By Sonia Attkiss—Director, Private Banking USA, Credit Suisse
As a child or as a student, did you aspire to the high position you have today?
While I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did have a very strong vision that I wanted to be in a corner office. I know that sounds odd, but I grew up in the small town of Alberta, Canada, where I did not have many women-in-business role models, and because of my limited exposure to inspiring women, I equated a corner office with success. My internal drive and competitiveness got me to that corner office, but I realized along the way that material success in and of itself can be rather unfulfilling. It is what you do with that material success. It has allowed me the ability to concentrate on other things that matter most to me—to make a difference, not only with my life but in others’ lives, especially my children’s.
Has your path been tougher because you’re a woman?
I remember taking a biological anthropology course while an undergraduate at Harvard where the professor lectured about the agentic behavior of male leaders (proactive, assertive, dominant, and in control of the situation) and the communal-value behavior of women leaders (friendliness, support, warmth, and a caring attitude). I had always identified more with the former (even though I definitely exhibit communal characteristics as well), but I was struck that the professor so vehemently argued the gender specific behaviors and that advances for women as leaders could be somewhat limited because most women do not generally display agentic behavior. Needless to say, I joined a long line of high-spirited Harvard women waiting to speak to this professor after his lecture, all of us with the common goal of telling him how wrong he was. And as I looked at the line of intelligent, articulate, goal-oriented woman waiting to lay into the professor, it dawned on me that this stereotype was just that. And one that I felt confident that my generation and successive generations can and will work to erode.
Have there been unexpected benefits? Explain.
Yes, I believe that we learn and grow through the challenge of changing perception. When I was a child, my parents never made a distinction between boys and girls, men and women. I lived in a small, rather isolated community, but my parents supported a land of vast opportunities for their children and never made me feel that anything was out of reach because I was a girl. I carried this view with me to college, and it was one of the reasons I was so utterly opposed to my professor’s stereotypical point of view. But it was a wake-up call that this perception exists. I came out of college hoping to dispel this female stereotype by wearing the dominant personality almost like a suit of armor. Looking back, I know I took it to an extreme. And as I advanced through my career, I realized that authenticity is more important than role-playing. I now feel I have found an inherent balance between being assertive and confident and making controlled decisions while at the same time being supportive and caring. When this balance came naturally, I believe I became a better leader and better at my job.
What are two or three big lessons you have learned in the working world along this path?
Life takes you in many directions, and flexibility and experimentation were the key elements in helping me determine my career. I graduated from college with a liberal arts degree in art history, no marketable skills, but with a dogged determination to make something of my life. But I had no idea what that was going to be. I worked as an aide to a member of parliament, an assistant in an architectural firm, a gallery assistant at a SoHo art gallery, a coffee barista, a bartender at an almost-always-empty night club, and finally at an advertising agency before deciding that I wanted to enter the world of finance and enrolling in business school. Each and every one of the jobs I had before business school and Wall Street has helped shape who I am today.
Is there an unexpected challenge you’ve faced along the way?
Without a doubt the biggest challenge I face each and every day is balancing my career and motherhood. I have a wonderful husband and three children, ages ten, eight, and six, and I have come to realize that there is no easy way to meet everyone’s needs in a healthy and balanced way. More often than not, I fall into the pattern that I think most working mothers fall into—mom gets her needs met last, which can perpetuate a cycle of exhaustion, frustration, and chaos within the family system. For me it is my single biggest challenge and one that I grapple with every day.
How did you deal with it?
I have a few guidelines that I try to use to help me keep things in balance. While at work I try to be 100 percent focused on my clients and business, and while at home I focus on my family. I try to take care of myself. I prioritize the needs of my family. And I ask for help. This has been one of the most difficult things to do—letting go of control and admitting that I can’t do it alone. Finally, I try to practice self-acceptance—the ability to accept my own personal limitations. These guidelines are by no means fail-proof, but they have been helpful as I strive for balance.
Is it overwhelming, or exhilarating—or both—to have the global responsibilities you have?
I love what I do. My work, my industry, and my clients all contribute to a feeling of exhilaration for a career that has promise and momentum. Yes, it is a busy and demanding career, and there are challenges and moments of self-doubt when I feel I may be sacrificing too much. But I never feel sorry for working hard. In the end, I feel that I am building a future and showing my children commitment, engagement of mind, and dedication.
Why/how does Credit Suisse feel like a good fit for you?
I feel that my career has been able to thrive at Credit Suisse because of its commitment to its clients, shareholders, and employees. It is a vast firm with offices around the world, and the diversity of people is awe-inspiring and one of the single most important aspects of the firm. I am surrounded by the highest-caliber people, who challenge and empower me and make me better at what I do.
What is your favorite part of the job?
I have been fortunate to be honored by lists that recognize women for doing good things in business. I certainly appreciate being recognized for contributing something of value, but at the end of the day, it is not the accolades that matter most to me, it is that I am a trusted and valuable adviser to my clients. It is that I am in a position that allows me to challenge myself and grow. It is that hard work pays off. And it is that I can lead by example.