen? You get fired again. And that actually did happen to me.

Before I went to run Smith Barney, I remember talking to a friend about the upside and downside of the position. The upside is that I get to have a job that no other woman has had. I get to learn and turn around a great business and have an impact. The downside is public failure and humiliation. I said I can deal with that.

You’ve said that the “having it all”  and “work-life balance” conversations drive you nuts. Tell me more about that.

“Balance” or “having it all” implies a certain level of perfection. Have you been on a balance beam? You can do it for a minute, but balancing can be difficult. And when you drill down, work-life balance is for privileged individuals—some women don’t have the luxury to struggle with it.

Instead of reaching work-life balance, [I look at] whether I’m making a difference. Am I having a positive impact?

You’re refreshingly candid about the highs and lows of your career. Why did you decide to be so vocal?

There are so many stories about businesswomen who struggled for a bit, then were super successful. My path is not a perfect, straight line.

My 20s were a waste…In my 30s, I was very successful. In my 40s, I was fired, successful and then fired again. Now here I am as an entrepreneur, more terrified yet having more fun and being more engaged in my work than ever.

It all happened to me—and I got back up and kept going.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

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