For Amy Unckless, Head of Private Wealth Management and Global Chief Administrative Officer for Columbia Management, the key to success boils down to one simple thing: hard work.
When Unckless and I sat down to talk, she shared her view that focusing too much on office politics or gender politics can be detrimental to building a thriving career.
“Success comes from staying focused on your work and on what is best for your organization. While that approach may not feel like it serves you well in every single battle on every single day, I believe that, over time, this is the key to success,” Unckless said. “Hard work is what makes the real difference. Getting caught up in the noise can hinder that.”
Upon completing her PhD in Organizational Psychology, Unckless worked as a change management consultant for a number of years. She explained, “My time working as a consultant was extremely valuable because I gained exposure to a number of industries just as I was starting off in my career. I was predominantly helping companies manage through mergers and acquisitions. I felt as if I gained ten years of experience in my five years of consulting because I saw so much so quickly.”
However, after a while, Unckless was looking for something more permanent. “In change management consulting, you implement new practices or help organizations through an organizational change, and then you move on to the next thing. I wanted to be part of something that was longer term in nature. I still wanted to help organizations implement changes, but then to continue on to experience and learn from the results. ”
Get to Know the Whole Business
In 2002, Unckless joined Bank of America, working in their HR Department, and by 2004 she was the Head of Human Resources for Columbia Management.
“One of the beneficial things about working in Human Resources is that it can provide you with a broad view across the entirety of the business,” Unckless said. In 2008, she was named Columbia Management’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO).
“When I had the opportunity to move into the CAO role, it was a good fit because of the broad perspective I had on the business from working in HR.”
Unckless believes that her interest in learning all aspects of the business was an integral factor in her career advancement. “By learning more about the business than what my role required of me, I was prepared for taking on additional responsibility when the opportunity arose.”
She gained a comprehensive understanding of the company by connecting with numerous people working in different divisions. Unckless said that she was initially intimated by reaching out to people. “I was very concerned about imposing on people for their valuable time.” However, she quickly discovered that the people she met with were happy to make time for her. “I found out that people love to talk about their jobs and their role in the business. I spent time on our trading desk and in our call center, for example, just to understand how those parts of the business worked. It was a fantastic way to learn about all the various aspects of the company.”
Powerful Lessons in Hard Times
When Unckless first started at Bank of America, she had to confront the thing that all high-achieving people fear the most – failure. “Though this probably doesn’t set me apart from anyone else, I really don’t like failing,” she said to me with a smile. “But I learned that if I don’t fail occasionally, then I’m probably not stretching myself enough and, therefore, I’m not learning and growing as much as I could be.”
Unckless continued, “My mentors played a critical role in helping me handle failure. Their support gave me the confidence to learn from my mistakes, put things in perspective and move on.”
As much as failure can be a powerful teacher, so can working in a difficult economic climate. Unckless recently met with Ted Truscott, CEO of Global Asset Management at Columbia Management and her current manager, to talk through a particular challenge she was navigating. “He said to me, ‘I know that this is a difficult time, but it will make you into a better executive. The executives that came up through the 90s, when the rising tide was lifting all boats, thought they were better than they were. They weren’t truly being tested. Today, the environment is far from easy, but that gives you the chance to learn and grow from the challenges.’”
Women in Financial Services: A Pipeline Problem
Though Unckless concedes that there is definitely a lack of women in leadership positions within the financial services industry, she thinks an even larger problem is that there aren’t enough women entering into the industry. She said, “As I look at the industry, there are fewer women among the ranks at every level.”
In order to attract more women to the industry, Unckless stresses the importance of creating a more flexible work environment. “In order for companies to benefit from the full breadth of capable people in the workforce, they need to provide enough flexibility as possible. Flexibility, in terms of both geography and how the work day is structured, doesn’t necessarily result in people working less. They will work smarter. Talented people will contribute just as much, if not more, working in a flexible environment.”
A Balancing Act
Unckless, who is the mother of a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, says being a mom makes her better at her job. “My children help me keep perspective on the business world by giving me an important counterpoint in my life. I can deal with business situations all day and get caught up in the intensity of it all – only to return home to kids who want to play hide and seek and build spaceships out of legos. It’s a good reminder of the important, simpler things in life.”
The reverse is true as well. “It is a balancing act, but it never occurred to me not to come back to work after I had children. Everyone is different, but I think I’m better as a mother because I have work in my life to fulfill that part of me,” she said.
“It isn’t always easy, but it is worth it.”