By:Luke Wyckoff Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Collaborator Profile
Q: What is your role at Republic Financial?
A: I am the Chief Operating Officer for Republic Financial, an international private investment company, who over the last five years, has used its expertise in commercial aviation leasing, distressed commercial debt, and asset management to navigate the most difficult business and complex financing situations and amass multinational investment interests exceeding $1 billion. In nearly every case we own a majority or controlling position, or they are owned through a private equity fund that we have where we act as the general partner. It is really a role that is very multi-faceted.
We run a shared services model here, so all the resources that we have whether it be legal, risk-management, IT, or HR, operate not only for Republic, but for all the other operating companies that we own. Today, we own eleven operating companies. My role is to make it all happen.
Q: What is the first business transaction that you can remember conducting?
A: My first entry into business was figuring out how I could spend less time babysitting while making more money. I was in junior high, and I ran a computer babysitting business. I realized that it was the verge of the personal computer and my father was a computer nut, so we probably had about ten computers lying around the house. I didn’t want to just babysit kids; I wanted them to have a structured work environment. I knew it was a way to charge twice the going rate.
Q: Looking back, what were some of the big decisions you made that helped you get where you are today? A: My mother went to school her entire life. When she passed away when I was young, she had her undergraduate and Master’s Degrees and she was working on completing her PhD. Throughout my childhood, I remember her going from college to college to college so she could finish her degree. I made a decision early on to get all my schooling out of the way and that it was going to be a very broad base of education. My undergraduate degree is in marketing, I have an MBA in finance and IT, and I have a law degree. All of it was completed in a short period of time.
I also decided not to take traditional routes. I had the opportunity to work for Anderson Consulting after graduation, but instead I decided to work for a smaller boutique consulting firm. While in law school, I transferred from the consulting division into the law firm and ran their IT department because I wanted to get a feel for what it would be like to work in a law firm - but I also didn’t want to take a pay cut. When I passed the bar, I had two job offers - one at the firm and another from MediaOne. I took the job at MediaOne. Looking back, it was a stupid thing to do because everyone graduating law school at the time wanted a law firm job. Even though I took that path, it ended up being a great decision.
Q: Who were some of the major influences in your life? Who helped you get where you are today?
A: When I interviewed at MediaOne, I met this woman who I thought would be good for personal development and my career. She oversaw the law department at US West and then, when they spun off, she went with MediaOne. She didn’t have a college degree, which is pretty interesting, because she ran a department of professionals who were very proud of their degrees and their pedigrees. From the beginning, she patiently taught me how to run a business and how business really works. She taught me how to negotiate the politics of a big company, how to get work done through other people, and how to project confidence when you don’t have very much of it. She taught me the importance of business relationships and remains a fantastic friend who has had a huge influence on me.
My father was also a big influence on me. He was the corporate vice president of Honeywell. On the long 45 minute commutes from town to home, he would lecture me about how I could do anything. He would tell me that women were so much smarter than men in business, and that they have all of these special skill sets that men are missing. So it wasn’t a question of “if”, it was a question of “when” I was going to go into business. Looking back, I think he is a little mad that I didn’t get into politics.
My step-mother is another great influence. She is a high school principal. I can’t believe the decisions she is faced with on a daily basis - situations that you don’t have to deal with in business. She has to deal with all different types of families and reconcile complex problems while advocating for people’s kids and other educators.
There are also four or five women, throughout my career, who are my sisters - who have really been a positive influence on me.
Q: Is there anyone in business today that you really look up to?
A: Well, there are certain types of people whom I look up to. I look up to people who can sell anything. Also, you get to a point where you really admire those who take a step sideways and do more than make money; they start foundations that support others. I think once you get to a certain age, you realize that you have spent your career making money for a company or for yourself. I admire people who have made a significant amount of wealth and then realize that they want to do more; that they want to give back.
Q: What motivates you?
A: I have been told that I am a professional problem solver. The nastier the problem and the more pieces to the puzzle - the better. That is fascinating to me. I love to approach complex problems and work through them. I love the result at the end where you can look back and say “Wow, we really did do something pretty fantastic here.” I think one of the better experiences I have had is taking the support staff that I was given when I came into this job and completely changing their vision of how they operate and what they do on a daily basis. I feel like I taught them that they aren’t here to simply support; they are here to design and figure out how to move companies forward. Seeing that change - that shift in mentality - takes a lot of tenacity, personality, and relationships. Motivating people to do something completely outside of the box is fun for me. I like facilitating that change.
Q: What was one of the biggest problems that you have faced in the past five years and how did you handle it?
A: We bought a company that had 27 different operating units - basically 27 separate companies. Ultimately, it was too big to get our arms around. So, long story short, we had to sell the company. I had to come in and coordinate things so that we could proceed with the sale of the company. When I really started to look at it, I realized that the company had never been fully integrated and that there were various platforms and contracts all over the place; we didn’t know where they all were. We didn’t even know where the equipment was. This whole mess needed to be cleaned up within 60 days. I worked with a team of people to get everything in order and figure out what assets we had, as well as those that we were selling. It was an extremely work intensive 60 days - I was working around the clock. I love those circumstances!
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?
A: I think that the most challenging part of my job is managing the expectations of what can be done. We have very short timeframes here. When we have a deal we need to get it done. You run into things that are totally crazy so the biggest issue is getting the resources and getting people moving as quickly as possible.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of being the COO?
A: After solving a problem, being able to look back and say “Wow, I can’t believe that we actually got that done.” It’s a great feeling to get all the pieces in place in a certain time frame and ultimately accomplish something that seemed impossible at the time. Realistically just taking a look at the people and being proud of the work they’ve done is great. We do impossible things routinely around here!
Q: Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to being a senior-level woman of power in a major company?
A: Advantages. I grew up with six brothers so the concept of having male verses female roles is pretty blended for me. Because I grew up with so many male influences, working almost exclusively with men comes fairly easily - I can usually anticipate their behavior. So for me, this makes my position, in what is a male-dominated industry, a lot easier. You’ve got to get your ego out of the way and figure out how to communicate in environments where your voice is heard.
Q: Were there any hurdles that you had to overcome?
A: Yes, of course. I think that women often tend to advance things through cooperation or collaboration. I think that subtlety is something that you cannot use, especially in the environment that I am in – it just doesn’t work particularly well. You can set the agenda, but you need to be in front of the team. You must collaborate at a different level. As much as I hate to say it, and I’m not one of those people who get real worked up about the whole “glass ceiling thing,” there is a different reaction when women bring forward propositions than there is men. It happens a lot. You’ve got to get your ego out of the way and figure out how to communicate in environments where your voice is heard. I think that you just adapt to where you are. You have to have the ability to separate the facts of what's going on and your emotions. Emotional intelligence is crucial for women. Really understanding how to listen, pulling logic together, knowing the basis of the argument, and understanding who you're dealing with are all such critical pieces.
Q: What is your advice to younger women who are coming into the business world today?
A: My number one goal, at some point in my life, is to figure out what I know at 40 and train women who are in their 20’s. I have two daughters and I try to teach them the art of negotiation and how to think through problems objectively. The one thing that I have learned in a really tough business environment is that you have to have the ability to separate the facts of what’s going on and your emotions. Emotional intelligence is crucial for women. Really understanding how to listen, pulling logic together, knowing the basis of the argument, and understanding who you’re dealing with are all such critical pieces. You can’t expect people to change, because I know from experience that they’re not going to. You need to know who you’re talking to, know the likelihood of their reaction, and know how to manage those reactions to get to the goal that you want -- know people’s patterns of behavior. My number one goal, at some point in my life, is to figure out what I know at 40 and train women who are in their 20’s.
Q: How would you define your leadership style?
A: It’s changed a lot in the past five years. I think it has to do with adapting to the environment. While I used to take a more collaborative approach, I am much more decisive today than I have ever been. I think it comes from working for a company like this where one day you are trying to understand potential pension liability to the next day when you are trying to figure out how to do business in Ireland. You are rarely dealing with the same thing twice. I have learned to create a set of counselors - people who have very specific specialties and experience - and get their advice and then make the decision. I think that in the past, in a different environment, my leadership style would have been more collaborative. I would have allowed more decision making at a lower level. Here, it’s just too complex. You need to know all the factors inside and out.
My leadership style today is very direct but I have also developed very strong relationships with people who work with me. I’m a people oriented person. I love meeting people who are smarter than me. I like to make the crazy parts of the job fun. I think I have a good sense of humor. I think that anyone in an executive position struggles with work-life balance; I don’t care if you’re a man or a woman.
Q: How do you do you balance work and your personal life?
A: Women executives get asked this question all the time and many of them will tell you that they have outsourced parts of their life, that they have it together. We don’t have it all together. While women may try to paint that illusion - they don’t have it all together. There were so many times that I came to work with a big yogurt handprint on the back of my silk jacket. There is that messy closet in your house where you throw everything before guests arrive. You can’t possibly do all of it. It’s a series of measures. I think that anyone in an executive position struggles with work-life balance; I don’t care if you’re a man or a woman. Are the expectations different for women? Sure. You’re still going to be a wife and a mom and you’ll feel societal pressure. It’s a series of trade-offs.
Luke Wyckoff is the Chief Visionary Officer for Social Media Energy. He can be reached at Luke@SocialMediaEnergy.com.