From the C-Suite with Cambridge's Amy Webber: Empowering others to demand improvements

The president of Cambridge Investment Research discusses the culture she is working to foster at the firm and the leadership lessons she has learned

Nov 21, 2016 @ 4:59 pm

By Liz Skinner

A random work-study job landed Amy Webber at a broker-dealer 28 years ago, but it was persistence and sweat that launched her to the position of president at Cambridge Investment Research Inc.

Being a young woman in an industry dominated by older men, she felt she had to work harder than most male colleagues to build credibility and show what she could do.

Now Ms. Webber, 47, heads of one of the nation's largest independent broker-dealers, acting as “chief happiness officer” and fostering a culture that supports improvement and diversity. She's also chairwoman of the Financial Services Institute, an industry trade group.

One challenge at the top, according to Ms. Webber, has been keeping her mouth shut and letting others execute.

InvestmentNews: Tell me about your leadership style.

Amy Webber: For the last five years I'd call it transformational. I drive a lot of change. At the root of my comfort zone I believe that I have to adjust my leadership style to a particular situation. I'm always looking around trying to figure out how we can be better and do better and transform ourselves and the company. I'm also very attached to what they call service leadership. Unlike the [former General Electric Co. CEO] Jack Welch old leadership style of command and control, I learned a long time ago that life is easier if I take the time to recognize what's important to the individual or group I'm trying to lead. I consider the 700 people who work here at Cambridge a segment of my clients, and I want to tap into their energy and their happiness. We call it the chief happiness officer part of my title. If they're content in what they are doing and what they are contributing, then all the other segments of my clients are going to be well-served as well.

I'm also collaborative, and I'm a big fan of diversity. I've stacked our senior leadership with such a diverse group that I like to think that if we come out with consensus, it's probably the right decision because we have explored every alternative.

(More: Meet the 2016 top women in advice)

IN: What have you done as chief happiness officer?

AW: I didn't make that up; I stole it from Zappos. For one thing, I meet with all new employees in small group sessions after they've been here between three and nine months. My main goal is to help them understand that we're on the same team, even though I sit in an office and they may sit in a cubicle. I ask them what the company can give them to help them do their job better or help them be happier. I've been doing this for 10 years now, and the feedback I get from these meetings is invaluable. The things that come out are fascinating. One employee said he'd feel a lot happier when he drove into work if he saw the American flag flying outside our campus. I said great, and we made it happen.

We have a lot of females who work here, and many are in the years where they're having children and we started getting a request for footstools. Easy enough, get a supply of footstools for these ladies who are coming in every day and helping us achieve our goals.

There have been hundreds of things to come out of [these meetings] over the years, including dual monitors to make [employees] more efficient, a more consolidated CRM system and knowledge management systems, to give you a few examples.

I've also distributed ice cream sundaes and played putt-putt golf, even though I'm not very good at it.

IN: What kind of culture are you trying to foster at Cambridge?

AW: Our fundamental purpose is to make a difference, in the lives of advisers, their clients and in the lives of each other. The culture is really around empowering them to be innovative. I refer to it as, “Be the CEO of your desk.” You are empowered to go to your boss and make suggestions for continuous improvement. We want to get better every day. Fostering that kind of environment has served us well. We will have had our largest [adviser] recruiting year in the history of the company, and we have not added nearly the [number of] staff that I would have expected us to add. We also still get a nine out of 10 on our satisfaction ratings. We are getting better at what we do and it comes from doing things smartly and not being afraid to raise your hand and question how we do business.

IN: Tell me about someone in your life who really influenced the person you are today.

AW: I would point to [Cambridge founder and CEO] Eric Schwartz, my boss. I started working with him 18 years ago, when I was a 28-year-old, motivated, career-oriented person, to the point where at that age I was already starting to show signs of wear and tear. Eric helped me realize that it was important for me to take care of myself before I could take care of others. Life balance became pretty important. That doesn't mean I work fewer hours, but it means the hours that I'm not working I'm doing things that are better and more rewarding for me.

(More: Alexandra Lebenthal on lessons learned after 30 years on Wall Street)

IN: What are a couple of things you've added into your life?

AW: I prioritize family time, giving myself permission to take vacations, attend sporting events, dance recitals and such, all without feeling guilty. I also prioritize time with friends and focus on having a healthy diet and exercising regularly. I also give to causes that are important to me because volunteering feeds my soul.

IN: Do you feel like you've had a positive impact on people at the firms you've led?

AW: You hope so. I think so. I certainly get messages, emails, cards and verbal validation of that from the people I touch and work with here on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, in business I think you let yourself get distracted and pay more attention to the things that are broken and need to be fixed, the complaints that are coming in, the regulation that's coming down the pike. I have made a habit of keeping all those messages that I receive and I read them from time to time, especially if they are coming from our advisers and where we have made a difference in someone's life.

I'm also a realist. None of us have 100% raving fans. You do have to make tough business decisions in life. And while the caregiver in me doesn't like to dwell on it much, I'm sure there are some out there who say, 'She had an impact on my life but it wasn't very positive.' That's just life, but if we work hard to try and impact positively those around us, they'll tell you.

IN: Where do you fall short as a leader?

AW: Because I'm a transformational leader and I thrive on change, I can put too much change down the pipe. I can overwhelm because I'm an optimist. I'm innovative and passionate, and I have to have people around me who say, 'OK, boss, slow down.'

IN: What qualities do you look for in potential hires?

AW: First and foremost, especially at the more senior levels at our organization, we need people who are highly emotionally intelligent. I think you have to know yourself before you can be a strong leader and mentor to others. Close behind that is critical thinking. We have always been in an industry where we need to have all of our employees feel like they can make change and think outside the box.

(More: The time is ripe for female advisers looking for a change)

IN: What's the hardest part of leading?

AW: Keeping my mouth shut. I sit in a lot of meetings where I already have the answer in the first 10 minutes, but you have to ask probing questions to help others get to that answer or hopefully a better answer. The other hard part is that it can be lonely at the top. As a leader, never let them see you worry because they get worried.

IN: You're a woman in an industry dominated by men. Has being female been a challenge?

AW: In the early stages, things were a little difficult. It's hard to build credibility in an industry where you're serving a very different segment of society. I don't know if the difficulty came from being a woman or if it came from being 20 years old. The good news is it gave me the opportunity to work harder and show what I could do. In 28 years, I have never run into a situation where I felt that anyone was holding me back because I was a woman or I was young ... During the first 12 years of my career, I didn't run around screaming from the rooftops that I was a woman. None of us did. We got where we were because we didn't do that, and we earned our seat at the table because of the results we could produce. Suddenly the women's initiative in our industry cropped up, and it was hard for me at first when female advisers would come to me and say, “Let's have a women's forum.” I was like, no, we should not do that! That's not the way to get the keys to the kingdom. But it is, because the world has changed.

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