Entrepreneurial Environment Lets Exec Stand Out

Being female is less hurdle than distinction for this leader whose parents help to inspire her investment decisions for others.

By Kelly Williams-Group Head and Managing Director, Credit Suisse Customized Fund Investment Group

As a child or as a student, did you aspire to the high position you have today?

I think it is the rare person who becomes a leader who aspires to that role as a child. I think leaders are the ones who have the courage to go through the open doors presented to them, and that's how they ultimately end up in the high positions they find themselves in later in life. As a young child, I always thought I'd be an attorney, drafting my first contract with my Mom for a new lunchbox at the age of 8. She still has it.

What was your path to Executive Board and “Chief” status?

My path was certainly not a direct one. I am trained as a lawyer, and after a number of years in a Wall Street law firm, I was recruited away by a client. Eventually, I was asked to move to the business side in the private equity area as the head of product development, and when it came time to develop a private equity fund of funds business, I thought that was the perfect business for me to run. We started with $100 million under management, and today we have $28 billion. I truly believe that the skill set that good lawyers develop is one of a problem-solver, and that positions you extremely well for any business role you might take on, because ultimately that is what clients need.

Has your path been tougher because you’re a woman?

I think it's been tougher. People generally don't expect a woman to be the one in charge. As a result, I think a lot of women spend much of their time establishing their authority in any given situation, which is something men generally don't have to do.

Have there been unexpected benefits? Explain.

Absolutely. My client base includes lots of public and corporate pension plans, many of which are managed by women. They are often pleasantly surprised when a woman comes in the door as a leader of an asset management business. It certainly distinguishes me from others.

What are two or three big lessons you have learned in the working world along this path?

The big lessons are these: While women often have no choice but to look to men to be their mentors, remember that there is going to come a time when you need to step out from the mentor/mentee role and expect to be treated as a peer. I think it is still a challenge for some men to accept women as peers.

The next lesson is to look at every interaction as a public-relations opportunity. The buzz you create around you, whether it’s from the cleaning lady or the CEO, is infectious. Make sure you take the time to treat people with kindness and respect, because there is a very good chance they will pop up in a role that can be very important to you in the future.

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Is there an unexpected challenge you’ve faced along the way?

I think all challenges are unexpected to some extent. I think women go into any type of endeavor expecting that things are going to be harder or that they're going to be judged differently.

How did you deal with it?

My approach is to use the fact that I'm a woman to my advantage. I stand out because of the scarcity of women at the top of my industry, and as a result, I think I can be very impactful when interacting with people.

Is it overwhelming, or exhilarating—or both—to have the global responsibilities you have?

I find it exhilarating. I travel a lot and people often ask me how I do it. I am lucky to be a good traveler, and I bounce back quickly after a long flight. However, the thing that gives me the greatest thrill is coming up with a creative solution to a really thorny problem. That is what gets me excited and makes all that travel and sacrifice worth it. My ultimate clients are pensioners around the globe, and I think of my mom and dad when I make investment decisions. I know that the better decisions I make, the better quality of retirement people like my parents are going to have.

Why/how does Credit Suisse feel like a good fit for you?

Credit Suisse has been a very good environment for me as a leader. It has allowed my entrepreneurial spirit to blossom and has encouraged me and my partners to think in creative ways about how to address our clients’ needs. Credit Suisse has also shown support for women, which makes things that much easier as a woman leader.

What is your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part of my job is sitting down with a client and listening to the thing that keeps him or her up at night and then coming up with a way to fix it or help her deal with it. It is a great feeling.