A top exec at Wells Fargo shares the career moves that helped her crack the glass ceiling

Lisa McGeough
Lisa McGeough says being the CEO of your career means you actively take control of it, rather than passively waiting for success to come your way.

  • Lisa McGeough, head of international banking at Wells Fargo, shared how she broke the glass ceiling. 
  • Deloitte research from 2019 shows that women hold only 22% of leadership roles in finance.
  • The glass ceiling is the set of obstacles women face when trying to ascend to top corporate positions. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

When Lisa McGeough first walked onto the fixed income trading floor at Salomon Brothers (which was later acquired by Citi) in 1984, she was one of about 12 women in her class. There were more than some 65 men. 

McGeough, then 21, quickly learned she was in a man’s world. And the odds were not in her favor. 

Over the years, she’d experience numerous microaggressions from her male colleagues.  

“Girls can’t trade.” 

“You’re so good at note-taking.” 

“I didn’t know you were interested in golf.”

But she refused to let them get to her. Today, McGeough holds one of the highest positions in finance. She leads Wells Fargo’s international banking operations, which encompasses all the businesses across the Americas, Asia Pacific and Europe, Middle East, and Africa. 

“It was a tough place, the trading floor,” McGeough told Insider. “But that’s where I developed my resilience because I was not able to change the culture. I had to adapt to the culture, and survive the culture, and then thrive within the culture.” 

There’s been progress toward gender equality since the 1980s. Social norms have changed. The recent #MeToo movement has forced leaders to take a hard look at sexual harassment and the lack of women in leadership within their own walls. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1991, for example, gave people suing for workplace discrimination more rights and forced employers to take claims more seriously. 

Yet, at the same time, many things have remained the same. Executive positions are still mostly occupied by white men. Out of all the CEOs on the Fortune 500 list, only about 37 are women. There are only 6 black CEOs. 

There’s still a glass ceiling, a set of barriers women face when trying to climb the corporate ladder and make it into the C-suite. According to Deloitte research from 2019, women hold only 22% of leadership roles in finance. While it’s expected to grow, to 32% by 2030, that’s still well below parity.  

Approximately 48% of senior leaders at Wells Fargo are women, according to company data provided to Insider. Some 25% are racially or ethnically diverse and 9% are Black. 

Industry leaders like Salesforce and Amazon still wrestle with workplace discrimination, according to reports. And businesses across a range of industries show disappointing diversity numbers when it comes to their executive leadership. 

This is despite women holding 50% of entry-level positions, according to 2019 research from McKinsey and LeanIn. 

McGeough cracked the ceiling, though. For International Women’s Day, she reflected on how she did it. 

Learning the value of hard work 

McGeough said she’ll never forget visiting her immigrant grandparents. Her grandmother, who emigrated from Italy, worked two jobs – one at a men’s tailor shop and another at a local garden. She’d come home, pick food from the family’s garden in their backyard, cook dinner, and then would routinely stay up until nearly 3 a.m. sewing clothes for the family. 

McGeough’s parents, who owned an IT company in Chicago, encouraged her and her three younger siblings to work hard in school and in life. 

“It’s been in my psyche for my whole life, watching them as role models and how hard they worked,” she said. “Hard work, focused dedication, and resilience are the things that I got from them.” 

McGeough attended Bowdoin College in Maine, graduating with a degree in economics. Shortly after, she began a three-year career at Salomon Brothers. 

She worked hard to make it in the cut-throat world of finance, facing constant microaggressions and bosses who didn’t believe in her abilities. 

But she stayed determined. 

“No, one’s going to knock me out,” she’d tell herself. “No, one’s going to win. I am going to be the one that’s going to. I’m going to survive and I’m going to thrive.”  

Hard work alone, however, didn’t make her an executive, she said. 

“There is no fairy godmother. There’s no person who’s going to just notice you and pull you into a high level role,” she said.  

Be the CEO of your career

Lisa McGeough
McGeough said women and people from underrepresented groups should have a team of people who know their hard work and can advocate for them in rooms where decisions are being made.

Women and other professionals from underrepresented groups have to be more active about how they plan their career growth, she told Insider.  

Her philosophy boils down to a simple catchphrase: “Be the CEO of your career.” 

In other words, take charge of your career, as a CEO would take charge of their company. Actively advocate for yourself.

For example, do not assume your manager or your manager’s manager will notice your hard work, she said. Keep track of your progress, she said, and bring it up in meetings, especially when it comes time to performance reviews.

Make sure your career has a “board of directors,” or a group of people who can help you along the way and advocate for you. 

“It’s not just your boss. It’s your clients, a lateral manager, mentors or sponsors,” she said. 

They can advocate for you when you’re not in the rooms where decisions are being made. 

By having a board of directors, McGeough said she was recommended for roles that other women were passed up for. 

Know when to move and look for new opportunities 

Women have to know when to leave a job where they can no longer grow.

For McGeough, that happened when she had a manager who insisted she go home to take care of her kids instead of offering her the opportunity to cover clients who required extensive travel. This was despite her insistence she was the family’s breadwinner. 

After that experience she knew she had to get out.

Career progress often isn’t a straight path, but rather a series of lateral moves, she said. Some of those moves happened when she saw an opportunity, raised the issue with leadership, and pitched herself for the role. 

“I raised my hand to do something very hard that no one else was doing. And there was a very large gap in this particular role that I observed,” she said. “Take risks, be uncomfortable.” 

Now, as a leader, she actively advocates for up-and-coming talent, especially women and those from underrepresented backgrounds. 

“How do I advocate for this talented woman or diverse person on my team to give them the visibility that they need? Because I’ve experienced what they’re experiencing now. How do I create a diverse leadership team?” 

Those are questions she says more leaders should be thinking about, she said. 

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From being called ‘bossy’ to becoming the boss: 7 leadership lessons from successful women doctors

Untitled design (1)
(L-R) Dr. Peggy Taylor, Dr. Ouida Collins, and Dr. Mary Manis.

When I was in elementary school, all of my grade cards came back with great scores and really positive comments. However, there always was the one little comment “She’s too bossy and overly talkative.”

Darian Dozier
Darian Dozier.

I had a big personality and used that to my advantage from a young age. Interestingly enough, as I transitioned into high school, my grade cards began to read “She’s a great leader and has great class participation.” 

I wondered if my “bossiness” and excessive talking had become more direct and efficient, or if I was just perceived differently by elementary school teachers versus high school teachers. I’ll never know, but one thing I do know is the detrimental effects that the word “bossy” can have on a young girl. 

It’s discouraging to young ladies and makes them feel as if they cannot be assertive. How can girls aspire to be politicians, lawyers, and judges if we shoot down their leadership traits from the very beginning? Several women leaders in medicine spoke with me about their “bossy” experiences, and how they’ve learned to use this trait successfully throughout their careers.

1. Assertive women may have to make adjustments to earn respect

“I had to learn how to lower the tone of my voice and smile more to not come off as controlling,” said Dr. Sharon Gustowski

Dr. Sharon Gustowski
Dr. Sharon Gustowski.

Gustowski is an osteopathic doctor based in Houston, Texas who is certified in neuromusculoskeletal and osteopathic manipulative medicine.

As a young child, she was independent and assertive, which helped her to gain the respect and trust of her elders who felt comfortable leaning on her for more responsibilities. As doctor however, she felt this trait and the way she carried herself alienated her peers, because it seemed she came off as snobby and unfriendly.

To offset these perceptions, she made adjustments to her tone and mannerisms so she was more inviting. Constantly being aware of your delivery can be exhausting, but she said it felt like she had to do it to earn respect and not be ostracized. 

As a current medical student, Gustowski’s account helped me understand that assertive women may have to adjust facial expressions, hand movements, volume, and tone to be heard in male certain dominated atmospheres. Without these adjustments, their colleagues may get caught up in the delivery and not the message which hinders progress, which could create strain and frustration.   

2. Becoming a leader comes with growing pains

The road to becoming a good leader isn’t straight and easy. In fact, becoming a leader will probably include quite a few setbacks before successes. Dr. Candace Walkley, an internal medicine physician based in Conroe, Texas, has experienced being “bossier than her boss.”

Dr. Candace Walkley
Dr. Candace Walkley.

Her assertive personality is either perceived as go getter or too assertive. Being a go-getter creates great work relationships, but being “too assertive” can create tension which can interfere with communication and expectations. 

Walkley refers to her assertiveness as “the sword with two sides.” These experiences have helped her shape her leadership skills to better assess and control herself in interactions, but not without a few bumps in the road with coworkers and colleagues.

Read more: PwC’s chief inclusion officer shares how the company developed a new toolkit to promote allyship in the workplace

3. Great leaders are great listeners 

A leader is nothing without a team behind them. The best way to gain a team’s trust and get them to work hard is to listen more than one speaks. This is especially important when working in the medical field because of all the different teams and personnel that could be working one case. Without hearing what they have to say, a leader won’t be very successful. 

Dr. Peggy Taylor is an OBGYN who ran her own practice for years before eventually selling it to retire. She now teaches and picks up shifts when needed. 

Dr. Peggy Taylor
Dr. Peggy Taylor.

Although considered bossy by some when opening her own practice, she said she “never wanted to be seen as really my way or the highway. I took more of a teamwork approach: I know I’m the leader and I make the final decision, but I want their input.” 

Taylor says she put in the extra effort to make her employees feel respected and heard, and she listened to their suggestions and implemented them when they were appropriate.

4. Assertiveness is necessary in serious situations

As physicians, these women are not just responsible for day to day operations. They are responsible for human lives, which means, occasionally, that assertiveness is absolutely necessary. 

“I try to only bring this trait out in its full glory when I’m supervising people or when a situation is clearly dangerously chaotic – where a leader must emerge for safety,” said Walkley. 

Taylor also put patients at the front of the helm when it came time to be the boss. She made decisions that her staff did not always like, but at the end of the day, they benefited the patients. 

There are times to be laid back, but when serious decisions have to be made about someone’s health, these bosses in medicine know how to get the job done. Gustowski learned to fully accept this duality of silliness and seriousness in the job, and when to switch back and forth. The ability to turn it on and off is powerful in a job where things can go from good to bad in the blink of an eye. 

5. Good leaders care and create lasting relationships 

The fun part about being a good leader is being able to create long-lasting relationships with employees. However, this only happens when employees feel like they matter and physicians care about them as people. 

Women leaders in medicine may have an advantage because many are natural nurturers at home and in society, and bring that attribute to work.

Dr. Mary Manis, a family medicine doctor in Conroe, Texas, made sure to keep up with her employees by asking them about their families and personal details they shared with her. This helped her develop relationships that lasted far beyond any work situation. 

Dr. Mary Manis
Dr. Mary Manis.

Taylor kept the same staff for over 20 years because she created such a family friendly environment.

As a mom, she understood the stressors of having children and allowed employees to bring their children to work when they were not able to go to school. Small acts like these help create fulfilling, long-lasting bonds between boss and employee.

Read more: How 4 wedding planners are prepping for the future of the events industry, from getting ordained to rejiggering seating charts to negotiating vendor contracts 

6. More women leaders means more women mentors

“I would’ve loved to have found a woman boss or mentor, but that never happened,” said Manis. 

While she did have a great relationship with a former male mentor and boss, Manis says it was disappointing to not find a woman boss to support her during her medical career. 

As a medical student myself, I’m fortunate enough to have

Manis, among many other women, as my mentors. I hope that as more women enter medicine and learn the same lessons as the women in this article, they too can find and be a mentor to other women leaders in medicine. 

7. Leadership skills can emerge at any point in life

Dr. Ouida Collins, a family medicine physician in Conroe, Texas, has been an introvert her entire life. Still, she says there were times early in her medical education journey when she had to be vocal and assertive. 

Dr. Ouida Collins
Dr. Ouida Collins.

“What made me stand up a little more is in a couple of classes, if you were a woman or didn’t fit the characteristics of those in leadership positions, they kind of pushed you to the side,” Collins said. “I was working on a project with another guy in the group and he told me ‘you need to do this’ and that and I said, ‘no, I don’t.’ That’s not how this works. That was the beginning of the pushback.” 

Women in medicine often deal with being silenced or pushed aside in such a male-dominated arena. Patients may think they are the nurse and some male counterparts don’t respect them the same way as male physicians. But, no matter how old you are or your personality type, when it’s time to speak up for what’s right, you have to. 

At the end of the day, Collins always had her paperwork in order and did her job, which gave her the confidence to assert herself regardless how others reacted to her firmness. She too has learned to tailor her leadership skills and always falls back on doing what’s right for her and her patients. 

Disclaimer: These views and opinions are of the individual physicians and the writer and in no way representative of their employers.

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