Kim Sharan, President of Financial Planning and Wealth Strategies & Chief Marketing Officer for Ameriprise Financial, has been a passionate advocate for women investors and women financial planners since day one of her career.
“When I first started out there were so few women in this industry,” Sharan told me when we met in early August. “Proving that women can and will succeed in this business has been a motivating factor in so much of what I do.”
Sharan’s career in financial services is all thanks to her father spotting an ad in the classified section of The Wall Street Journal. It read: “The Merrill Lynch Accelerated Operations Management Development program seeks MBA candidates and recent college graduates.”
“My dad thought I should apply, but I had other ideas,” Sharan told me.
She had already accepted an offer in the retail industry, and was committed to her choice. But, just to appease her father, she applied for the Merrill Lynch program.
“I never thought they’d take me. I had a degree in economics, and I assumed they wanted someone with a stronger financial background,” she said. To her great surprise, she was accepted to the program.
Sharan’s father encouraged her to think about the Merrill Lynch opportunity. But, for Sharan, the decision came down to money. “The truth was the Merrill Lynch program paid $13,500. The other one paid $12,500. I thought $13,500 would make it easier for me to pay the rent,” Sharan said, breaking into a laugh. “That’s the true story of how I got into the industry.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
If Sharan knew how hard the first few years in the business would be, she probably would have stuck with retail.
This was 1979, and when Sharan walked into the program she was shocked to find that half of the other participants had their MBAs and most of them were men. Nothing felt right to her. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve made a huge mistake.’”
Sharan continued, “Then, on the second day of the program, one of the bosses came up to me and said, ‘Kim, it’s great to have you here. Just want you to know that no woman has ever made it through this program so, good luck.’”
If that man’s intention was to discourage Sharan, it had the opposite effect. It was in that very moment that she committed to getting through the arduous two-year program.
“It was that very conversation that made me so determined. It kicked my perseverance into hyper-drive. I was going to show them I could do it and that women could do it.”
Sharan also relied on others to help her through the many exams, such as the Series 7, which she had to pass within the first six months of the program.
“I have a lot of common sense, and I’m smart, but I’m not the smartest person in the room. I know when to rely on the expertise, experience, and advice of others to help me do the best I can.”
Prove the Doubters Wrong
After completing the program, Sharan was offered a job running the back office at the Merrill Lynch branch in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Upon her arrival at the office, the branch manager said, “I’m really happy to see you, but I was wondering why a woman and a Northerner would ever want to move to North Carolina.”
Sharan was taken aback. She calmly replied, “I’m really looking forward to turning all the knowledge and experience that I’ve had over the last two years into making this branch better. Right now your branch is ranked at the bottom, and I think I can help you.”
Once again, Sharan was motivated by those that doubted her. In a little over a year, Sharan moved the office to a ranking of #7 out of some 500 branches, approximately a 480-point improvement. Her bosses took notice, and promoted her to manage a five-office complex in Baltimore.
Sharan explained, “I leapfrogged from the bottom up to a much larger operation in a very short period of time because I was driven by perseverance and determination. I knew I could get the job done. And others knew it too.” She continued, “That’s been the story of my career. My bosses knew that if they put me in any position, I’ll get the job done.”
Always Ask for More
Sharan’s ability to deliver above and beyond expectations has been instrumental to her assuming a leadership position in the industry. Another integral component in her success has been her desire to keep learning and applying her knowledge to new areas—which has often meant asking, not waiting to be told, to take on additional responsibilities.
“Leaders are not waiting to be asked to move up the ladder,” she said. “Companies respond to people who are hungry, who want to better themselves, and who want to contribute more to the business,” she said.
A Passionate Mentor
When Sharan began her career, there were very few women mentors and even fewer women role models. Today, Sharan has become a passionate mentor, role model, and educator of women financial advisors. She often leads women-only workshops and forums that focus on building development and leadership skills.
“Above all, this is a relationship business, and women have always been really great at building relationships,” she said.
Sharan was generous enough to share with me the 10 Career Enhancing Principles, which she has collected along the way to motivate and empower those she comes in contact with:
- Create your own “brand” called “ME INC.” What do you want to stand for? What do you want to be known for? Create a set of words that you can repeat over and over and live by them.
- Master something you LOVE.
- Stand up for WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN even though it might not be popular.
- EMBRACE AMBIGUITY and enjoy the game. Don’t get caught in the trap of “someone didn’t tell me what to do.”
- Have THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE — the world is moving fast, don’t let it pass you by. Don’t do enough just to get by — go the extra mile.
- APPRECIATE and EMBRACE NEW TECHNOLOGY. The world is changing quickly and if you don’t embrace new technology, your productivity will likely deteriorate.
- DON’T BE AFRAID OF MAKING MISTAKES. Laugh them off and move on quickly.
- BE BALANCED IN YOUR VIEWS. Always try to understand and walk in another’s shoes.
- BE FIERCELY LOYAL to those you work with. Get to know your industry peers and learn from them as much as they can learn from you.
- NEVER BE SATISFIED…you choose to be DISTINCT or EXTINCT!
Above all, Sharan coaches talent to learn how to be comfortable with taking the risks necessary to build the life they want. “Don’t go with the flow,” she said. “Challenge the flow. Make sure that you are defining your own path. It is your story, and you have to have the power to tell it.”