Bolanle Williams-Olley: “You can be your authentic self”

To be a successful executive, you need to work hard and work smart — consistently. You need to show up and be the type of leader who is invested in creating space for the people within the firm to shine. To be a successful leader, you cannot use the approach that it’s your way or the highway. […]

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To be a successful executive, you need to work hard and work smart — consistently. You need to show up and be the type of leader who is invested in creating space for the people within the firm to shine. To be a successful leader, you cannot use the approach that it’s your way or the highway. I recommend avoiding that approach.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bolanle Williams-Olley.

Bolanle is the chief financial officer and part owner at Mancini Duffy, a technology-first design firm based in NYC where she oversees the firm’s financial and operational performance. She has over 12 years of experience working in the AEC industry with a strong background in financial analysis and strategic initiatives. At her core, she thrives on building relationships between finance and management teams to ensure the overall financial success of projects and her firm. Her clients include Soho House, Peloton, Omnicom, Verizon, and The Assemblage, among others.

She is a dynamic leader within the AEC industry who has been a guest panelist for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Women’s Leadership Summit, National Organization of Minority Architects 47th Conference, and the Mother Honestly Summit. Bolanle is passionate about service and is the founder of two impact organizations: SheBuildsLives — a non-profit focused on addressing the needs of children and improving the quality of education in low-income schools and communities in Nigeria, and REACHNigeria — a connector hub that creates awareness about NGOs and volunteer opportunities across Nigeria. She recently launched SheBuildsMoney — a company to help small design firms with finance solutions for small design firms with the goal of empowering these firms to be successful and thrive, financially.

Before her current position at Mancini Duffy, she served five years as a senior project accountant at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), and five years as a project accountant at HLW. She holds a master’s degree in Education & Social Policy from NYU, a master’s degree in Applied Mathematics and a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from the City University of New York, Hunter College.

She is married with two kids and absolutely obsessed with throwing really fun themed parties.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, an only child to a single mum who did everything she could to make sure I had a wonderful childhood. She worked hard to put me in great primary and secondary schools and instilled discipline in me — I had to wake up at 6 a.m. every day! Overall, she created great memories for me with the Christmas holiday being my favorite, surrounded by family.

In addition to the awesomeness that is my mum, the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” rings so true for me. I was always surrounded by extended family and friends who poured into my childhood, you couldn’t tell me I didn’t have an uncountable number of siblings that loved me just like their own.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting story happened recently actually. Prior to NYC going on lockdown, my partners and I had already decided to do a test run to make sure our tech would be able to handle the whole office working from home. It was supposed to be half a day on a Friday. We had been in constant communication and at the last minute with us monitoring the numbers escalating we made the decision the night before to transition fully starting that Friday. The following Monday NYC went on lockdown — it worked out for us because we were prepared.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There have been many funny tales! Once I was prepping for a meeting that I usually run, and two people had come in earlier than planned and I had my email open. Due to the sensitivity of my work, I had to hurry to close out the window. They were courteous by waiting for me to close out, but after that day, I made sure to NOT have my email open during meetings, lesson learned!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

After only 11 years into my career, I was very attracted by the opportunity to become the CFO of Mancini. I was excited to be able to use my position to make an impact, learn, and grow personally and professionally and have the chance to be part of shaping a 100-year-old firm’s future trajectory. We’re carving out our own path as part of the firm’s century-long legacy.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

As a leader at Mancini, you’re responsible for creating and bringing in new business opportunities to keep the firm running, making and executing tough decisions that others might not necessarily be exposed to. At the executive level, I’m also responsible for developing partner and client relationships in addition to guiding the firm financially.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

My favorite part of being an executive at Mancini is contributing to our firm’s growth internally and externally. I get a front-row seat to watching our staff thrive and exploring our potential as industry leaders. I enjoy seeing the innovative solutions and paths we’re constantly creating within our Design Lab; our evolving tech-first approach has been an exciting differentiator.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The downside of being an executive is having to make challenging decisions that affect people’s livelihoods, however, it’s a necessary part of the business. Driving the success of the firm becomes so embedded in our daily lives that it can be challenging to switch the business “off.”

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

One myth I’d like to dispel is that you’re all of a sudden on this pedestal and have access to everything once you become an executive. Just because you have three fancy letters after your name doesn’t mean you know everything — executives are also coming across experiences they’ve never encountered before, such as COVID. Be authentic.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Often when women speak up and share their opinion, sometimes they aren’t heard or taken seriously in the same way as male executives. Your voice should carry the same weight as men; however, I’ve found that’s not always the case.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

My job as CFO is actually exactly as I thought it would be. Ironically, prior to becoming CFO of Mancini I had already been a strategic financial partner, so that prepared me in advance for the role. I thought it would be more daunting, however, it is actually quite doable. I use the mindset to simply buckle down, build systems that work, and seek out solutions as challenges arise.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

To be a successful executive, you need to work hard and work smart — consistently. You need to show up and be the type of leader who is invested in creating space for the people within the firm to shine. To be a successful leader, you cannot use the approach that it’s your way or the highway. I recommend avoiding that approach.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

First, I recommend other female leaders listen and give space for your team to be able to share their thoughts and contributions openly. Allow them to show up as their true, authentic selves and be open to their feedback. I see my team thrive because they know I’m approachable and I will listen to them. When the team feels like their boss is invested in them and their growth, that’s when you see them thrive.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Yes, I am so grateful for Ted Mazjeika. He was a consultant that Mancini hired to help get me quickly ramped up when I joined the firm. He knew the history of our company and his support set me up to succeed quickly. My story would not be complete without him.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Once I became CFO, I wanted to think about my external impact in order to affect change within the industry so I created She Builds Waves, a women’s collective for the built industry by engaging each other and striving for more, together.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. It is not as daunting as it seems.
  2. People will underestimate you.
  3. The unpleasant things will not kill you.
  4. You can be your authentic self.
  5. Nobody has it figured out.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’ve already started to inspire a movement with She Builds Lives, I’m focused and concerned with the children in low-income communities through my non-profit that focuses on improving the lives of children in low-income communities in Nigeria. The goal is to build schools in these communities that are full eco-systems that focus on education, health and wellness, and nutrition.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” This is relevant in my life, because I’m passionate about making my dreams come to life and having a huge impact beyond my reach.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with LeBron James because his priorities and ethics are unmatched. I think it would be simply incredible to just listen and learn from him!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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