Christine Todd is the embodiment of Sheryl Sandberg’s plea to professional women to “lean in.” As President of Standish and head of both the Tax-Sensitive Division and the Insurance Asset Management Strategies, Todd leads a staff of 35 and oversees a large portion of Standish’s approximately $170 billion in assets. She oversees management of $30 billion of the company’s tax-sensitive assets– municipal bonds, corporate bonds and other fixed income—as well as Standish’s $25 billion insurance division. By all measures, she has achieved remarkable success in a sector that is traditionally male-dominated. I recently sat down with Todd to find out how she’s achieved her goals and what she’s learned along the way.
Whatever You Do, Do It Well
A cursory review of Christine Todd’s resume reveals that she has climbed to impressive heights on the corporate ladder, particularly for one so young. I asked Todd what decisions she’d made to propel her toward such success. Her answer was somewhat surprising.
“I would say that I chose my career almost completely by accident,” Todd confessed. “I wanted to go to either Boston or New York after college, and it just so happened that the first job offer I received was in my hometown of Boston. I found the job through my boss at my summer internship; he introduced me to a bunch of people in the Boston office and I was hired as the perky client service girl in the private banking group. I was noticed for my quickness at answering the phone—I excelled at that job. I was really organized–not one little client thing slipped through the cracks. It seems trivial on the face of it, but I found it really mattered to those I worked with.
“It was observed that I had high attention to detail, so I was asked to do things like be the very detail-oriented data girl during the senior loan committee meetings, the highest-level meetings at a bank. I had no role but for pulling up client accounts, but I had a lot of exposure and again, I didn’t goof up. One of the company’s clients noticed that I was an eager student and asked if I’d like to be an assistant trader at their very small asset management company, Gannett, Welsh and Kotler, at the time, a firm with about $250 million under management and approximately 20 employees. It sounded more interesting than my current job, so I headed over there and became part of a very, very tight group of people in an extremely fast-growing firm. I was a skilled writer and someone asked me if I could spellcheck an economic letter that was going out. In my naïve enthusiasm, I edited the entire document, blind to how that might offend. Eventually, I gained enough respect such that I was able to use this skill to be a valuable resource, in addition to my job as the trading assistant.”
Although Todd obviously showed tremendous personal initiative from the moment she embarked upon her career, I also wondered whether there had been anyone special who had mentored or sponsored her along the way. When I inquired, Todd didn’t hesitate to name names.
“My mother was my first and best mentor, and she still is,” Todd asserted. “She is extremely blunt and direct, and I trust her implicitly. She has my best interests in mind and she’s very smart. She’s brilliant when it comes to the emotional quotient, brilliant beyond anyone I’ve ever met. She’s incredibly skilled at putting together a mosaic of sensitivities, facts, and analysis…there is no one that does so more accurately and with more insight. She’s given me advice, backed up by those skills that she has, that has sent me in the right direction. And I have doggedly tried to bone up and emulate those skills, recognizing how valuable they are.”
Her second most important mentor, Todd noted, was her former boss at Gannett, Welsh and Kotler: Harold Kotler. “Harold was a very direct, honest, no-nonsense guy who gave me extremely immediate and blunt feedback on the many, many mistakes I was making,” Todd explained. “For example, I had bad habits like talking too loudly, and although I was very hard-working, I didn’t take lunch at the hours they wanted me to and I was lax about things like chewing gum. Harold told me, ‘These things are very trivial and mundane, but you just can’t do them.’
But the most important thing that he told me–which has stayed with me throughout my career–was, ‘When you make a mistake or you’re unsure about your judgment on something, immediately disclose that and get feedback, advice and help.’ He said that the worse the mistake was, the sooner he needed to know about it so that we could work together to find a solution. ‘Without that transparency,’ he said, ‘it’s going to become a big problem.’ So small or large, if I thought something needed a judgment call or if something hadn’t gone quite right, I went to Harold. And the second thing he counseled was ‘Answer the question that you’re being asked. The answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and you can explain, but never go into an explanation without having immediately answered the question.’ Working with Harold taught me that your job will be much more enjoyable if you’re confident enough to share yourself with clients and coworkers. It’s more satisfying and more effective to be honest about who you are—it’s both disarming and appealing.”
There was one more mentor, Todd told me, who made an indelible impression on her: former Standish President George Noyes. “George was a workaholic who regrets prioritizing, at times, his job over his family,” Todd recalled, “and he continually reminds me that, at the end of the day, what you do at your job is not going to matter compared to what you do with your family. It’s not worth making any sacrifices that would harm your family for the benefit of your job.”
Todd told me that Noyes also impressed upon her the fact that, no matter how successful one may be, it’s always important to have a ‘Plan B.’ “If you’re going out to lunch with George and he sees a coin on the sidewalk, he’ll pick it up, hand it to you and say, ‘You’ve got to remember to save your nickels. It matters.’ He taught me that it’s important to have some humility, refrain from living beyond your means and save something for the next generation.”
It Comes Down to Chemistry
Given that Todd has benefited from some influential mentors over the course of her career, I asked about her own approach to mentoring. It’s a relationship, she averred, that cannot be forced.
“I believe in mentoring only to the extent that it evolves naturally,” Todd said. “The experiences that I’ve had where there’s been a formal match-up in the women’s initiative-type situation have been fine, and I’ve mentored both men and women in that formal capacity, but it goes back to that premise of being real. There’s so much that goes into successful mentoring, and a lot of it is just chemistry. And that chemistry can’t be manufactured, nor can it be matched up like a dating service. If the relationship doesn’t develop naturally, it’s not as successful, despite the efforts that are genuinely made by both parties.”
By way of illustration, Todd told me that she had recently been commended by her boss, Standish Chairman & CEO Desmond MacIntyre, for successfully mentoring several individuals at the company. This surprised her, she revealed, because rather than mentoring these employees, Todd felt that she had simply recognized their drive to do the best job possible in jobs that were not particularly glamorous and provided them with opportunities to advance. “In the tax-sensitive group half, or maybe two-thirds, are in that mold. We’ve plucked them out of somewhere else and they’ve grown into senior roles within the group. It’s a model that I think works best because you’re developing incredible loyalty and tremendous trust, so it becomes a highly functional relationship–much less insecure. Those insecurities are what undermine an organization.”
Stay in the Game
My next question to Todd caught her by surprise. ‘What,’ I asked, ‘is it like to be the only woman on Standish’s board? “Until you asked that question, I had literally never thought about it,” she responded. I pursued the question further, asking her why she thought that gender had never been an issue for her when it has proved to be an obstacle for so many other women.
“Part of it is that women take themselves out of the game because of crisis periods in the life cycle when you just don’t think you can take it anymore. You take this crisis period, project it into the future and say, ‘There is no way I can do what I’m doing right now for the next five years. I cannot possibly imagine it, so I’m out.’ And there’s no question that it’s too much right now. But if you get through it, you’ll be better for it. You’ll be stronger and you’ll have much more confidence in your capabilities, as well as more choices as you build a full and productive life.”
What then, I asked Todd, can organizations do to deter women from opting out during these critical periods? Isn’t this the time when a mentor’s guidance can be crucial? Yes, she told me, in times of crisis it helps to talk to an objective third-party who’s familiar with your situation and can help you see past the crisis. In one instance Todd remembered, she called her father in tears because work wasn’t going well. “I told him, ‘I’m quitting my job,’ and he said, ‘You can’t do that. It doesn’t make sense and it’s not rational. Go back. Do a good job at what you’re doing. Take emotion out of it and you can do a job search, but you cannot leave that job until you have another job.’ So I stayed until I found a new job, which I loved.”
On another occasion, it was Todd’s mother who got her over the hump. “I was studying for the CFA exam, had just had a baby and had lots going on politically at work and I decided, ‘You know what? Forget it. This is a joke. I’m not taking a promotion. I’m just going to be a muni analyst for the rest of my career. It’ll be a great career–much easier and less complicated.’ And my mother said to me, ‘Don’t be crazy. Take the exam. Take the promotion and see how it works out.’ And guess what? It was fantastic. I rose to the occasion. I found things inside of me that didn’t take away energy, that instead added energy, and I was in a much more relaxed place, ironically, than if I had kicked back.”
Allow Yourself Time to Accomplish Your Goals
In addition to encouraging women to push through the inevitable tough times in their careers, I asked Todd if there were any other words of advice she would like to share.
“Yes. I am working on something that I’ve been made aware of more recently by my boss, Des. It was another pivotal moment in my career when I was reminded that there is no end to continuous improvement and a steep learning curve. I was determined not to take the criticism personally and decided to work through it.”
The problems and challenges unique to women in the workplace, Todd said, center around the fact that women by nature take ownership of a multitude of responsibilities—to their families, to their employers and to themselves. “No matter how you slice it, women who have families carry the burden of the day-to-day,” Todd explained. “The buck stops with you, and that requires a huge piece of your energy. To compensate, women become highly efficient and productive, in order to get more done in less time. The pace and focus can be off-putting, and ironically have the effect of slowing the team’s progress. My advice—and the lesson I’m still learning—is to recognize the need for a breather, and when it’s not possible to accept a longer timeline to accomplish some goals, take the precious time to simply explain the journey.”
Incorporate All the Flexibility You Can Afford
While allowing oneself the luxury of a slower timeline sounds good in theory; in practice, however, it is oftentimes a difficult goal to achieve, particularly for those women who must juggle the demands of a family as well. I asked Todd how she found time for her work as well as her husband and three children.
“Well number one, over-hire help that you trust,” Todd asserted. “You need a back-up. Don’t save money. Save money when the kids are on their own. For now, secure lots of help at home with things that are low-value but have to get done: errands, laundry, housecleaning, that sort of thing. And don’t cut corners on being available for the family when it is important. The comfort of knowing that the resources are in place to ensure all needs are met is invaluable. In my experience, incorporating as much flexibility as you can afford and being unbelievably organized will get you on your way to a healthy balance of work and home life.”
Let Your Gender Work For You
As we neared the end of our interview, I asked Todd if there were any pieces of advice that she would give mid-level executives who may be struggling to take their careers to the next level. Her response was somewhat unexpected.
“Use the fact that you’re a woman to your advantage,” Todd counseled. “It is a huge plus, and it frustrates me when people say, ‘I can’t get ahead because I’m a woman; they’re picking on me.’ You know what? Human beings are going to pick on people who allow themselves to be picked on. That has nothing to do with being a woman; it has to do with you letting it happen.
“Think about what an advantage you have going into a meeting,” she continued. “You’re the only woman in the room or you’re one of two. Everybody else has a dark suit, a white shirt, a tie, a short haircut, and is clean shaven, so you stand out. It’s a huge advantage. And if you surprise people with your confidence, your intelligence, and your humor, they’re going to remember you because you stand out. So use that to your advantage. And if you don’t, shame on you. If you go through a meeting and you have nothing to say, you’ve given up an opportunity, a huge opportunity. Don’t wear a badge: ‘I’m a woman. Hear me roar.’ Instead adopt the attitude, ‘If I can’t beat ‘em, I’ll join ‘em.’ You’ve got to be part of the gang, but you also need to be feminine and resist being afraid of that because it sets you apart. You just have to be careful with your choice of words and the level of emotion you reveal. You can be incredibly assertive, you just can’t get emotional.”
Pay It Forward By Giving Back
My last question to Todd focused on her volunteer work. She is an active participant in a number of alumni groups and charitable organizations, and I was curious as to what drove her to spend so much free time volunteering when she already has a demanding work schedule.
“I’ve always been very passionate about the schools because of the gift of having been given a fine education and inclusion in a vibrant community. I believe that education strengthens and defines one’s identity and confidence, which are critical tools when overcoming so many of life’s obstacles.
“I’m also deeply appreciative of the education that was afforded to me. It changed my life by expanding my thinking, helping me to become more articulate and expressive, and enhancing my ability to analyze problems and situations. There’s no amount of time or money that could represent the value that’s been given to me by those institutions. I hope that those who follow me are afforded a similar opportunity, so I aim to invest in the continued vitality of these educational institutions.”
Todd told me that she’s also recently become very involved with Year Up, a group founded by a successful entrepreneur who said, ‘There’s an opportunity divide. There are some people in our society that are smart and kind and hardworking, but for their circumstances aren’t able to play on the same footing that the rest of us are. With the benefit of training in personal and professional skills and habits, the aim, Todd explained, is to get individuals ages 18 to 24 to the point where they can compete equally, because that, she says, is how you change the world—one talented individual at a time.
“The program was founded in Boston, and it’s also in six other cities in the country. It offers participants a year of intensive training in IT and accounting as well as guidance on how to dress, shake hands, hold conversations, and object to something…very basic and intuitive things. Then they are awarded an internship at a company and hopefully that turns into full-time employment.”
Starting in January, Todd said, BNY Standish will be offering two Year Up internships. “Standish pays $25,000 for the internship–it’s considered a charitable contribution to Year Up—and the student gets a stipend. This allows participants to focus their energy on the internship, without having to get another job. It gives them the opportunity to compete, but it’s up to them whether they compete successfully. Eighty-seven percent of the kids from this program have a positive outcome, which means full-time employment or full-time enrollment in school…eighty-seven percent. It’s just over the top. These kids are really up for the challenge, more than most kids coming out of Boston College and Georgetown. Who wouldn’t want someone like that in their company?”