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How women can own their ambition

15 April, 2019

Jen Mantini
Partner, PwC US

When we look at the accomplishments of women in recent years, it’s worth remembering that progress is not always linear. Just take a look at the C-suite: the share of women CEOs in the S&P 500 hit an all-time high of 32 in 2017 and then fell back down to 24 last year.

These sobering statistics were shared recently at the quarterly Women in Deals series. The event, held in conjunction with Women’s History Month, brought together female leaders at PwC and clients from some of today’s biggest companies for a candid conversation about ambition — a quality that anyone aspiring to get ahead in pay and promotions should own.

I sat down with Norma Kuntz, a Partner at Carlyle Group, and the Global Head of Fund Management, overseeing the firm’s team of business line CFOs executing fund strategies across the Corporate Private Equity, Real Assets and Global Credit segments. Norma sits on the investment committees for each of these segments, which have over $170 billion of total assets under management in 276 active portfolio companies and 118 active investment vehicles. Norma and her team work with colleagues in 19 offices around the world who serve Carlyle’s more than 1,950 investors from 90 different countries.

Norma talked about her ambitions and the unexpected path that led her to her current position at Carlyle. Here are some highlights of our talk:

Your parents owned a theater company and you grew up around artists. How did you end up in the business world?

Norma: I’d say the easy answer is rebellion.

Rebelling against the arts? That’s interesting and kind of hilarious. Tell me more.

Norma: At a very young age, I decided I was going to be an accountant – mainly, I think, to rebel against my parents. They ran a theater company in Western Massachusetts and I grew up around the theater while everyone else’s parents worked at a large corporate or were teachers or police officers. Our schedule was very unusual – my parents often worked late into the night and I was always with them and often late for school because of it!

The theater experience shaped me and I learned a lot of different things. I continually realize how all of the experiences I had growing up have benefited me in my career and given me the confidence and tools to succeed. I do still love the arts – but as a hobby, not a career.

So you had this fabulous career, then you had a baby. How did the birth of your son affect the way you viewed your career ambitions?

Norma: I was the chief valuation officer at Allied Capital when I was on maternity leave. It was the middle of the financial crisis and Allied had been through many different scenarios. Ultimately, we were bought out. I thought this would be a good time to take a step back and focus on being a new mom. However, I was asked if I could help with the firm’s transition and was given a very flexible schedule. And because it was an acquisition, the incentives were high, so I returned.

I was living in DC, and the acquirer was in New York, where my parents lived. I would fly up with my son and my mom and dad would watch him while I worked. This was great for them because they got to spend more time with their grandson and it was great for me to be able to work on a flexible schedule.

You eventually returned to work full-time. What made you decide to do that?

Norma: As my son got older, my husband would get home from work and I’d ask, ‘What did you do today?’ And then I’d start giving him unsolicited advice. I think I started to drive him a little crazy. My son was one and a half when the Carlyle opportunity came up. It sounded very interesting and I decided to give working full time another chance.

I took the role of CFO of Emerging Markets at Carlyle. I quickly learned that I needed to travel to do my job well and I ended up traveling quite a bit. That was actually good for my family because when I had to travel, it meant that my husband had to spend more time as the main caregiver for our son. And this was great for all three of us.

I still have mommy guilt, but I’m not the best for my son, or for my husband, or for myself when I’m not following my personal ambitions.

One piece of advice I tend to give people trying to build their careers is to explicitly convey that they’re ambitious. Sponsors need to know that you want to do well and that they can trust you if they’re going to invest their political capital in you. What’s your advice to women on how they should think about their careers and what’s possible?

Norma: Be true to yourself and be thoughtful about what’s right for you. I see so many people make decisions based on other people’s expectations, whether it be what their parents did or what their spouse wants them to do. Of course, you need those people around you, including a great partner, but ultimately your career and your ambitions are very personal. It’s important to take a step back and ask, ‘Am I doing this because this is what I want to do or is it because everyone around me thinks I should be doing this?’

Are you seeing a change in Carlyle with regards to having more women on the investment side?

Norma: Sixty percent of the post-MBA hires who will start in the fall are women and 60 percent of our 2018 class of partners are women globally. So there’s a big change at both entry and senior levels. Having said that, we still have a lot of work to do. The statistics are very different in Europe and Asia (with the exception of China where we have the most women). I think Carlyle has done a very good job on the investment side, and we need to continue hiring people in the entry level classes and work hard to retain them. We have seen the payoff in the principal ranks and it’s going to take time to see more progress.