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Steph Wagner of Northern Trust Wealth Management: “Don’t look to the left or the right, just keep moving”

If you’re not just a little scared, you are not thinking big enough. As leaders, when we let fear drive our decisions, we tend to play it small and end up on a path that we aren’t excited about and isn’t what we were meant to do. Thinking big and stretching ourselves beyond our self-defined limitations […]

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If you’re not just a little scared, you are not thinking big enough. 
As leaders, when we let fear drive our decisions, we tend to play it small and end up on a path that we aren’t excited about and isn’t what we were meant to do. Thinking big and stretching ourselves beyond our self-defined limitations can be scary and incredibly uncomfortable. However, discomfort means you are growing, as an individual and as a professional.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steph Wagner.

Steph is the Director of Women & Wealth at Northern Trust Wealth Management. She is responsible for leading the firm’s advisory practice for women facing unexpected transitions, such as death of spouse or divorce, and oversees the creation of content, curriculum and programming for women. Over the years, she has developed a specialized expertise in utilizing financial strategies and empowering women with the resources to become effective stewards of their wealth.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Over 20 years ago, I had a thriving career in private equity. One day, when I was six months pregnant with a two-year-old at home, I was asked to board a four-seater Cessna to go look at a deal in rural Alabama. Juggling this, combined with the fact that my husband traveled over 150 nights a year, I knew something had to give. So, without hesitation (like, the very next day), I quit. I gave up my six-figure salary, millions of dollars in future earnings and everything that I had worked toward for the past decade. I put my career on hold and, despite my financial aptitude, eventually left all money matters to my husband. What I did not realize then, as a young mom and wife, was that these choices also caused me to relinquish my independence and become a passive observer in my own financial life.

Thirteen years later I found myself divorced, jobless, and a single mother of three.

Like many divorces, mine was not a pleasant one. It was difficult enough to get past the stage of staring at the floor trying to figure out how I was going to put one foot in front of the other. Compounded with my remorse was my loss of purpose and an urgent need to reinvent my career, as well as an acute awareness of the profound risk I put myself in all those years ago. Regaining my financial independence was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I took what I learned during that challenging time and combined my financial background with a newfound and unwavering passion for educating and empowering women to take charge of their financial life. This led me to build a national consulting practice as a divorce financial strategist, and consequently create an educational platform for women about money.

Nearly a decade later, I joined Northern Trust to lead the firm’s advisory practice focused on women facing unexpected transitions, such as death of a spouse or divorce, and to oversee our initiative Elevating Women.

My personal story is one of reinvention: from private equity principal to stay-at-home mom, to single mother fearful about my financial security, to successful businesswoman.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Women are one of the fastest growing wealth segments for wealth management firms. Traditionally, the financial services industry has had trouble connecting with women because of a flawed approach. So rather than pink-wash marketing materials and pander to stereotypes, Northern Trust is taking a different approach by proactively identifying life events where women could most use financial advice that will help them take charge of their wealth. We provide them education and tools to help them assess their own situation, advocate for what they need and make informed financial decisions both now and in the future.

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?

During the early stage of my “second” career, I was asked to speak at a women’s conference. While I’d been yearning an opportunity like this for years, I declined. Silly as it might sound, I let fear get the best of me. I immediately regretted this decision and beat myself up about it for months. Then one day it hit me: If I wanted to conquer my fear of public speaking, I had to lean into it. So, for the next 12 months, every time I was asked to speak (regardless of topic or audience size), I said “yes”. Today, public speaking is now one of my favorite things to do. Lesson learned: Discomfort means you are growing, so embrace it!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

While there have been many mentors in my life, the woman at the top of the list is Leslie Bennetts, best-selling author, award winning journalist and fellow advocate of the economic empowerment of women. We met one night serendipitously in New York City, shortly after I started my business. We were fast friends and throughout the years she has pushed me to think big, share my story and never underestimate the importance of the work that we are both extremely passionate about. Throughout the years, our friendship and professional collaboration has reinforced my ideology that everything in life happens for a reason.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I believe there is always room for disruptive innovation within an organization, whether it creates positive change or affirms the existing system or structure. Both outcomes can be positive. But to successfully achieve either, how you disrupt matters more than when (or if) you should.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. If you’re not just a little scared, you are not thinking big enough. 
    As leaders, when we let fear drive our decisions, we tend to play it small and end up on a path that we aren’t excited about and isn’t what we were meant to do. Thinking big and stretching ourselves beyond our self-defined limitations can be scary and incredibly uncomfortable. However, discomfort means you are growing, as an individual and as a professional.
  2. Those voices inside your head, are lying.
    Great advice from my dear friend and founder of DailyWorth, Amanda Steinberg. One day, in the midst of unsuccessfully navigating a steady stream of negative self-talk, out of the blue, Amanda texted me these seven words without any explanation. She got it, because she’s been there. Immediately tears filled my eyes. It was a wonderful reminder that the secret to success lies within the six inches between our ears.
  3. Don’t look to the left or the right, just keep moving. 
    Too often as we are building or creating, we turn to others for approval of a concept or affirmation of an action. Of course, feedback is productive and an essential part of innovation, but worrying what others think or looking at them to affirm your direction can often throw you off course.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Regardless of marital status, age or career path, each one of us will face life transitions — unexpected or expected — ranging from divorce or widowhood, to the sale of a business, career change or retirement.

I plan to expand my focus to help our advisors deeply understand the unique needs, behaviors and preferences of women across all personas (i.e., executives, business owners, retirees) when it comes to managing their wealth. According to a recent McKinsey study, only 25% of affluent women say they are comfortable making investment and savings-related decisions on their own. The goal is to develop a broad array of resources and tools to help Northern Trust lead the country in delivering tailored advice that helps women successfully meet their goals and empowers them build confidence in their own financial literacy.

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

To be a disrupter, you must exude confidence. Too often, a confident woman is viewed as an aggressive woman. Unfortunately, too many women, out of fear of being negatively perceived, succumb to this stereotype and pull back. Instead, we must take the risk and own our leadership to trust and use our voice to create influence.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Everybody Dies, But Not Everybody Lives, by spoken-word artist and filmmaker, Prince Ea.

This oral poetic performance brings into sharp focus that every person on this earth has a gift to share with the world. To maximize our impact, we must deliver our gift with full force, warding off the greatest sabotage: self-doubt.

While I tend to think big and set lofty goals for myself, I sometimes suffer from imposter syndrome. Price Ea’s message is incredibly thought provoking and has been a constant reminder that my passion and purpose in life chose me, and not the other way around. During my darkest days mourning the loss of the life I once had, pitying myself and thinking “now what?” I stumbled across this artist’s powerful video (thank you, Oprah!). It immediately helped me see that as painful as my journey was, it was actually a gift that was about to change the trajectory of my life. My sadness instantly turned into profound gratitude. It was a defining moment. I’ve never looked back and strongly believe that I am now living the life I was always meant to live.

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

Despite our desire for gender equality, most women today still leave the financial decisions to their spouse. As surprising as it might be, statistics show that married millennial women are more likely than any other generation to do the same. I want to help women across the country better understand the risk of economic dependency for themselves and their families, be inspired to take charge of their financial lives, and become change agents so that we can finally break this cycle.

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

A vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world. — Joel Barker

A vision is a mental picture of where we want to go, in life or in business. But when we solely focus on vision and strategy and not on action, nothing gets done. Conversely, acting without clear direction can easily lead us down a path to nowhere.

As both a right and left brainer, I’ve come to appreciate the need for balance, and that no matter how bold or creative an idea is, an equal amount of attention needs to be spent on execution. I firmly believe that when we put the two together, the possibilities of what we can create are endless.

How can our readers follow you online?

The best way to follow me, or get in touch, is LinkedIn or @stephlwagner

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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