Liz Ann Sonders
Senior Vice President
Chief Investment Strategist
Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.
Liz Ann Sonders is the personification of a multi-tasker. Although she is well known as the Chief Investment Strategist for Charles Schwab, Sonders actually serves a dual role, also acting as Chair of the Investment Committee of Windhaven Investment Management, a subsidiary of Charles Schwab.
As Chief Investment Strategist, Sonders’ responsibilities require that she take the 30,000-foot view, offering insights and opinions regarding activity in world markets through written pieces, speaking events, video presentations and the like. Sonders characterizes her role as an interpreter who seeks to make sense of the connection between the economy, the market and global forces for Schwab’s clients and, in some cases, for outside investors. She concedes that her role is a bit unusual in that she has an executive title but doesn’t manage people (with the exception of her assistant), and she has no P&L responsibility.
Sonders assumed her second role as Chair of the Investment Committee of Windhaven Investment Management a little over a year ago when the founder retired. She joined the team as a senior member, chairing the investment committee and working with several former Schwab colleges. Today she is involved with day-to-day management of the group, a more traditional money management role like those she occupied at the genesis of her career almost three decades ago.
I recently sat down with Sonders to discuss the evolution of her career and what she has learned over the years. In Part Two of our conversation, we discussed how Sonders has not only advocated for herself but also taken advantage of the opportunities she has been given.
A commitment to self
As the mother of four children with three daughters, I was moved by Sonders’ commitment to modeling a successful integration of personal and professional life, not only for her daughter but for other young women as well. In fact, Sonders’ efforts were publicly recognized in 2008, when the Girl Scouts of New York honored her as an ‘Exceptional Role Model for Young Women.’ What did this recognition mean to her, I asked, and what example does she hope to set for the next generation of women?
“Well, that award was due in part to my friend Maria Bartiromo, who has served on the board of the Girl Scouts of New York for years. I believe that the message of empowerment for girls is really important, particularly for those who don’t grow up with strong role models. I want young girls to understand that no matter what their background or upbringing, there are great opportunities in this world, through the educational process and through industries they might not even have considered.
“I remember thinking about this for the first time when my daughter was much younger, probably around seven or eight. I came home from work one day and my daughter and a friend were there. I was wearing a pencil skirt and a blouse or something similar, and my daughter’s friend looked at me and said, ‘I thought all girls that worked had to wear navy blue pant suits.’ It was a simple observation, but it made me realize that her vision of what a working woman looked like was very different than mine. So one of the messages that I always give girls is, ‘You can be yourself, you can be feminine, you can show your warmth and your compassion, you do not have to play the male game,’ which many women feel they must. I’m always the first to say, ‘Being a woman can be a significant advantage in this industry. You’re automatically different right out of the blocks; you’re not a ‘middle-aged white guy,’ so you’re immediately one-step out from the starting line.’ The mission is to figure out how to take advantage of that advantage.”
A desire to succeed
Given Sonders’ longevity in the field, together with the tremendous success she has realized, I couldn’t leave the interview without asking her if she had any advice to share with other women who were seeking to progress in their careers. She didn’t hesitate to offer her thoughts.
• “You can’t be a shrinking violet if you want to move up. When you watch how men move up, you realize that there’s often an element of aggression to their behavior. There’s a self-confidence and an attitude that says, ‘I’m of value; I’m worth this. I’m going to fight for each step that I get.’ I think some women have a tendency to wait for opportunities to come to them rather than saying, ‘I’m ready for this; I want this.’ At the same time, I find that some women think that they have to embrace harshness in trying to reach those goals, and I don’t think that’s true. You don’t have to suppress your personality or what’s unique about yourself as a woman.
• “You must learn how to communicate. Learn how to look somebody in the eye. Learn how to think critically. You’re not going to be sitting across the table from anyone who’s going to be hiring you because of something specific you learned in your Econ 101 class. Employers want somebody who is articulate, interested and interesting…and can speak without saying ‘like’ or ‘goes’ (a pet peeve of mine; much to the chagrin of my kids who have been getting those words drilled out of them since they were little). When I run across somebody young who is well-read, engaged and engaging…oh, and doesn’t have her face in the phone and doesn’t speak in text language…I notice it.”
A willingness to communicate
Since Sonders had addressed the importance of communication, I couldn’t resist asking her if she had experienced any ‘light-bulb moments’ where someone said something that really resonated. She didn’t hesitate in her response.
“Yes! The experience involved an interaction with one of my other ‘non-traditional’ mentors, the late-great Louis Rukeyser– an icon and a gentleman. The encounter happened the very first time I was on Wall Street Week as a guest, before I became a regular panelist. As long-time viewers may recall, the first part of the show was Lou’s opening monologue, after which he would walk over to the table, introduce the three panelists and do the panelist interviews. Then he would walk over to the sofa and chairs area and introduce the special guest. Prior to start of the show, Lou would greet his guest, who would literally be standing in the wings, waiting and listening to his monologue and the panel discussion before coming out and sitting on the sofa.
“Just before Lou went out to do his monologue, he came over and said, ‘Liz Ann, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show.’ He asked if I was nervous and I said, ‘I’m close to petrified.’ He said, ‘That’s very normal. I promise you that it’s going to go fast, you’ll do a great job, you’ll have a lot of fun, and you’ll want to come back.’
“We chatted a bit more and then he asked me what I thought, at the time, was an odd question: ‘Are your parents still alive?’ I replied yes, and he followed up with, ‘Are they in the business?’ I replied, ‘My business or your business?’ He said, ‘Your business…are they finance people? Did you grow up in a Wall Street home?’ I told him no, my dad was in ad sales for a trade magazine and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. He put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘OK, do me a favor. When you come out here in 15 minutes, get them to understand what you’re talking about.’ That advice has resonated with me over the years, particularly so at this stage in my career when the majority of my job is communication.
“I’m communicating, in some cases, about very complex topics in terms that I hope the average investor understands, and what’s most interesting is that about 90 percent of the time, when somebody makes it a point to send me an email, write me a note, pick up the phone or come up to me at an event they’ll say, ‘I really appreciate that you talk about these complicated topics in plain language that we can understand,’ I certainly know that after almost 30 years in this business, there’s nothing that is more of a turnoff to me then if I have to read something four times because I’m trying to get past the narcissism of the writer who wants to sound like the smartest person that’s ever put pen to paper (or stood on a stage). Some of the best research I read is simple to understand and very much ‘tells it like it is.’ So, the motivation to ‘tell it like it is’ started with Lou; but resonates with me today.
“Lou’s advice was a little less relevant to me at that time because I was managing money and I wasn’t in the public domain as much as I am now, but I took it to heart then and I’m always pleased when people say, ‘I really appreciate the simplicity with which you write and speak.’
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about women, but I must say it’s been a treat to have worked with and learned from very gifted and inspirational men: I started my career working with the late-great Marty Zweig, one of the icons in this business; I got my media start with Louis Rukeyser; and for the past 15 years I’ve worked for Chuck Schwab. It just does not get any better than that, both in terms of the character of these leaders and the iconic status that they’ve each had in their respective businesses. Chuck, in particular, stands out. Since the financial crisis, we’ve really seen the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, and I think that the character and culture that Chuck represents and has fostered in our company is second-to-none. I think Chuck—and Lou, in different ways—truly democratized investing and made it accessible for all. I feel extremely blessed to have been along for some of the ride.”
An ability to seize the moment
While Sonders is very gracious about the influence that Rukeyser, Schwab and others have had on her professional development, I couldn’t help thinking that she was not giving herself enough credit. Although she has clearly availed herself of every chance afforded her, I suspected that she’d always made her own luck in some regards. How did such wonderful opportunities come to you, I pressed.
“My first push out into the media world came from someone who is now a colleague of mine at Windhaven. We worked together for 17 years, first at Avatar and then at US Trust, and now at Windhaven.
“It was 1997, and Marty Zweig was moving away from his day-to-day involvement with the Avatar side of the business. This was a big PR hurdle we had to overcome because of his fame and his longstanding involvement with the business. We brought in a gentleman from an outside PR firm to help us through that process, and one of the things that he suggested was that we get one or two of our key people on a financial television show to leverage the fame that Marty had and the influence of financial media. It was decided that a male colleague of mine, who had just joined the firm ten months before, was the one who should go on TV.
“It was my friend who said, ‘Why would you pick the portfolio manager who has only been here ten months? He barely knows our process. What about Liz Ann?’ I don’t know exactly how the PR guy responded, because I wasn’t in the room. Apparently, however, his response had an undertone of chauvinism, something akin to, ‘Well, I think he’s got it, and she doesn’t.’ That really turned off my friend.
“So he went to Ned Babbitt, the head of our firm, and said, ‘I need to step in on this because I think this is unfair.’ Ned agreed and told the PR guy, ‘You’re going to promote Liz Ann as well because she’s been here a long time, we’ve seen her in front of clients, and she can do it.’
“So I did my very first-ever CNBC appearance (I was a nervous wreck.) As I was coming back to the office, I got a phone call from the producer of Wall Street Week saying, ‘We would like you to come on as a guest.’ That was the beginning of the media part of my career, which really has been quite a hoot over the years.
“It was also a turning point for me because it was the one time I really faced direct chauvinism, where somebody tried to keep me from doing something because of the way he viewed women, and a male friend stepped in and supported me, which was great.”