Success isn’t a straight line to the top. Don’t try to map out 30 years of your career. You’ll drive yourself crazy, and it rarely turns out like you planned anyway. Be open to unexpected opportunities. Know that your career will have twists and turns, unexpected detours, and even steps backward. And importantly, recognize that sometimes your career can be your top focus and sometimes it can’t, and that’s okay, too.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jill Hitchcock.
Jill is the senior executive vice president responsible for the U.S. private client group at Fisher Investments, a fee-only investment adviser with over $123 billion in assets under management and over 75,000 clients globally. She has worked at Fisher Investments since 1999, serving as an investment counselor for high net worth clients and as a leader of the Research and Human Capital groups. In her current role, Jill leads all aspects of acquisition, service and financial planning for U.S. private clients. She also spearheads high priority projects to keep the firm’s technologies secure and up-to-date, and improve all aspects of diversity and inclusion at the firm.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Jill! 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?
In a lot of ways I fell into it. I came across Fisher Investments at a Career Fair my senior year at UC Berkeley. I was immediately drawn to their excitement, energy, and the small company feel.
When I joined, I assumed I’d stay for a few years and then go do something else. But instead, I kept getting drawn into new projects and given new roles — each one bigger and more challenging than the last. I found myself excited, challenged, and I felt part of something bigger than me. I’ve grown up with the firm, and it’s become my family.
I met my husband at Fisher and we had two amazing boys. But then my husband got sick — totally out of the blue — and we spent a year in utter hell, fighting his cancer and trying to parent our sons. During this time and after my husband passed away, my team could not have been more supportive. There was never any question that I needed to be with my husband and sons and that Fisher would be there when I was ready to re-engage.
Now here I am, 21 years later, having progressed from an entry-level hire to the head of our entire US Private Client Group, which serves nearly 60,000 clients who collectively entrust over $82 billion in assets under management to our care.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It won’t surprise you that COVID-19 has led to one of the most challenging — but in a lot of ways one of the most interesting — periods in my career. Before the current crisis started, my main goal was to grow and scale our firm’s US Private Client Group.
COVID-19 changed the situation very quickly. Within weeks, my whole organization had to pivot and completely redesign the way that we worked with clients to help protect our employees, clients, families, and community from COVID-19’s spread.
Historically, we have had a highly collaborative in-office culture. We also pride ourselves on offering in-person educational events for our clients all over the country; we were doing more than 2,000 in-person events a year! All of a sudden we couldn’t do any of the things we were used to doing. In response, my whole team had to figure out how to make remote work a success and continue to provide world-class client service. For example, we quickly transitioned from in-person client events to digital.
Internally, our approach has focused on communication. I am in close communication with my direct reports, making sure we are aligned, clear on our priorities, and how we’re solving problems. It’s been incredibly challenging, but this experience has also shown how resilient we are as a team. Our business has actually grown every month since the pandemic started, which I believe is a testament to our resilience, communication, creativity, and teamwork.
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?
This isn’t a “mistake” per se, but business travel and scheduling is certainly fraught with problems. I remember some mistakes that were of our own making, like scheduling an educational seminar for several hundred clients in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Whoops.
Others were out of our control, like having our flight cancelled and needing to drive from Nashville to Tulsa overnight in order to get to another client seminar. It snowed — a rarity in Nashville — and the roads were in bad shape. We were committed to being there for our clients the next day so we tackled the 9 hour drive, trading off driving, trying to keep each other awake, and powered up with a middle-of-the-night stop at a Waffle House. As you may imagine, a Waffle House in the middle of the night is a strange place to find yourself!
On the road, there are endless flight delays and cancellations, traffic jams, creepy hotels and sketchy restaurants. It’s much less glamorous than people think, but it’s also a good place to learn how to handle situations out of your control. It has taught me to problem solve on the fly and to respond with zen when I encounter situations out of my control.
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?
My family. They’re my safe place and my respite from having to be “on” all day. I’m super close to my mom and my sister, adore spending time with my two boys, and have a great partner. I’m a single mom with a demanding job. I rely on my family to ‘do it all’ and it’s great to have all of them for support. They also let me indulge my goofier-side at home.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time surfing with my family. We’ve been under quarantine for a few months and decided to take advantage of all of our normal activities being cancelled to learn a new skill together. It’s been fun to learn something new together — it changes the typical parent/child dynamic because I’m learning alongside them, and we’re sharing tips and advice. It’s been especially funny to hear my 8-year old say, “No, Mommy, do it like this!”
Otherwise, I’m a workout junkie. I work out every morning before work, and it sets the tone for my day. At the end of a stressful or tough day, I go for a walk to unwind. I also love to hike — I did Half Dome and Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon in the last couple of years and am looking forward to more trails re-opening soon!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Anyone who’s worked in the business or finance world can tell you how vital diversity of thought and experience is in managing a company. Simply, you don’t know what you don’t know. There’s a lot of evidence that diversity supports business performance and helps companies avoid risk. That’s because a variety of perspectives help companies spot opportunities and avoid mistakes.
More than business results though, the reckoning we’re going through as a country comes down to the fact that opening up opportunity to everyone is the morally right thing to do. We try to live by these principles at Fisher Investments, both in our hiring and in how we treat employees. I serve as co-head of Fisher Investments’ Diversity & Inclusion Taskforce, which has allowed me to play a heavy role in our focus and initiatives.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I believe I can make an impact by helping employees early in their career. I work to help our younger staffers make smart decisions that make sense for them. I also try to help people challenge themselves.
Without guidance and intervention, too often you see underrepresented groups not pursuing opportunities because they don’t think they are qualified or ready. Or people focus on the things they don’t want to do without recognizing how those roles will build valuable skills. That ends up being really limiting. For example, I often see women opting to not pursue more technical roles because they don’t think they are qualified, instead of allowing themselves to learn on the job.
This is a mistake women and other groups who have been traditionally underrepresented in financial services often make simply because they have fewer role models. A big part of my work is in encouraging these folks to enter into the prestigious, challenging roles at our firm. I also try to encourage them to pursue roles that build a diverse skill set and leave them as many career options as possible.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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? What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
You spend your time thinking, planning, communicating, and debating. It’s less about “doing.”
Executives set the course, steer the ship, communicate (and then re-communicate) the plan, and answer one million questions. We do all this while constantly scanning the horizon for a change in environment that might necessitate a different approach.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
To be successful, leaders need to want to have an impact beyond themselves and to drive results through others. Doing the job well means putting your needs behind others, which can be hard. You’re always adapting to what your organization and people need. You’re responsible for people — that means watching out for them, communicating goals and rationales, and adapting to their needs. More broadly, it means charting a path through new territory while staying responsible to the organization and its people.
There are a lot of wrong reasons to get into leadership: perceived status, the desire to boss people around, or a purely financial motivation. Pursuing a job for solely for these reasons won’t give you internal satisfaction and motivation, and it won’t set you up to do the hard work every day to help your organization succeed.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The emotional labor of being a parent, partner, and a leader. Yes, it’s a stereotype but I also think it’s true — women do more of the thinking and planning for their families. My mind is always whirring — working through work stuff plus managing a household. How am I going to solve this work problem? What’s going on with that project? What am I going to cook for dinner? And so on.
I’m a single parent, which makes things harder, but it’s hard for everyone. As women, we beat ourselves up if we aren’t perfect. We’re our own worst enemy in that we hold ourselves to these absurd standards. A “picture perfect” life only exists on Instagram.
The advice I’d give everyone is to figure out what’s important to you and focus on those things. I’d much rather go on an adventure with my family than have a perfect household. I’m not a gourmet cook. I actually hate cooking and believe there’s zero shame in serving cereal for dinner. Cut yourself some slack!
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
People have this idea that when you’re a leader, you just issue edicts and “so it shall be.” That’s not the case at all. To lead well, you need to make sure people understand where you’re going and why. You need to get buy-in, which doesn’t come with authoritarian mandates. It comes from understanding, communicating, and trust.
I think of my reports as a leadership team. Yes, at the end of the day, the buck stops with me, but we are a team, and it’s critical they feel comfortable asking me questions, challenging me, telling me when they think I’m wrong, and suggesting alternatives. Trust and alignment are key.
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? Can you explain what you mean?
I’d highlight four key traits:
- Willingness to stand alone: There’s no roadmap for the boss’s job because the job is to make the map. You have to be comfortable charting the course for the organization, including navigating the inevitable twists and turns. Here’s a clue: when you hike with a group, are you in the front of the pack, the middle, or the back? Do you hike ahead, check out the path, and come back to report? Or are you bringing up the rear?
- Openness to new things: A leader needs to be comfortable in the unfamiliar. When a new task comes around, the best leaders are confident that they will be able to learn how to do it, but also humble enough to learn.
- Communication: Written, verbal, large group, one-on-one — you need to excel in all formats and be able to match your message to your audience. You also have to be willing to communicate the same messages over and over again. It takes hard work, practice, and repetition. But it’s a key skill.
- The ability to manage multiple tasks: Leadership is all about juggling multiple balls. And really, to succeed, you have to thrive on this juggling act and love the challenge. You have to love the adrenaline!
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Play to your unique strengths. Then compensate for your weaknesses. I’m a strong communicator and have built a unique culture of cooperation and collaboration with my direct reports. I know that’s a skill and I rely on it because we’re greater than the sum of our parts. But I also know my weaknesses, so I’ve built structures to shore up those areas.
Finally, don’t feel like you have to be superwomen. Learn to delegate. Learn that perfect is an unrealistic and undesirable ideal. Let the unimportant stuff go.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’ve long been interested in getting more women in finance, and not just into the industry broadly but the more prospect/client-facing and technical parts. This is an issue inside of Fisher and beyond but it’s one that I think is starting to change as we see more women take on senior positions at top firms. I try to use my experience to help entry-level women find their ideal role and then grow as professionals.
At a company level, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to co-lead the Diversity & Inclusion Taskforce I mentioned earlier. As a country, we still have work to do to encourage equality and diversity, and that’s a commitment for Fisher too.
I am also proud to be part of a company that puts clients first. My colleagues and I are addressing a real need — investments help people have sense of security in retirement, put their children through college, and meet other life goals. Not everyone in financial services puts their clients first in the way that we do, and I’m glad that my work allows me to make a difference in individual people’s lives.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- “It’s fine. It’s always fine.” I tell my team this constantly — because problems are almost never truly catastrophic. You have to have confidence you’ll figure it out. That comes with practice — the idea that you get really good at solving new problems. And once you have confidence you’ll figure it out, then you’ll know it will always be fine.
- Own your time. If you don’t, someone else will. I routinely block time on my own calendar so it doesn’t get gobbled up by meetings.
- Run towards the things that scare you. I came out of the service side of our company and didn’t know much about portfolio management. Then I had the opportunity to lead our research organization. It was very intimidating and totally outside my experience. But I took on the challenge, and it was one of my most valuable professional experiences.
- Invest in yourself. Take advantage of opportunities to build skills, especially early in your career. Far too often I hear younger employees list out all of the things they don’t want to do, instead of focusing on how those opportunities will build new skills. To this point, a basic knowledge of data and statistics is key. You have to be able to measure what you do and understand the key metrics of your business.
- Success isn’t a straight line to the top. Don’t try to map out 30 years of your career. You’ll drive yourself crazy, and it rarely turns out like you planned anyway. Be open to unexpected opportunities. Know that your career will have twists and turns, unexpected detours, and even steps backward. And importantly, recognize that sometimes your career can be your top focus and sometimes it can’t, and that’s okay, too.
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’d like to see a greater focus on financial education in schools. We have a savings and retirement crisis in this country. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, some 40% of Americans couldn’t handle an unexpected $400 expense. Close to a quarter of Americans had no retirement savings. Think about how much worse that might get given current economic volatility and unemployment challenges.
There are a lot of causes for this crisis, but education is part of it. Why don’t schools teach personal finance today? We should be teaching kids how to budget, manage their money, how interest works, the power of compounding, how to avoid getting into credit card debt, and how to get a mortgage. These are skills they need to have their entire lives, and our society does a woeful job preparing them for it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The only thing better than good is good enough.” Of course, this paraphrases Voltaire’s famous quote. This is true at work and in parenting.
Here’s an example: we recently had to paint my son’s closet doors. I could have done it myself in 20 minutes — fast and perfect. Instead, I let my boys do it. One painted each side. It was a HOT MESS! But you know what? They loved it, they had a great time, and they are super proud of themselves. And honestly who cares whether your closet doors are painted perfectly?
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
My grandmother. She was an incredibly strong woman who raised four kids while teaching school and helping her husband, who worked long hours at the family dairy. She had elegance and grace, was an incredible hostess, was strong, and had a subtle sense of humor. She was the rock of our family.
I have amazing memories of spending summers with her growing up. But by the time I was into my career, she was in decline. I would love to talk to her about how women have progressed, how the career landscape has changed, what career she might have pursued if she’d have had more options, and also about how she managed to work and raise her kids at the same time.