Women In Finance: “There’s the simple fact that representation matters”, With Bank of America’s Kirstin Hill

An Interview With Jason Hartman

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…There’s the simple fact that representation matters. Diverse representation   at all levels is imperative to long-term business success, including the financial industry. As the gender and complexion of wealth changes, leadership needs to reflect these changes. Financial firms are also recognizing the positive impact diversity has on company performance. Firms are smarter and more effective when they are a group of diverse people. It brings in more perspectives and ideas, allowing organizations to think more creatively. Absence of diversity, meanwhile, has adverse consequences, impeding the ability to hire, develop, grow and serve the next generation.

I had the pleasure to interview Kirstin Hill. Kirstin is a Managing Director and Strategic Performance Executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. She is responsible for overseeing growth strategy, practice management strategy, market planning, advisor compensation, field communication and recognition programs. In this role, Kirstin is also charged with developing metrics and reporting structures that are critical to measuring the firm’s growth and guiding the firm’s market executives. Prior to this role, Kirstin has led the Personal Retirement Solutions business for Bank of America Merrill Lynch and held leadership roles in the GWIM markets business. In these roles she led teams responsible for personal retirement products and sales, market-linked investments, new issue debt and equity among others. Early in her career, Kirstin worked in the bank’s Global Markets division in the Equity Derivatives business in New York, London, Hong Kong and Australia. Ensuring that the firm meets the needs of women investors is a top priority for Kirstin. She uses her experience, skills and passion to help enable financial advisors to deliver on the unique priorities, earning power, career paths and lifespans of women clients and prospects. Currently, Kirstin is executive sponsor for the Merrill Lynch Millennial Advisory Board and is a member of the Women’s Exchange Advisory Council; she is also executive sponsor of the Merrill Lynch Women’s Forum. She is a strong advocate for hiring and developing diverse talent, and fostering an inclusive work environment. Kirstin holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and is a First Mover Fellow with the Aspen Institute.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Kirstin! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?

Pursuing a career in the banking and finance field wasn’t exactly an obvious choice for me. In college, I was a history major and your typical “liberal arts” student. But after an internship with Merrill Lynch my junior year, my career ambitions shifted. I immediately fell in love with the energy and fast pace of the finance industry, as well as the continued challenges it brought. While I’ve arguably have had the same job since my junior-year internship — wild to think about! — I’ve had the opportunity to pursue so many different roles as the firm has evolved. It feels like no year — no day, in fact — is ever the same.

The versatility of the career that someone can have in this field is limitless — especially for someone who is young, eager to grow and hungry to reinvent themselves. As part of my tenure I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world, experiencing new cultures, meeting new people and most importantly, learning and growing. Despite common assumptions, to come into this business, you don’t need to be armed with a business, finance or economics degree. In fact, I’d argue that a liberal arts education gave me an edge in setting me up for success.

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?

I have had the privilege of being surrounded by incredible peers and leaders at Merrill for 20+ years. Specifically, my managers deserve a special shout-out. Throughout my time with Merrill, my managers have always invested in my career, providing me with opportunities to try new things, push boundaries and grow. In my eyes, a strong leader and mentor believes that you can accomplish any task at hand, and they challenge and push you out of your comfort zone. They sometimes know what you’re capable of even before you do, and they are your biggest advocate and champion.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry like finance, having strong mentors — both male and female — has been critical in catapulting my success. As we work to propel women leaders and advisors at Merrill, I do all I can to “pay it back.” I’m committed to being a leader and mentor to the next generation of women in finance.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes — we have quite a few exciting projects coming up!

We recently launched a national 10-event series to foster honest conversations on issues that matter most to women investors — such as the cost of health care and balancing family financial support with retirement goals. The series was created on heels of research we conducted on women and finances in partnership with Age Wave, which uncovered a startling taboo around money talk: 61% of women surveyed said they preferred to discuss details of their own death over money. As part of our commitment to empowering women, this series is one channel for us to advocate for candid conversations on money to encourage women to own their financial futures.

We’re always looking ahead to “what’s next,” and now we’re embarking on our next big project to understand how clients think about money. Our upcoming research series will investigate the financial behaviors of diverse consumers, with a focus on African American, Hispanic and LGBT+ communities, to provide us with a foundation to serve clients from all walks of life. These upcoming projects all ladder up to the fact that the gender and complexion of wealth is changing. To best serve our clients, it’s imperative for us to understand their diverse needs so we can change with them.

Most importantly, these projects ensure we’re cultivating the next generation of financial advisors to best serve the next generation of clients. We’ve been making huge investments in hiring and developing new financial advisors who can deliver across client’s financial lives and represent the diverse demographics we serve. For instance, we’re focused on recruiting a diverse talent pool into our Financial Advisor Development Program (FADP), which we continue to evolve to give our advisors the best tools and trainings they need to address our nation’s complex wealth needs. Today, 1/3rd of Merrill’s advisor trainees in the FADP are women — the highest percentage to-date.

Wall Street used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

We feel this change across the finance industry, and you can certainly see it at Bank of America. In my view, many things have triggered it. First, there’s the simple fact that representation matters. Diverse representation — whether women, people of color, members of the LGBT community — at all levels is imperative to long-term business success, including the financial industry. As the gender and complexion of wealth changes, leadership needs to reflect these changes.

Financial firms are also recognizing the positive impact diversity has on company performance. Firms are smarter and more effective when they are a group of diverse people. It brings in more perspectives and ideas, allowing organizations to think more creatively. Absence of diversity, meanwhile, has adverse consequences, impeding the ability to hire, develop, grow and serve the next generation.

For us, it started as a commitment from our leadership team: our CEO Brian Moynihan and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management Head Andy Sieg. Andy specifically emphasizes how delivering across our clients’ financial lives means delivering through diversity. From the top of our organization to the hyper-local level, diversity is a non-negotiable top priority. Diversity has become pervasive in terms of how we think about what we do every day. It’s both a moral and business imperative.

What 3 things can be done by a) Individuals b) companies and c) society to support this change going forward?

We see it as our duty to continue the momentum toward women’s empowerment, and we all have a role to play. A key first step is ensuring women and diverse populations build the education — and confidence — they need to reach their financial goals. As women grow more comfortable with their finances, they are more likely to continue exploring the finance industry and all it has to offer in the future — either as members of the workforce or clients. Deeper education leads to greater representation, which results in more companies committed to women’s financial needs and advancement. These great companies then pave the way a more equitable, forward-thinking society. Here are a few steps to support this change:

1) Learn from the generations around you. Have conversations with family and friends that destigmatize difficult money conversations. There is so much to be learned from the shared experiences that our peers, friends and family have gone through, like sending a child to college or beginning to invest.

2) Take advantage of any employer-sponsored financial education programs. Take advantage of employer-sponsored workshops and benefits available to make the most of your financial future and navigate complex paths. According to a recent Merrill report on employee and employer financial wellness, nearly all employees who take advantage of workplace financial wellness programs say these resources have been effective. In turn, employers should offer holistic benefits that meet the needs of a diverse workforce, including personalized benefits, mentorship programs and networks, so they can set a standard they can be proud of for employee benefits offerings.

3) Continue the conversations about financial equality. Of 1,594 pages of editorial content in the March 2018 issues of the top 17 women’s magazines, there were only 5 pages covering personal finance topics, according to a recent Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study. That’s less than 1%.This issue is even more stark when analyzing personal finance materials targeted specifically toward minority groups such as African American, LGBT+ and Hispanic/Latina women. The more accessible we make conversations about personal finance in society, the more diverse, capable and confident our collective financial future looks.

Action results in change — and if action is taken to educate individuals, companies and society, I feel confident these steps can help propel us into a better, more equal future.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advice your adult child about 5 non-intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Whether it’s your finances, career or personal life, everyone should be in the driver’s seat for their own individual goals. Here are a few tips to help make managing finances feel achievable and, most importantly, personal to you and your goals:

· Never lose your hunger to learn more (especially when it’s your financial future on the line): Due to higher costs of living and other hurdles, recent Merrill research found 80% of early adults say it’s harder to become financially independent than it was for prior generations. Getting educated on key financial topics — such as paying off debt, budgeting, saving and investing — is key to building confidence and understanding how to juggle different priorities on the path to financial independence, which then triggers action toward goals. For instance, our free financial education platform, Better Money Habits, offers personalized financial education and guidance on key topics ranging from budgeting, saving, spending, homeownership and more — and includes tools and roadmaps to help people put learning to action.

· Don’t be afraid to ask for help: In addition to initiating open conversation on money with peers and family members, consider seeking professional guidance. Experts could be especially helpful in working with you to create a financial plan that matches your personal priorities and needs. According to our recent research, 72% of early adults say they would benefit from more financial guidance.

· Look for resources that “do it for you.”: One easy way is by setting up automatic savings or bill payments, which helps ensure your credit card bill is paid on time each month — critical to a healthy credit score — while keeping you on track financially. Closing the loop on your financial to-dos will help make for a more seamless financial journey, and your future self will thank you!

· Pay yourself first: Near-term priorities like debt, rent and other expenses can feel overwhelming — but it’s also highly critical to be thinking about your financial future as early into your career as possible. Aim to dedicate at least 10% of your monthly paycheck to savings — a payment to your “future self.” In the workplace, be sure to contribute and, even better, max out contributions to your employer-offered 401(k). While your paycheck comes in slightly lower each month, the money you’re missing will only benefit you down the road and forces you to prioritize saving for retirement. Plus, this is an investment that will only grow overtime.

· Invest, invest, invest: Investing allows you to grow your wealth in ways that income alone cannot, so we encourage young people to invest as early as possible.

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

Something I’ve said often throughout my life and career (which I’m sure my teams and family could attest to) is the need to push past boundaries that come in the way of your goals. At home, I always encourage my daughters to push past the ordinary and dive into what they want — no matter how challenging it may be at first. I empower them to apply this philosophy to that tough class at school, friendships, sports, hobbies and anything else they set their mind to. In turn, I bring the same thinking to work.

At Bank of America, we’re proud of the community we’ve built and how we’ve encouraged not only our employees to be their best, but also the local communities whose financial journeys we’ve been a part of for so long. We invest in our customers, clients and employees so that they can continually see themselves doing bigger and better things — and we arm them with personalized advice and strategies to help them get there. It is my hope that our advisors can serve as a last “push,” driving clients out of their comfort zone and helping them to tackle their financial journey head-on.

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

While the work is certainly not done, what we are in the midst of at Bank of America — sparking a movement of financially empowered women — is exactly what I would hope to ignite. We are reaching clients, customers and families in all regions of the country and starting conversations about finance where they haven’t traditionally existed –in boardrooms and offices, over lunch with colleagues, at the dinner table with younger children, and many other places.

Simply continuing and expanding the conversation needs to be a necessary task for us all. There are so many fantastic tools available — online, in books, through financial advisors and in conversations with peers facing similar financial experiences — that I encourage people to seize on to expand their knowledge, seek mentorship, and take once “taboo” financial topics out in the open. Financial freedom can free you from so many things — not just debt or the weight of a mortgage, but also relationships and more personal situations as well.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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