What it takes to be an ambitious woman in deals

16 October, 2019

Carina Markel
Partner, Capital Markets, Deals Practice, PwC US

Ambition. It’s a word that many women struggle with. Research by psychiatrist and author Anna Fels indicates that even the most successful women associate ambition with “egotism,” “selfishness” or “self-aggrandizement.” However, there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. Ambition is the desire to achieve something through determination and hard work – qualities needed to succeed in business, particularly in male-dominated industries, such as financial services and deals.

Recently, I sat down with Samara Strycker, senior vice president and corporate controller at Navistar Corporation, and Suzanne Yoon, founder of Kinzie Capital Partners, to discuss ambition. Our talk in Chicago was part of PwC’s Women in Deals series, which brings together female business leaders across the US for an evening of networking and conversation about women and careers.

Samara and Suzanne shared how they’ve sustained their ambitions over the years, and the following are four lessons that women aspiring to get ahead will find useful.

Ask for advice. Build a network of mentors.

Those who succeed rarely do it alone. Having the right people on your side can often accelerate your career, as Suzanne learned early in her 20-plus years working in deals. While at ABN AMRO Bank/LaSalle Bank, she had the opportunity to work with the chairman and CEO: “He was incredibly sharp and was an unbelievable multi-tasker with a high level of integrity and a strong network. His leadership style has really influenced me as a CEO.” He later became her mentor, and Suzanne continues to seek his advice, as he is now a board member at Kinzie. “Gender equality is not going to happen unless it goes both ways. You can’t just make women stand up and say they deserve equal pay and opportunities, unless the men sitting across the table actually believe they do.”

Set your goals. And learn the hard lessons.

For anyone in deals, moving up the ranks involves mastering three key goals. As Suzanne describes, the first is to be good at your trade. This might irk some of your colleagues, but you’ll likely rise at the firm simply because they don’t want you on the other side. The second is to generate revenue, which means networking early on to secure deals likely to play out in the months or years ahead. The third is to be a political genius, which means understanding how to manage and maneuver through your peers, your seniors and your subordinates to get the things that you need accomplished. “These are all lessons I learned the hard way, but if you can achieve all three you are golden.”

Leverage technology. Choose when and where you work.

Technology has changed the way we live and connect with others. It has also helped create a more equal playing field at many US workplaces, giving men and women more flexibility to pursue their careers while also looking after their families. “Technology has allowed people to demonstrate the progress of their work – beyond the hours they happen to be at the office,” says Samara, who spent her career at PwC and as GE Healthcare’s controller for the Americas before joining Navistar in 2014. This flexibility has given people more control over when and where they work. So, it makes sense to use smart phones, video chat devices and the like to their advantage.

Leave loudly. You have a life outside the office.

You might think the more time you spend at work, the faster you’ll get ahead in your career. However, that’s not always true. Studies suggest that taking time off can spark creativity and productivity, and therefore increase the likelihood of a promotion. Given the daily pressures of work, it’s critical for leaders to set an example and encourage others to take time off. This applies not only to vacations, but also to other personal commitments – whether it be dinner with a friend or your daughter’s soccer game. “When you leave for a personal event, leave loudly,” says Samara, adding that she works long hours but makes it known in her office that she goes home for dinner every night.

Samara and Suzanne shared invaluable advice. Building a network of mentors, setting big goals and finding balance between work and life has helped them rise in their careers. So to keep the conversation going, what has helped you sustain your ambitions?