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Kelley Downing: “I wish someone had reminded me to watch for my blind spots”

There are a few challenges that male executives don’t have to face. Women executives face guilt that they are either neglecting family for work or short-changing the company. I’m a good listener, but I often think that there are employees, especially men, who complain to me about things they would never say to a male […]

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There are a few challenges that male executives don’t have to face. Women executives face guilt that they are either neglecting family for work or short-changing the company. I’m a good listener, but I often think that there are employees, especially men, who complain to me about things they would never say to a male CEO. I also think that women executives face challenges motivating employees who do not respect women more so than men have to face that challenge.


As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelley Downing. For more than 22 years, Kelley Downing has served as a guiding force for clients at Bartlett Wealth Management and within the community. In her role as a wealth advisor, Kelley blends her keen understanding of the industry with her sincere interest in the clients she serves. Her strong strategic thinking and listening skills enable clients to clarify and articulate their goals. As the first female to serve as President and CEO of Bartlett, Downing has spearheaded innovative efforts to make Bartlett a leader in the region and industry. Under her guidance, the firm has expanded to provide Wealth Management services — a combination of Financial Planning blended with Investment Management. Her expertise has been instrumental in the development of new Bartlett Fund Advantage (BFA) strategies for both institutional and private clients. She formed a mentoring group of younger Bartlett employees to better prepare them as future leaders of the firm and within the community. She has also overseen significant advances in technology, a paperless environment, an online client document portal, virtual desktops and Bartlett’s own ‘cloud’. Because of Kelley’s reputation as a strategic thinker and a roll-up-your-sleeves community supporter, organizations throughout the area have sought her involvement. She has personally served in leadership roles for arts, social service, education and charitable organizations and provided Bartlett’s corporate support to many non-profit groups. Under Kelley’s leadership, Bartlett has earned more than a dozen national recognitions, most recently ranked by the Financial Times as one of the top 300 U.S. registered investment advisers in 2019.


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?

My pursuit to work in syndicated lending out of grad school failed and I ended up working on Wall Street trading commodities. While this was not my first choice, it was an interesting and exciting job where I conducted a lot of research on financial markets (precious metals, interest rates, and currencies) and gained hands-on experience as to how they traded and why. I found that I had an affinity for trading and making split second decisions.

My move to Cincinnati and the equities trading desk at a regional bank was substantially slower-paced but opened up a whole new aspect to long-term investing. The position was a great training ground to manage investments and people. During my 11 years at the bank, I moved on to portfolio management and became manager of institutional investments. Then it was time to move on and I pursued a position as a portfolio manager at Bartlett. The people management skills I learned at the bank helped prepare me for promotion to President and CEO when the opportunity became available in 2007.

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

Aside from the challenges of taking on the role as CEO right as the financial crisis hit, the most interesting to me was buying Bartlett back from our parent company, a publicly traded company. I never imagined that I would lead the repurchase, especially on the heels of the financial crisis.

It was a tremendous learning experience and we were very successful as a result.

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?

Mistakes in our business are usually not funny.

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?

I was not ambitious for this leadership position, but I saw that there was a need for leadership at the firm. I had a skill set of vision, discipline and ability to make and implement decisions, which our firm needed at that time, and senior people at the firm agreed. What I have learned over time is the most attractive aspect about being CEO is the ability to make positive changes and empower employees to participate and take ownership of what and how we do things.

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?

A CEO ensures that employees are making appropriate/good decisions in line with strategic goals. I am very disciplined about asking a lot of questions, and I always follow up to completion on annual strategic plans.

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

As a CEO in the Cincinnati community, I have more access to information and input as a participant in civic and business activities that impact the growth of our region.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

There are lots of demands on my time and determining how best to spend my time is sometimes a challenge, especially when it infringes on family time. Finding the right mix is not just about the balance in my life, but how my family and my passion for my job intersect. Sometimes life is out of balance on either side and I just accept that.

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

A common myth is that being a CEO is glamorous. Staff employees think traveling is a “perk” when, in fact, it’s hard work and takes you out of the office and away from family. Of the many after work-hour events I attend, like galas, they are generally work, not pleasure.

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

There are a few challenges that male executives don’t have to face. Women executives face guilt that they are either neglecting family for work or short-changing the company. I’m a good listener, but I often think that there are employees, especially men, who complain to me about things they would never say to a male CEO. I also think that women executives face challenges motivating employees who do not respect women more so than men have to face that challenge.

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

The amount of time I spend “on” the business compared to “in” the business. My time spent managing the firm is demanding, so I have developed a team of advisors and support staff to care for day-to-day client needs in case I am not available.

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?

The most important traits that I believe make a person a successful executive are trust, vision, accountability, and treating people with kindness and respect. People who should avoid aspiring to be an executive are those who are not organized, poor at seeing things through to the end, don’t care about employees, or too focused in that they don’t think broadly enough.

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

Be objective, fair and kind. Be self-aware so as not to become known as the “Queen Bee.”

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

There was no one single person, but several, who helped me along the way. The most impactful was a single father I worked with at the bank. He taught me how to better manage my schedule at work when the kids were young so that I was available to attend important school activities.

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

Along with a group of emerging community leaders, we founded the first charitable pharmacy in Ohio and changed legislation to allow for a free pharmacy that redistributed physician samples. Ten years later, the model has adapted to changes in healthcare and we distribute over $8 million in free medications to over 1,400 patients annually, in the Greater Cincinnati region. For every $1 donated, we send $11 retail value out the door.

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

  1. I wish someone had told me that I was not an accidental CEO. I suffered from the imposter syndrome and it took some time to realize I really did have skills or could develop the skills to be a good CEO.
  2. I wish someone had said “You can’t ‘fix’ every issue or employee.” As the oldest child, I want to fix situations and people. I have learned that not everyone wants to change or get help to change, so there is a point at which you have to recognize when to stop.
  3. I wish I would have learned how to use the Socratic Method earlier in my career. The methodology is based around asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking. Better training people to answer their own questions to remedy their own issues is key.
  4. I wish someone had reminded me to smile more. I finally learned it as I observed clients’ reaction to another female advisor in the office who was always upbeat, friendly and smiled. People started reacting differently the more I smiled.
  5. I wish someone had reminded me to watch for my blind spots. Although I think of myself as being self-aware, I believed I was checking for blind spots. But of course, I could not see them and a fellow employee had to alert me to it.

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.

KINDNESS: If people would just be kind to each other, that would be a behavioral change that would eliminate bullying and victimization. I believe it would be contagious.

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

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I am a life-long learner, so I’m always reading and thinking about what’s the next big thing. It’s a value I was brought up with and my husband and I inculcated in our children. If you are prepared on many facets with varied interests, you will encounter opportunities in life which you can pursue because of your preparedness and ability to spot the opportunity.

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.

Condoleeza Rice — I admire her career achievements and poise. I would like to know what her thoughts were as a 20-something starting her career and what she saw that influenced her choices along the way.

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

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