Anyone who witnessed the unfolding of the global financial crisis would be familiar with Sheila Bair — perhaps as much for her role as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from 2006 to 2011 as for her many battles, including those with Tim Geithner, former head of the New York Fed.
Bair has been called “hard-charging,” “outspoken,” and — less charitably — “noisy and aggressive and opinionated.” But no matter what adjective one ascribes to the former regulator, most agree on this: She was a tireless advocate for financial reform and distressed home owners and never shied away from confronting her critics head on.
When it comes to dispensing career advice for women, Bair is equally blunt. But it’s clear the political and personal tussles of the recent past have not left her unscathed. (In 2009, Bair received a Profile in Courage Award, which the Kennedy Library Foundation presents to public officials who it feels have exhibited political bravery. As the New Yorker reported, “Bair was recognized for her early, though ultimately futile, attempt to get the Bush Administration to address the subprime-mortgage crisis before it became a threat to the entire economy.”)
“At the time of the crisis, I was the only woman head of an agency in a very intense period, where you had to make decisions very quickly and there were a lot of tensions and disagreements and unfortunately some of those got publicly aired,” she told delegates at the Global Interdependence Center‘s recent Women and Risk conference. “So there was always this ‘was it gender?’ . . . ‘Are they not talking to me, are they ignoring me because I’m a woman?’ There’s always something. You just need to deal with it as a fact of life and overcome it as best you can.”
Bair has been labeled “difficult” and “not a team player” so many times, that she just shrugs it off. But the author of Bull by the Horns and chair of the Systemic Risk Council, an independent, nonpartisan body formed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and CFA Institute, also sees signs of progress in the workplace. She offered women in the audience a small measure of assurance: “The battle lines are there, you don’t always know if it is gender or not,” she said. “I think most men these days do welcome women into the halls of power, and I think they do want to view us as equals and work collaboratively.”
Bair, who is speaking at the 67th CFA Institute Annual Conference in May, said she had developed some “rules of the road,” not just as a result of her five years at the FDIC, but from throughout her career. Here they are:
- Never get emotional. “Never, ever get emotional, and whatever you do, don’t cry. There is nothing that is going to make you irrelevant, faster. This is actually difficult for me, because during the crisis, I really was upset about all these people losing their homes. It just outraged me. . . . Always be coldly analytical. It is hard — we feel things, and I don’t think that’s something women should be embarrassed about, but in a business context, it can, with some people, make you less forceful, or less respected.”
- Always support each others’ right to be heard. “This is the way women can best support each other. . . . We’re not always going to agree with each other, and we shouldn’t feel like we have to agree with each other, but we should always support each others’ right to be heard. . . . We need to support each other even when we disagree, and try to guard against letting our differences be used to undermine each other. . . . There is a tendency, when people want to marginalize a women, to try to get her to disagree with another woman. . . . You don’t want to let yourself be used.”
- Don’t be in the game for credit. “There are a lot of us who think we don’t get credit enough and that is absolutely true. Margaret Thatcher once said: ‘If you want something said, ask a man, if you want something done, ask a woman.’ One of our strengths is we do like to get stuff done. We don’t play games. We come to the table [knowing] we’ve got a job to do, [that] we’ve got an objective to meet. And with us, it’s not about who’s going to win or who’s going to lose. We want an end result. We’re not in the game for credit; we want to get something done. And I think sometimes in a male-dominated environment, you can get into this testosterone-laden game playing, and I don’t like it, and I don’t think we should buy into it because that’s not our strength . . . [but] you’ve got to get out there. If you hang back and play it safe, you just don’t get the stuff done. . . . If you make the end result your top priority, if you resist the temptation to play the games, and posture and all that, focus on the result, you will do well in the long run because your superiors [will see the results]. . . . Don’t let getting the credit be your endgame. Let the result be your endgame. But once you do the work, and accomplish the objective, then you should demand credit for your work, you absolutely should. And your female colleagues should help make sure you get it.”
- Align with dads. “Throughout my career, some of my best allies have absolutely been older men. When I started in my career, there were very few women with mentors. . . . I was fortunate to have fairly senior women [that I could learn from and emulate]. But on a day-to-day basis, Bob Dole was absolutely my mentor and my supporter. I have found over my career that older men will not be threatened by you, especially if they are dads of daughters. They have greater sensitivity to women and their potential and their aspirations. . . . You always want to build alliances wherever you can.”
- Don’t let anyone photograph your neck (especially if you are in a publicly prominent role). “The late, wonderful Nora Ephron wrote a book, I Feel Bad About My Neck. If you see a photographer on the floor, angling up to take your picture, run. Be afraid, be very afraid. There is absolutely nothing worse than that.”
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