Interview with Lara J. Warner, Credit Suisse Managing Director and Chief Financial Officer for the Investment Banking division
DB: As a child or as a student, did you aspire to the high position you have today? LW: I always knew I wanted to be a leader. My father was a renowned surgeon and we were brought up to believe we had a responsibility to achieve our utmost potential. Having said that, I could not have predicted the path I have taken and nor how I would benefit from this diverse path. It meant I had to define myself broadly in terms of my capabilities and to being open to different experiences. These experiences have been invaluable in building my confidence in terms of skills but also in leading different organizations to achieve challenging goals.
DB: Has your path to becoming an executive been tougher because you’re a woman? LW: I believe achieving success, particularly in large organizations, requires a toughness and tenacity regardless of whether you are a man or a woman. I have been fortunate to always have mentors that saw potential in my abilities, pushed me to achieve new heights, and allowed me to learn and occasionally fail. The challenge as a woman is failure can sometimes be interpreted as being weak or soft versus something that is a required part of learning. And when failure or mistakes do occur, I believe many people have a more difficult time giving women direct constructive feedback. So navigating the path to success can be much more nuanced for a woman, and you have to actively solicit feedback and fight against glossing over your failures in order to learn from them.
DB: Have there been unexpected benefits? Explain. LW: Yes. Your visibility is higher and your ability to symbolically inspire people is higher as a role model. That can occasionally feel challenging when you’re having a bad day. But one of my favorite quotes is: “A leader can do no small thing.” People will observe and interpret everything you do, even when they shouldn’t. So I’m very aware of the responsibility that I carry, particularly in paving the way for future women in this business. And I have become more passionate about this as I’ve moved through my career.
DB: What are the two or three big lessons that you have learned? LW: The three big lessons I have learned in my career sound simple but they are underappreciated in terms of their impact.
The first is the ability to make decisions. There are many that can analyze a problem and discuss options. Fewer have the knowledge, listening skills, the ability to drive and reach consensus, and the courage to make a decision. It is a learned skill and one everyone should work to develop.
The second is no matter how hard we focus on teamwork, it always comes down to individuals and you can’t forget that as a leader. You don’t speak to teams you speak and inspire each individual in that team to drive goals. No matter how hard you push a central decision or difficult goal, individuals can either kill that effort or champion it.
The third is to bring yourself to the office every day. In other words, if you are putting on a different persona or getting into battle armor each morning, you will exhaust yourself well before your career ever reaches its pinnacle. I believe you have to be authentic in your leadership style and allow your strengths, and in some cases, your idiosyncrasies to show. It inspires others to do the same, and ensures you are delivering all of your potential.
DB: Is there an unexpected challenge you’ve faced along the way? LW: I think I grossly underestimated how challenging it is to balance what you want to achieve for yourself professionally and personally. It requires great courage and trust in yourself, your family, and your coworkers, as you must continually adjust your balance based on the needs of those in your life. And you have to be transparent about the choices you are making—that’s where the courage comes in.
DB: How did you deal with it? LW: I follow my own advice, make choices, revise them as necessary and stay transparent with everyone. But I muddle through! I wish I could say I have this perfect solution, but frankly to say that would make every other woman and man faced with this challenge feel unnecessarily inadequate. And I haven’t found anyone yet who honestly feels they have the panacea.
DB: Is it overwhelming or exhilarating—or both—to have the global responsibilities which you do? LW: Definitely both. But I need both of those elements in a job to stay engaged. The change our industry is going through is epic, and learning, understanding, and applying the details can be overwhelming. It is exhilarating, though, to be leading at such an important period and, in many cases, through uncharted territory.
DB: Why/how does Credit Suisse feel like a good fit for you? LW: Easy. It’s the people and the willingness of Credit Suisse to take on the challenges our industry faces in a principled way. It is tempting to sit back and wait until all of the unknowns in our business become known. But our culture is one to take on challenges and find solutions that are sustainable even if the path is extremely difficult. I enjoy that culture and the people that have the courage to approach the business in that way.
DB: What is your favorite part of the job? LW: The constant learning, navigating challenging decisions, and the ability to have a positive impact. Certainly the status quo would be easier but not as rewarding. My children are finally getting a sense of what I do for a career. (Even though it’s not far from the truth, the description they gave a few years ago was, “mommy writes e-mails and talks on the phone”). They are proud of what I have achieved, and I’d like to pass on to them what my parents passed on to me.