• Cara Williams

My Little Soapbox

Learning and leading in finance.



Courtesy of Cara Willams - Senior Partner; Global Segment Leader at Mercer



I knew absolutely nothing about financial advisory before joining Merrill Lynch. I had been working for the US military and NATO at the time when I was recruited by Merrill. They, along with Smith Barney, were known to recruit heavily from the military. The military drives a strong sense of responsibility and familiarity working towards clear targets. Merrill Lynch invested heavily in a very comprehensive financial training program with clearly defined targets. At that time, they preferred financial novices to professionals who had learned finance elsewhere. They also seem to have placed a higher priority on one’s level of sales acumen versus one’s knowledge of finance.

Merrill provided me with all the foundational information that I needed to start my career in financial advisory. Beyond attaining all the various licenses needed to work in the US, it taught me the basics about asset allocation across equities and fixed income to much more sophisticated forms of investment. They felt confident that with their training they could give me the freedom to build my book of business, varying the type of solution to the type of client, including retirement vehicles such as 401k’s and DC (small market) plan.

Back in the mid-late nineties, few financial advisory firms offered adequate small and mid-market retirement plans, so a lot of clients were being underserved. I became comfortable with cold-calling treasurers around 7:30/8 AM just as they were sitting down at their desks. Instead of asking about taxable investments, I was quite comfortable speaking to the benefits of converting existing insured retirement plans and moving over to Merrill’s defined contribution plan, which at the time offered unique self-directed trade abilities and an open architecture platform.

In building my book of business, I was very reliant on the camaraderie of my fellow Merrill training program classmates especially of a gentleman who had joined the program after having had sold his successful garment business. I found it oftentimes daunting that we had both built careers outside of finance and had no book of business. His enthusiasm, encouragement and belief in both our future success was really inspiring to me.

The magnitude of freedom I had suited me very well because I don’t like to be micromanaged. Rather the ideal manager will provide me the wiggle room to try things, provide guidance and honest feedback along the way. The regional head at Merrill was supportive of me even when my performance fluctuated and was willing to support the risk when I had wanted to try some unorthodox approaches.

I have had some wonderful managers throughout my career, but two stand out for me: one in the military and one who was the reason I joined Mercer. Their styles were both quite similar in that they did not micro-manage, but wanted to stay apprised of progress and work. That’s always worked very well with me. Both were very direct, had great senses of humor, and understood to manage and lead each person individually. The last point has always been one of great importance to me as I support colleagues bringing the whole of their selves to work. It is, therefore, best to recognize that people are very different and what motivates them is too. My manager in the military could be very gruff and would have a very harsh delivery when he thought that approach would bring about the change he was seeking, with others the approach was so very different. He changed his style according to each person he was leading. As such, I try to be aware of what motivates and demotivates people.

Developing these different types of relationships is a process centered on observation - possibly my strongest skill and I attribute the reason for the success I have enjoyed in my career so far. Listening and observing are critical skillsets when developing relationships personally or developing business on the behalf of my firm.

Observation also enables me to see how best we can help people grow. I recall one person in particular whose education and qualifications would normally have pigeonholed him into doing a single narrow role. It took just giving him a new additional responsibility completely outside his expertise that allowed him to ramp up and learn. The rote work he was ‘trained’ to do, his specific education, in fact, provided him with an interesting viewpoint when applying it to areas less conventional for his expertise.


Just because someone is inexperienced doesn’t mean they’re not going to be good at doing a new job. I brought someone I knew who had been working only in high street retail (not investment) because he was great with people and placed him on a team lacking in this strength. He did not have to understand the financial details because his role was to be interpersonal and he was great at it.


The man who brought me to Mercer was like that. He was able to look at my experience and say you have never been a Chief Operating Officer (COO), but everything you’ve done is very much like a COO. Colleagues weren’t particularly nice to me the first couple of months because they questioned my qualifications for the role. In running an entire firm or division, you just have to accept that you are going to have doubters. There are always going to be people who are not happy with the way you are approaching something. You can shift your style completely and they are still not going to be supportive, so you need to be true to yourself and the approach you choose.

If you want everyone on your side, it’s not going to work; leadership is not a popularity contest. You can have different forms of open dialogue and still be criticized for not being inclusive enough in your decision-making process. New Yorkers, like myself, are not known for appeasing everybody, although my 15 years in the UK has probably made me nicer. However, with age, I’ve concluded that you’re just never going to make everybody happy.

Moreover, if you operate in a global role, you are constantly told by everybody that their market is unique. No matter how much you know about every market, and how similar they actually are, people take strong ownership of their own territory and, you need to recognize that. As such, it requires a fine balancing act and you have to make hard decisions in spite of local pushback, while also trying to accept localization so people can also feel ownership themselves. If people locally do not feel vested, they are not going to drive as hard forward to the main agenda and, even worse, might actually undermine it. There will be people who act as if they are on board with the global vision, but when you look at what they are really doing locally, you will see that it is quite different.

In advancing a vision, some opt for a cascading approach where leaders speak to their senior team and then instruct them to pass along to their teams. I think that is an arrogant approach because you really need to make yourself familiar with and available to multiple levels within your division. Creating a mechanism for open dialogue is very important because relying on your leadership team to do all the cascading isn’t effective in practice. A leader needs to make her or himself available and to convey the message personally. A subject like diversity cannot simply be ‘cascaded down’. The message needs to come from leadership directly so then everyone can decide if the messaging is genuine or not.

Honesty and candor are a pre-requisite for any working relationship I have. I find my greatest management challenge is being able to manage up as I ask for honesty in dealings with my manager and hope that he or she would ask the same of me. I have been lucky in the main, but there certainly are managers who don’t seek open exchange from their teams. Personally, I have an equally strong interpersonal relationship with whomever I work with (good or bad).

Sometimes I wish I’d been more patient with colleagues who were having trouble supporting certain concepts or ideas. I tend to create tighter timelines than may be necessary and thus, create impatience. I have tried and succeeded, but also failed at being mindful to ensure everyone feels they have been heard and considered.

In the end, you can only be who you are and as such, I try to bring as much “me” to the table as often as possible. This includes being open and honest about my limitations, such as when I worked as Global Head of our Analytics, Research and Tools division for ten years with zero tech experience, which I was very open about. I barely knew the difference between the different roles within the team. However, in owning up to what I did not know, I also did not have the baggage of knowing what was not possible. In effect, the whole team would do their utmost trying to make each request possible or clearly lay out why it was not feasible. For example, we converted our whole system to the cloud long before anyone started talking about the cloud partly because I did not understand why the process to get clients software updates was quite so laborious until colleagues explained a potentially innovative option for us to consider.

It is important to stay true to who you are and accept that you don’t know everything. I’ve embraced not knowing everything and it’s okay to ask a dumb question. In the end, the more I understand the better the decision can be. That to me is most important.

As I wrap up this piece, it is important to mention the growing number of women CEOs (Chief Executive Officers) of major financial institutions, most recently at Citibank. As wonderful as that is, we should not merely rest our focus on that CEO level - we need to continue to improve immediate levels below where the pipeline of future female leaders is thin. My biggest concern is that we become complacent and bored at dealing with gender issues. We point to singular examples of women occupying positions of power and then exude a level of satisfaction. However, there’s way more to do.

My biggest concern is the blatant lack of people of color and especially, women of color in financial services. Recently, I was one of three women, all white, on a call and the rest of the thirty-six attendants were men. This simply does not represent the population at large. The number of women of color in finance roles ranges between 3% and 14%, and that to me is completely abominable! More needs to be done to shift the numbers of women present, but let’s be sure we’re throwing the net wide enough to ensure we’re bringing on all women. I don’t want to look around one day at the enormous growth in women participating in finance and have to point out that they’re all white! It’s also not a matter of either-or. We can do both at the same time - let’s just make sure we’re bringing all women forward.


That’s my little soapbox!




Cara Williams - Senior Partner, Global Segment Leader: Financial Intermediaries,

Family Offices and Multinational Clients-Wealth



#wealthmanagement #mercer #leadership #womeninfinance #finstreet #discoverfinance #knowledgefactory

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