Be Brave. Be Driven. Raise Your Hand.
In 1970, Susan Byrne found herself young, single and in need of a job in New York City, with a toddler in tow. Back then, she says, the only options available to women in business were assistant and “glorified secretarial” type positions. Even so, with her well-developed writing skills coupled with the drive to succeed given her circumstances, she set out for an assistant position on Wall Street, since they made the best salaries. She landed the role of appointment secretary to the CEO of EF Hutton, not realizing that in a mere 13 years, she would find herself a CEO, overseeing her newest baby, Westwood Management Corp. It’s a remarkable story, and we wanted to find out how she made her way to the helm of her own firm and what she thinks other women need to know to do the same.
“I had to force myself to raise my hand,” she said. Getting out of her comfort zone was tough, but it paid off. Not long after starting at EF Hutton, the Research department began to grow, and she figured with her skills as a writer, she could handle the editor job. She quickly perceived just how much the investment analysts needed her help when it came to writing effectively. It became a joint effort, though, because in order to do the best at her job, she had to understand their job. It is not easy to write about something you do not comprehend. Conveniently for Susan, the analysts were patient and spent time with her, discussing a wide variety of topics ranging from politics to economics to portfolio management.
Soon, portfolio managers were encouraging her to give their craft a try, so she joined a bank and later became assistant treasurer at GAF Corporation where she had exposure to outside pension managers and the opportunity to manage corporate money. This, she said, was the key. In fact, when she applied for the role, she learned the firm offered her below-market compensation even though she was qualified. However, she took the opportunity because she needed the experience, the push forward. At GAF, she had the opportunity to set up one of the first 401(k) retirement plans. “I didn’t go to the right school or have the right job, but I was willing to raise my hand and try,” she said. “I didn’t even consider my gender, really.” She found she enjoyed, and had a knack for, portfolio management.
Once she had developed a nice track record, she began to interview for portfolio management positions. “We don’t have women in those jobs,” one interviewer told her as he declined her for a position. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said, “I had all the required skills, a good track record and I knew I could do the job.” All the boxes seemed to be checked.
This motivated, scrappy, brave trailblazer took matters into her own hands. Susan started Westwood Management Corp. in 1983. “Thank God that guy didn’t hire me, or I surely wouldn’t be where I am today,” she laughed. By 1985, she had remarried and, while her oldest was off to college, she became the step-mother to three boys. When her husband had a chance to move to Texas, she decided to open a second office in Dallas and travel between the two. “People couldn’t understand why I would do such a thing,” she remembered. “Being a wife and mother were a very important part of my life. But I suppose most professionals at the time wouldn’t have followed their spouse and continued to work, because most of the time only one spouse was working.”
“It’s harder today,” she said. “Women have so much to balance, and that gets harder as you climb the corporate ladder.” It’s hard to make time for kids, your spouse, a full-time job and friends, much less yourself. It seems most women feel pressure to touch all the bases, which is very difficult, but the good news is, it engenders versatility. As you enter the latter stages of your career, things can become more complex. “I feel like women start to self-select out. It seems as if they find themselves unwilling or unable to miss part of their life to get to the top. They are often the anchor for a family, responsible for taking care of parents, children and so on. That forces them to prioritize.”
It can really diffuse a situation and set a lighter tone. Things will still get done. There’s no need to be strictly serious all the time.
Women have a unique way of connecting with others — use those special skills. Be a connector. Smooth things over when you need to.
Be willing to take yourself out of your comfort zone. Convince yourself, and others, that you can take on a new project or skill, even if you’re not perfectly qualified. The guys do this all the time.
Women have unique attributes. We relate to one another in a different way. Often, women feel the need to be included and connected. The qualities that women bring are fabulous.
Men traditionally don’t get the opportunity to do this, while it is changing, society seems to force men to focus on their careers. Being balanced is important, especially as you look to retirement. If your children are grown, take up a hobby.
There is no evidence that women are less capable investors, and honestly, you’re going to have to do it anyway. Whether you are working or not, women are responsible for money. Don’t be intimidated by it. Take the time to understand it, and make sure you are contributing to your retirement account at least to the match. Doubling your money is really hard to do. If your employer doesn’t offer a retirement plan or match, think long and hard about staying there.
Describe your morning routine.
I can wake up naturally now, after many years of 5:00 a.m. starts. No more alarm clocks for me. It’s my precious indulgence. I’m usually up and about between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m.
When have you been most satisfied in your life?
Right now. I am so grateful for my family and the time I can spend with them these days. I am looking forward to traveling with my grandchildren again this summer… we’re going to Africa!
What’s on your nightstand / on your iPhone/iPad?
Three to four books I haven’t read. And a copy of the newest Vogue!
Do you have a quote or mantra?
A player who makes a team great is more valuable than a great player. Losing yourself in the group, for the good of the group, that’s teamwork. – John Wooden