From the C Suite with Wetherby Asset Management CEO Debra Wetherby: Aim to be inspirational, not authoritarian

Along the challenging route toward building a $4B advisory firm, the CEO transformed herself into a more patient and nurturing leader

Jun 19, 2015 @ 11:48 am

By Liz Skinner

Along the challenging route toward building a $4 billion advisory firm, Debra Wetherby transformed herself into a more patient and nurturing leader.

The Syracuse, N.Y., native learned the value of speaking last in a meeting, one-on-one discussions and being inspirational as opposed to authoritarian.

It didn't come naturally to her, though.

Growing up in a house with five children, she was used to battling it out for what she wanted. After Ms. Wetherby, 57, started San Francisco-based Wetherby Asset Management in 1990, she discovered that aggressive approach didn't work as well for the head of an advisory business.

Liz Skinner: Tell me about your leadership style.

Debra Wetherby: I'm a consensus builder. I learned a lot from one of my clients who is CEO of a company. He was leading the company through some big changes and he had this style where he would go to people one by one and talk to them about the decision and gather their input before the decision came up to the group. Then he would have the conversation in the group and the decision would be made. It sounds very redundant, but actually it gave people the opportunity to voice their concerns and issues one on one, rather than through the group setting. It also allowed people to feel like they were really having a voice in the decision. When I was younger, I viewed that as so inefficient. I felt like, we're all adults, get in a room, say what you need to say, discuss the issue and make a decision. Our rule today is if we can't come to agreement then we must be interpreting the data differently or there must be something unknown. Not that we force agreement, because reasonable people can look at things different ways, but that it shouldn't be acrimonious.

(More: From the C Suite with Raymond James' CEO Paul Reilly: Listen and learn. But in a crunch, be decisive)

LS: Is it difficult when there is no consensus?

DW: It's pretty rare that there's a decision that I have to be unilateral on. We have a management committee and it's the heads of all the departments in the firm, and we're pretty good now at making decisions together. I have a strong voice but I have learned to speak last because it's important for everyone else to be heard. And I'm not always going to be around, and so they need to be comfortable — and I need to be comfortable — that the decisions can get well discussed and well made without me there.


LS: When was the first time you were in a leadership role?

DW: I went to the University of Virginia and I co-led the resident staff program. My second year I was a [resident assistant], my third year I was a senior RA and my fourth year I was chosen to co-lead the program.

LS: Were there things you took from that experience that still apply to the way you lead today?

DW: Absolutely. You're leading peers. You have to figure out the way to do that and the whole idea of being inspirational versus authoritarian and leading by example are things that definitely mark back to that time.

LS: You advocate advisers joining a study group. What does it offer that an industry conference, for instance, wouldn't provide?

DW: It's a more intimate conversation and there's a lot more sharing. It's helpful in a study group to see the ongoing conversation, versus parachuting into a conference and having the networking conversations. In a study group, I probably get three to five good ideas each time we meet, which my rule of thumb is if I get three ideas from a three-day conference it's been worthwhile. I also get perspective, because when you're deep in your business and you're busy serving your clients you don't always have the perspective of what's going on around you. When you face a situation you've never faced before and someone in the group has faced that situation and is happy to share with you what they learned from that, that's like a gift.

LS: You spent three years as a broker. How did that time influence the way you lead?

DW: In that system, bad behavior was tolerated from people if they were big producers. And I mean like things you'd see in the movies and say, this could not happen in real life. Things like phones being thrown across the room and just ridiculous things. I think it really made me think about where you draw the line in the sand. For us, regardless of productivity, there are some things that we just don't tolerate, and that's been the big influence.


LS: Is there anything else you don't tolerate from the people who report to you?

DW: The biggest thing is any breach of integrity. We feel like we're in a huge trusted position with clients and everyone has to be trustworthy. We really put a high premium on people having integrity and being good for their word. We don't tolerate people mistreating each other and we don't tolerate that from clients either. We have had conversations with clients who might treat me well and one of my staff poorly. I have gone to a client and said that we view staff members as valuable as me and either that behavior has to change or we need to part company.

(More: Adviser shares secrets for running a successful business)

LS: What did the client do?

DW: They changed. It was a huge moment for that particular client who was a retired CEO type. He was used to thinking, you are my peer and I treat you one way and they are the help so they get treated another way. I told him that me doing a good job is dependent on every other person doing a good job, so every person on the team I view as equally important to the team. So disrespecting them is disrespecting me. They sent flowers to the office, apologized and they totally changed, it was a big shift for them.

LS: Let's talk about culture. What kind of culture are you trying to create at your firm?

DW: We put the clients first. We serve them with a high degree of professionalism and the highest quality. We believe in teamwork and we do a lot of things to promote a team culture. We don't compensate people based on their individual client load. It's all about the success of the firm as a whole. Although people have specific client responsibility, the most common feedback I get from clients is that no matter who I talk to on the phone at your firm they always try to help me. That, to me, is really important: having people care about one another. We have this thing where people can donate PTO to other people and we have had a couple people who have dealt with serious health issues and people donate PTO to them. Or when people are out of the office unexpectedly, people pitch in because they recognize that's what they would want.

LS: What did you take away from your time at PriceWaterhouseCoopers? How did you realize it wasn't a fit for you?


DW: I didn't see myself as a lifetime accountant. The thing about the markets is every day is different. They are changing all the time. What we do is a like a three dimensional puzzle. A client is changing, markets are changing and the investment strategies and vehicles we use are changing. So it's all three of those things and every day is different. In accounting, I felt like I would get to a point where I would know what I needed to know, and then what? For me, there wasn't enough change in it. With the markets you are never done learning, and I love that aspect of it.

As far as leadership, it was a fairly traditional place. There were no women partners; it was a very male-dominated environment. When I first went there, women couldn't wear pants. Perhaps what I took away from there is that I have an aversion to rigid hierarchical models. Their model is very efficient for what they do, but I think part of my reluctance for many years to put on my CEO hat was a resistance to hierarchy. It wasn't until I had done some reading on leadership that I learned you can be a leader without imposing a lot of hierarchy.

LS: You've said being a woman in this industry is a benefit. What led you to think this?

DW: I do think it's an advantage. Initially what got me there was naiveté. I literally had someone high up at Morgan Stanley tell me that they thought men made better brokers and women made better assistants. I said that's unfortunate because I'm a broker and I'm not planning on being an assistant. He's no longer there. When I first went to Morgan Stanley, there were 14 women worldwide who were brokers and I called the trading desk with a big trade one day and the trader asked me who the broker was for it. I resolved to make sure that I got to know every single one of the traders and saw it as an opportunity to stand out in a crowd because there were only 14 of us women brokers. When I would see that there were no women partners at PriceWaterhouse, I would say to myself, it's not a great role for women, the women must leave and go do more interesting things.

I also have to give my father credit. I'm from a family with four girls and a boy and my father's message was always that boys and girls are more alike than different. So I grew up with this constant message. Then I had my children, two sons and a daughter, and boys and girls are nothing alike! I went to my father and he said he hadn't wanted his daughters to feel limited. He grew up in that generation when women were limited. He wanted us to feel like if we worked hard we could achieve anything. I'm really grateful for that message.


LS: What are the qualities you look for in a potential hire? Are there certain characteristics you see as red flags?

DW: We look for people who are self-starters and take responsibility for themselves. We look for those who fit with our values — that's really important to us. We like people who come in and have done some research on us and on the business. We like people who have interpersonal skills; we are in a people business. We are very willing to hire people who aren't just like ourselves. We value differences in background and experience and cultural differences, and we have a very diverse team and we like that. We love career changers because they have perspective and they have business experience. People don't change careers lightly, so you end up getting a lot of seasoning and experience in someone who is willing to start over. A turnoff is the flipside of all that: people who come in who haven't done their homework, who haven't thought at all about what we do, what they want and how those two things intersect.

LS: Any other hiring advice for advisers?

DW: Our hiring process is exhaustive. We have three rounds of interviews and we do testing. I used to hire people based on who I thought they could be, instead of who they really were at the time. But that can fail. It can work out great in people when people want to grow in that way, but not everyone does.

LS: What kind of feedback have you received over the years about the way you manage?

DW: My style has changed so much as a result of feedback over time. It took me a while to learn that my job was really to develop others. Doing things like speaking last in meetings, it took me a while to come to that. I underestimated the power of my own opinion, presence and voice. I thought I could have a different opinion and go toe to toe with someone and it would be equal. I didn't recognize for a long time that my comments weigh more heavily than a peer's comments, so I had to be really careful how I framed things and how I gave feedback. I had to learn that because I was used to being one of five kids and battling it out. Today I'm a kinder, gentler version, a much better leader, more thoughtful than I was 10 or 15 years ago. I say that not to imply that I'm at some high level, but really to suggest that the bar was pretty low before.


LS: How did you improve your leadership skills?

DW: I read books, had personal coaches and went to leadership seminars. When it wasn't working so well, it wasn't great for me either. I would have the expectation that everyone would come to the table and participate in this decision or conversation equally and they didn't feel like they could. It took some time to work through that and modify my style and learn to really support and encourage their growth.

LS: Is there anything similar between leading a company and parenting children?

DW: Actually, I feel like I'm a better parent now having learned what I did at work. I feel like I am much more positive and encouraging. The whole coach versus judge thing was a big thing I had to learn as a leader. Even when I felt like I was being a coach, if you're coming across as a judge, it still doesn't work. It's the same thing as a parent. I learned it at work, but got to also apply it at home. People at work responding to encouragement, positive reinforcement and mentoring, really made me think about the thing you hear people say about parenting: Catch them doing things right — versus so often we catch them doing things not right.


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