Focus more on relationships than on accomplishments. Relax — enjoy the ride — you’re going to have some amazing experiences, co-workers, travels and accomplishments. But really pay attention to the people around you. There are so many phenomenal humans at every turn. Take the time to build those relationships; ask your co-worker to coffee, offer to take the walk around the building when you notice someone is upset, stop and eat lunch together. The people not only make the work (and your life) worthwhile, your most important asset will end up being the relationships you build with others.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Pickett.
Melanie Pickett is an Executive Vice President and the Head of Front Office Solutions for Northern Trust. Melanie has a Masters of Technology Management from The Wharton School of Business & Penn Engineering, and serves on the board of Parilux Investment Technology, the Investment Management Due Diligence Association, and several other industry groups. Her career has spanned change-oriented roles in technology, operations and business across businesses both large and small.
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?
Of course! Truth be told, my career has been more opportunistic than strategic. It’s really been a combination of luck, timing, and willingness to take the big chances when they came my way. Because I had a very humble upbringing, I think I knew deep down I could survive even if I failed — which allowed me to take more risks, and do so earlier in my career.
I started my career at Bear Stearns (remember them?) in 1999 while still in college, and walked onto the trading floor not knowing the difference between a stock and a bond. Six months later, I passed the Series 7 exam. I did a brief stint at a bond underwriter and took a bet against the owner of the firm (I was 21 years old, he was in his 80’s!) that I couldn’t pass one of the hardest industry license exams to become the firm’s official Financial & Operations Principal. He was willing to pay me $25,000 if I passed that exam and I did. At the time, that was far more money than I ever dreamt I’d get in a bonus.
A year later, I left to help manage a friend’s congressional campaign (where I’d interned in college) and afterwards had the chance to work in the White House — but the transition team couldn’t really get started due to the 2000 “hanging chad” debacle. While waiting to hear if I could join the team, I took an interview at another large investment bank (Morgan Stanley) and decided whichever opportunity came available first, I would just take that one. (Mostly because I needed to pay rent…..again, not particularly strategic!) Morgan Stanley called and I accepted the job and moved to New York a few days later for training. The struggle between choosing a career in politics and a career in business was over. I had an amazing run “growing up” at Morgan Stanley for a little over a decade before moving on to become the Chief Operating Officer of a top university endowment. Then I decided to try my hand at doing something more entrepreneurial and landed at Northern Trust, a global custodian bank with over 10 trillion in assets under custody, to start a new business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Over the last three years, I’ve been working hard to create a new cloud-native, digital software + service business — inside a bank that’s been in existence for over 130 years. We’ve created a great new product for the industry and I’ve learned so much about myself and the benefit of authentic leadership and resilience through times of crisis and change. Lots of interesting things have happened along the way but most of them internal.
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 parents, first and foremost… My parents both worked two jobs to make ends meet and I think that drive and work ethic and hunger really stuck with me in a meaningful way. My mom started a lifelong career with the postal service by sorting mail, and worked her way all the way up to being a Postmaster. My dad was a union leader & blue-collar project manager of electricians, carpenters, and other trades at our local college — and he shared with me once the best piece of management advice I think I’ve ever received. He said to me, “Melanie, people will work really hard and do their absolute best for you if you make them feel good about themselves & the work you’re doing together”. I try to remember that every day. At both a work milestone party and at his funeral, some of his employees told me that he changed their lives, and that he was the best manager they’d ever had. It just doesn’t get better than that — to know that you’re part of someone’s growth and that they’re reaching their potential partly because you’re pushing and encouraging them to do so. Witnessing the personal growth of the employees I’ve been fortunate enough to manage over time is the greatest reward.
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?
I wish I could tell you about my zen meditation practice or daily yoga ritual but the truth is that I’d be lying. I’m in overdrive constantly — it’s just who I am. However, I do find that getting at least 7 hours of sleep is really important as I get older — and so is letting go of the things I can’t control. If I manage those two things in my life, my stress levels are so much better! This may be counter-intuitive but before an important meeting or a big talk, I actually try to not think about it at all. I find I do my worst if I over-prepare. I learned this with my first big media interview as well as my first presentation to the Board. I tend to get too scripted, too robotic, too nervous. I do my best if I take a walk and listen to a favorite album — or grab coffee with a colleague or friend — and then just come in and be myself. Authentic leadership is the best kind, and when I over-prepare or rehearse something, I lose my authentic voice. I’m learning to embrace it as my superpower (everyone has one! Why don’t we all?)
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?
As a woman in two male-dominated fields (finance & technology), I can appreciate this question. There are many reasons to support DE&I efforts, but the most important one for me (aside from the obvious moral imperative) is that we know diverse teams make better decisions. I enjoy studying cognitive biases and one of the best ways to reduce bias in your decision making is to have diverse opinions around the table. For me, diversity & inclusion is not just the important factors of race, gender and sexuality but so much more — people who are creatives, empaths, come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different industries, new starters as well as career “lifers”….diverse teams make better decisions and look at problems from different angles. We are blessed at Northern Trust to have a company that people spend their entire lives at — because the company really takes care of its people. The double edged sword there is that people who have looked at the same challenges for 20+ years together look at a problem very differently than people with fresh sets of eyes or outside perspectives. This tenure factor alone is a diversity challenge for us sometimes.
Next, as I think about how to solve the problem in the long term, I also think a great deal about representation. I think about how when I got promoted to Executive Director at my first firm, and Managing Director was next — I tried to count how many female MDs I could find in leadership positions that had husbands with careers AND had children (both of these were aspirational for me at the time, but I was really trying to picture my life in 5 or 10 years). I think I could count those women on one hand. What did that tell me? The odds were going to be against me having a successful career. In reality, I might have been successful — but the lack of representation sent a very clear signal to me that it wasn’t something I was likely to be able to do. So I left.
Finally — the most important ingredient, once you get enough diversity at the table, is ensuring that everyone feels a sense of belonging and confidence being authentically themselves. This is the real work and it’s a cultural change, not just a numbers game. Once you recruit diverse talent, can you retain them? Can you become a destination employer of choice because people know they can be themselves, have their voices heard and valued and still thrive? That’s where the good stuff really happens!
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 think the transition we are seeing from a shareholder economy to stakeholder primacy is a really fascinating one. I think corporations must be good citizens and people are really watching our values, and how we bring them to life through our corporate efforts. I’ve been really proud to participate in industry events lately such as serving on the board of Funds4Food, the largest cap intro event ever (introducing investment managers to investors). We asked investment managers to pay to have introductory meetings with large institutional investors, with all proceeds going to hunger charities supporting post-Covid efforts in local communities. We raised almost 2 Million dollars in just a few months!
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?
My kids often ask me what I do all day if I’m sitting in meetings instead of doing “a real job”. Ha! For me, I think it comes down to decision making. I get paid to think critically & creatively, inspire and lead a team, but most importantly use my experience and judgment to make good decisions, and LOTS of them. That’s where the real pressure and exposure is — you’re on the hook day in and day out for helping guide teams towards the right outcome or helping make the decision explicitly. I don’t always get these decisions right, of course, and when I don’t, I’m still on the hook for the outcomes. So perhaps there are 4 ingredients — willingness to make lots of decisions, the intestinal fortitude to stand behind them, and then the flexibility & creativity to pivot when they don’t go your way!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth for me is that I think people believe the job gets somewhat easier — but it never does. One of my amazing mentors scared me early in my career when I caught her in a vulnerable moment — she mused that my current job was 90% work and 10% politics but when I got to her level, it would be the inverse — 90% politics and 10% work. I think she was really fatigued by being a woman herself in a very male-dominated part of the industry. These days, I wouldn’t call it politics so much as negotiating…..and negotiating is indeed constantly challenging and can be very fatiguing. The job doesn’t get easier but the responsibility and the impact I can have on my team, my company and my industry is the great reward for me.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
First — it’s back to that sense of belonging. And it’s very subtle sometimes. One of the great women in business today, Kat Cole, describes it perfectly when she talks about being the “only” in the room. When you’re the only woman (I often am), the only 40-something (I often am), the only new person to the company (I often am), the only person with a tech background (I often am) — you become somewhat naturally deferential to others who form the majority. I have to remind myself not to be deferential because I am the “only”. When I am in a meeting with 2 or more young execs, 2 or more women, 2 or more new hires — I find I am much more comfortable being myself, by orders of magnitude.
Second — I think women are marched up one hill as they climb the ladder and asked to be more like men — be tough, be aggressive, be bold, be competitive. And per my earlier comments…then you get to that spot in your career where it turns into 90% negotiation and politics — and your role suddenly is to make nice, collaborate, don’t disagree, don’t be too assertive, don’t be bossy, don’t be demanding. It is really unfair we ask women to conform to male executive norms instead of asking our workplace to conform to a more balanced norm. We should be valuing women for their authentic leadership traits, which can naturally be very different than men — and enjoy the diversity and the balance that all styles can bring to the table.
I also really hate the adjectives and nouns reserved mostly for women. Whether it be “assertive, aggressive, pushy, stubborn, ambitious” — or being described as a “spitfire, bulldog, or firecracker”. Also … “emotional”? The other word for that is passionate. And last time I checked that is a trait you want in your employees. When have you ever heard someone say a man was too ambitious at work, like that was a bad thing?
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I thought about starting this business, I thought about the impact we could have on the industry and our clients, but I underestimated the value and reward in bringing together a high-performing team and being able to evolve the culture of our firm. I see a great deal of change happening due to the culture we’ve created — agile, empowering, and diverse — and it will lead to good things over time!
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?
Very similar to my earlier comments — it takes confidence, creativity, flexibility and lots of boldness. But more importantly, a willingness to make the leap from being judged on your own performance (easier to isolate and control) to being judged on your ability to manage and influence many others to achieve your goals. If you can’t take that leap, you’re probably better off as a single contributor — and that’s fine too! Many of our best players are technical experts and have no desire to manage others or become an executive. It absolutely takes both to make a team successful.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Just be yourself. You are enough. For me, it meant being vulnerable, honoring the nurturing side of my personality, setting an example of being willing to listen, get proven wrong, and always stand up and try again. I think it’s less about “girl power” and more about “girl resilience, resourcefulness, and grit”.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Always ask questions. Lots and lots of them! There is so much to learn and so much to be gained by soaking in all the perspectives and knowledge around you — plus, very rarely is there an argument you can’t find a hole in or an idea you can’t improve upon. I used to think asking questions was a sign of weakness, that if I kept my mouth shut and nodded, it would seem I knew exactly what I was doing! Questions make us better — they educate us, they allow us to understand each other & our diverse perspectives better, they force us to make better decisions, they allow others to benefit from the learnings & the discussion.
Fortune favors the bold. Just like in the markets, your returns are often correlated to the amount of risk you are willing to take. The times I have felt completely and utterly terrified in my role or in my career, are the times I have learned the most and grown exponentially. I think as women, we often wait until we are perfectly situated and well qualified on all points before we grab the jump ball. I had to learn — just go for the jump ball anyway. If the job is easy or comfortable, it probably means it is time to move on.
Focus more on relationships than on accomplishments. Relax — enjoy the ride — you’re going to have some amazing experiences, co-workers, travels and accomplishments. But really pay attention to the people around you. There are so many phenomenal humans at every turn. Take the time to build those relationships; ask your coworker to coffee, offer to take the walk around the building when you notice someone is upset, stop and eat lunch together. The people not only make the work (and your life) worthwhile, your most important asset will end up being the relationships you build with others.
If you don’t ask, you won’t receive — this one is about compensation and promotion and opportunity. I was so naïve for the first 7–8 years of my career to think that if I put my head down, and did great work, I would be rewarded. Not so. I had to learn the hard way that I was underpaid as a young VP for many years by about 50% and once I questioned that and worked up the nerve to ask that it be corrected, it was. I’m confident I lost so many opportunities thinking the higher ups must not have believed I was qualified — I was waiting to be “tapped” instead of asking for the job. Learning to lead up and be clear about my desires and my expectations was a real turning point for me.
The ultimate role is one where you can do enjoyable & meaningful work, with people you respect, love to be around and can learn from ……that’s what it’s all about. Work hard along the way to find out what you really enjoy doing, and find great people to do it with! In the end, these are the things that matter far more than title, salary or prestige.
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.
Education has always been really important to me and I think we have focused too much on knowledge as the achievement, and not enough on understanding. Critical thinking, problem solving, the entrepreneurial skills of collaborating, building, growing, creating, and the fields of decision sciences and human centered design…..these are the things that I think could really change a generation if we could get the educational system to embrace them as much as we embrace history or literature.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It might be cliché but it is Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
That one has been my favorite since I heard it in high school. Whether you’re trying to grow something from scratch, change a culture, suggest something new, do something a different way — there will always be critics. There will always be people on the sidelines, ready to pick your ideas and your accomplishments apart. It took me a while to figure out ….trust only the opinion of the people who are engaged and similarly trying to make things better. Try to ignore the boos from the spectators! My current boss and incredible friend and mentor often says to people “this change isn’t something that’s happening TO you….you have every opportunity to get in the ring with us. Join us.” I think that message is really powerful. Even if we fail, we do so while in the arena together trying to make things better.
I think there is a large swath of people who automatically assume that just because something is new or different, it is riskier — so to borrow a Hamilton reference, they become Aaron Burr, “waiting to see which way the wind will blow”. They’re afraid to put their name on something that has a chance of being wrong. Its our job as leaders to bring them along with us, show them the triumph and joy of getting in the arena and fighting, even though there will be errors and shortcoming. This is exactly what people mean when they say you should embrace failures & mistakes — not from people who are being lazy or incompetent, of course — but from people who are really trying to push the ball down the field.
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
There are too many to name — but I think I’d have to go with Melinda Gates or Oprah Winfrey. Highly successful and brilliant, but most importantly, impact-oriented. The lasting impact they have worked so hard to achieve in communities far and wide is completely awe-inspiring to me.