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Getting Ahead in Finance – Advice from Women at the Top

October 21, 2016
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Panelists Frances Aldrich Sevilla-Sacasa and Alice S. Vilma, with moderator Andrea Heuson, finance professor at the School.

Building a career in finance takes more than math skills. Getting ahead also requires emotional intelligence, an ability to work in teams and a passion for financial work.

Those were some insights from two top executives: University of Miami alumna Frances Aldrich Sevilla-Sacasa (AB ’77), CEO of Banco Itau International, and Alice S. Vilma, executive director on the multicultural client strategy team at Morgan Stanley. They addressed more than 100 of the School’s undergraduate and graduate students at a forum on “Strategies for a Successful Career in Finance” Oct. 17.

“Make sure that you are chasing a passion, because you want to be okay with the hours you put in,” said Vilma, cautioning students they’ll be asked “to work really, really, really hard in this industry.”

Jobs in finance are changing nowadays because of technology, the two women said. Stock prices and other data can be quickly obtained through Google and other tools, so people working in finance must offer clients something extra, such as insights into why stock price are changing or innovations to process data, the two Miami natives agreed.

“The opportunities are much more varied,” extending beyond traditional finance jobs at banks and investment firms to include work at tech companies or in data-mining, information security and other specialties, said Sevilla-Sacasa. And more change is certain, as younger generations approach financial services differently spurred by tech changes.

Once hired, employees in finance need both mentors and sponsors to get ahead, the panelists said. A mentor gives tips directly to a staffer, but a sponsor is like a backstage coach “who has your best interests at heart and is rooting for you when you are not in the room,” said Vilma. Sponsors tend to be supervisors who see an employee excel on their team and then, stake their reputation for that employee to move up. Making your boss look good and being a solid team player help to turn your boss into a sponsor.

“If you don’t have a sponsor, you will know it, because you won’t advance,” said Vilma.

Here are more tips from the forum, moderated by finance professor Andrea Heuson:

On ethics: If you’re asked to compromise your ethics at work, don’t do it. “This is a relationship business,” said Vilma. “It’s your reputation at the end of the day.”

On feedback: When receiving negative feedback at work, Sevilla-Sacasa suggests: Don’t react immediately. Listen, think about it, and come up with ways to improve, bring those ideas to your boss and ask: “Is there anything else you think I should do?”

On interviewing: Forget canned comments. Be authentic, the women said. At Morgan Stanley, Vilma likes to ask interviewees questions until the candidates are outside their comfort zone and call “uncle.” One candidate wowed her by responding that Vilma’s question was outside her area of expertise, explaining what she did know on the subject and then, answering based on that knowledge. Vilma said that response proved the candidate was smart and resourceful. Above all, said Vilma, “don’t lie.”

A good first impression also matters. Wear a suit, look the interviewer in the eye, don’t fidget, sit up, lean in to show you’re listening, and come prepared with questions about the company, said Sevilla-Sacasa. Respect everyone you meet at the office, from the check-in person to the top executive. Rude behavior can cost you the job, added Vilma.

  • On career paths: Don’t think linear, said Sevilla-Sacasa. Moving sideways or branching out to new areas helps broaden your experience and skill sets and can set you up for a leadership role. “Don’t be afraid to explore,” she said. “Try different things out and develop more breadth.”
  • On skills needed: Math skills are essential in finance, but people skills also are vital, Sevilla-Sacasa said. Projects require work in teams, and that means you need to find ways to get along with others and to develop your emotional quotient (EQ). To succeed in finance, said Vilma, “EQ is probably more important than IQ.”

The event was organized by the undergraduate student organization, Women in Business.

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