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Three Career Planning Tactics From Wealthfront’s CFO And COO

Posted by | December 12, 2017 | Career, Career Planning Process

Via Forbes : Three Career Planning Tactics From Wealthfront’s CFO And COO

When Ashley Fieglein Johnson was an executive at ServiceSource she was promoted four times in five years; From SVP to CFO to interim CEO and then Chief Customer Officer. She joined online financial advisor Wealthfront as CFO in 2015, assumed dual responsibility as CFO and COO a year later, and also runs a surf camp in Costa Rica. How did she plan her career to consistently seek out and excel in bigger roles? By ensuring she had the financial freedom to capitalize on opportunities and surrounding herself with mentors who helped shape her path. Here, she shares three tactics that propelled her career forward, gave her agency to design it and pave the way for the next generation.

Create an escape hatch to make career decisions without hesitation.

Fieglein Johnson’s first job out of Stanford was working with a disrespectful and occasionally frightening boss. Despite being a harrowing experience, it inspired her to start what she calls an escape hatch: A savings account with enough money to make decisions without risking your financial security (ideally for six months). “I never wanted to feel trapped like that again so I created a savings plan to ensure that I always have six months of runway so I can leave if and whenever I need to,” she says.

An escape hatch not only gives you decision-making power. It allows you to capitalize on opportunities, like joining an early stage startup or founding your own, and choose the career path you want to pursue. Fieglein Johnson first used her escape hatch when she was 30. After visiting Costa Rica and falling in love with the country, she purchased five acres of land to co-found Vista Guapa Surf Camp, a bed and breakfast she’s been running with her brother for 17 years. “Your escape hatch is the ability to say: ‘I just discovered something that is really important to me and I want to be connected to it.’ Whether it’s making a promising investment or starting a company, financial flexibility makes it possible to jump on the opportunities that come your way. You can’t predict them but they can be life-changing.”

Fieglein Johnson actively works to bridge the gender gap around saving and investing and frequently presents to women’s groups to help them structure their finances to achieve their life goals. The escape hatch is one of the first steps. She provides a straightforward process to create one today. Start by evaluating your spending habits for a representative month against your income. Look closely at your big expenses (like rent and car payments) and your variable expenses (like going to dinner or travel). Determine how much you spend every month and then multiply that number by three to six months, based on your comfort level, to find your escape hatch goal. Break down that number to reveal how much you need to save every month and where you need to alter your spending habits to reach it. It’s important to note that you should create an immediate plan to refill your escape hatch if and when you use it.

Prioritize mentors over role models.

Fieglein Johnson has had few role models during her two-decade rise in the finance and technology industries, which are traditionally male-dominated fields. She focused on finding mentors instead and urges aspiring leaders to seek ones who will actively support you throughout your career. “You want a mentor who really understands you and is committed to helping you make the best decisions at every point of your career,” she advises. “A role model may be someone you see yourself in, but it’s your mentors who will guide and sponsor you. That’s what really matters.” Her mentors continue to introduce her to new roles and help her navigate them. These are three of the best pieces of advice they’ve shared.

  • When Fieglein Johnson first started in investment banking, Michael Grimes, Head of Global Technology Investment Banking at Morgan Stanley, taught her that ‘the definition of success is when you are paid for your judgment, not your work.’ The insight gave her a landmark goal to aspire to at the start of her career.
  • During a challenging time leading ServiceSource as interim CEO, Benchmark Capital co-founder Bruce Dunlevie, who also introduced Fieglein Johnson to Wealthfront, advised her: ‘Have confidence in your instincts. They’ve gotten you this far and I think they are really good.’ There’s nothing he could have said or done that would have injected more confidence in me at that moment, she adds.
  • Peter Currie, former Netscape CFO, encouraged her to ‘always find joy in your work.’ She reflects on his advice daily to maintain perspective.

Create the conditions you deserve.

Beginning in her first job, Fieglein Johnson has faced challenges establishing herself as a traditional leader in the eyes of fellow senior executives and board members. The bar was and continues to be higher for her than a male with a similar background. While women often face these circumstances in relation to the glass ceiling, Fieglein Johnson also highlights glass walls: Subtle acts of sexism, some that may be unconscious, that hold women back daily. For example, when discussing a deal with a group of male colleagues who walk into the restroom, a woman must remain outside and is unable to contribute. Another is joining a conversation with male executives who instantly shift the focus to children in an effort to find common ground. Fieglein Johnson encourages women to take control in these situations so you can get what you want out of the interaction. “We have to persevere to break through the glass ceiling but we bump into glass doors all the time and they can be really disheartening,” she says. “The best thing you can do is say something and take action. Breaking through glass doors requires sustained effort and more women in leadership roles to eliminate these barriers for the next generation. It’s not always easy, but it’s vital that we walk through them one at a time.”

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