It is commencement season once again. Speakers everywhere are sending new graduates into the world with pearls of wisdom about how to succeed in life. If those addresses don’t include an emphasis on balance, particularly work-life balance, consider encouraging your own favorite graduate to read “Full Circle,” Erin Callan Montella’s new memoir.
Montella, the former CFO of Lehman Brothers, was previously Wall Street’s highest-ranking woman. Today, she is a private person, living a quiet life as a wife and mother away from Manhattan’s bright lights and bustle. Montella’s memoir traces her journey from Queens to Harvard to New York’s big law and Wall Street. As the book’s cover aptly summarizes, it is “a memoir of leaning in too far and the journey back.”
Montella agreed to answer some follow-up questions about her new book by email (answers are edited for length).
1. Don’t Let Your Career Diminish Your Life
Do you consider “Full Circle” a business book, a tale of personal redemption, or something else?
From my perspective, Full Circle reflects all these themes [Lehman, my relationship with my husband, the loss of work-life balance, tips for a successful career] because no one’s story is completely one-dimensional, but at its heart it is about a life that skewed way out of balance. A story of allowing my career and its demands to take center stage and diminish the rest of my life. How a series of seemingly small decisions over several years about how I spent my time and energy created a life path that was hard to reverse or steer back towards a semblance of peace and harmony. I lost my way and de-emphasized my core values in pursuit of an elusive and ultimately unfulfilling goal.
2. You Can Only Serve One Master
Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” guidance to young women?
It is not the goal of “Full Circle” to be the anti-“Lean In” treatise. It is just my story that I thought could be helpful as part of all the information that is out there. I don’t think many women, in particular, have necessarily the standing I have from my career experience to say be careful what you wish for. Because over time, the more you commit to your career, definitionally the more you are eroding from your personal life. As I talk about in the book, you can only serve one master, or rather, you can only have one first priority and if it is work, then it is not your personal life.
You were already leaning way into your job before Sandberg coined her term. To what do you attribute that mindset?
For me, the “leaning in” approach happened subtly over time as I was out in the world working. I think I found that it was easier and less complicated to succeed at work with clear guideposts and rewards than it was to succeed in life, which I found was much messier.
I never set out to be a corporate executive. I just wanted to be good at and try my best at whatever I was doing. Somehow that started to mean only at work because I stopped trying my best in my personal life along the way. And there were so many reinforcing influences for that behavior: the accolades, the promotions and the respect, to name a few.
3. Make the Most of Your Unique Capabilities
How do you believe being a woman figures into your story?
In “Full Circle,” I don’t spend a lot of time speaking to gender because the message about letting your life get way out of balance tilted towards your career is not unique to women. Early in my career I wanted to neutralize my feminine side until, as I matured later in my working life, I came to realize and appreciate the positives of being feminine. Not that it didn’t come with any negatives, but the negatives are often discussed. And you have to take the good with the bad. So it is impossible to say it didn’t figure greatly into my story. It is who I am and shaped my personality, my style and my relationships. On the whole, there were so many more good things about being unique and ultimately I believed it made me more effective and successful.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Of course I consider myself a feminist because I consider women as equally capable as men. That does not mean the sexes are the same. Men and women are different and the sooner I figured out how to make the most of my unique capabilities, the better. I also believe that my story is designed to provide information, not a prescription. Thus, the choice is for each of us as to how to we organize our lives and order our priorities. The freedom of that choice and how we choose to spend our time and energy is what defines us.
4. Learn to Have Multiple Priorities at Once
Is there more support for men to be both professionals and family men, or is Wall Street simply a challenging environment for anyone who wants to prioritize family?
I really believe the latter is true. There is some lip service to the former. Oh isn’t it great if a man leaves to watch his child’s soccer game, for example? What a great dad. But, the reality is the jobs are extremely demanding and long workweeks and travel are a given so the challenges apply across the board.
Do you believe work-life balance is possible?
Well, to be completely honest, I never even attempted to have any balance during my career. What I have done in my life is really the opposite of balance. Work extremely hard for 20 years to the exclusion of all else and then have a family and don’t work at all for the next 20 years. Some young women have told me they thought the way I did it looked like a great idea and I have been clear that it is a terrible idea. Even with only one true first priority, we still must learn to have multiple priorities at the same time and give each the attention that we believe it merits or that we can live with.
My husband Anthony said to me recently that he tries to be at his best and giving it his all in each thing he does in life. In the moment, be the best you can be. He definitely does that. And when you turn your attention to a different priority, be the best you can be at that. I told him that is the best practical advice I have ever received. And it really sums up the work-life balance conundrum. If we can be at our best in the moment and stop trying to constantly multi-task with all its distractions, maybe there is a better path forward.
5. Be Your Real Self
Can people bring their personal life to work and still be professional?
I absolutely believe it is critical to your happiness and success at work to bring your persona to the office. Otherwise, you are not really creating genuine relationships with your colleagues and your clients because relationships need to be founded on the true self. As I talk about in “Full Circle,” I don’t think I really understood that in the beginning of my career when I was a young lawyer and ultimately that was part of the dissatisfaction that led to my move to Wall Street.
I thought there had to be hard lines. I created my own false boundaries. And, when you think about it, that’s a lot of effort. Trying to pretend that the relationships and events that are not related to your job can be kept in a box and put aside each morning and taken back out in the evening. Clearly, I think it is important to try to focus on what you are doing in the moment at work as I just discussed but you can’t ever minimize the people and relationships that are fundamental to your happiness.
6. Sometimes You Need to Stop and Think
What have you learned from your experiences?
I don’t think I was really forced to reflect on the way I was living my life until I resigned from the CFO job at Lehman. I had some vague feelings of dissatisfaction prior to that, but I think I needed a crisis to take a hard look at what I’d become. And what I’d become was not the someone I wanted to be. That was the biggest lesson out of the entire drama I felt encircled by for years. That I needed to re-establish a value system and way of living my life that I could feel good about it and with greater resiliency and a foundation of relationships and love that would allow me to weather future storms.
Do you have any regrets?
As far as regrets, it is not a way of thinking that is natural for me. . . . Recognizing I didn’t always make the best choices is not a regret. I know that it is to be expected that we all make some bad choices. The measure I use for myself is how you rally back and learn from them and that is what I have tried and keep trying to do.