A few months ago, I started a new job as head of data strategy at a major investment firm. The position didn’t exist until I joined the company, and yet it’s a role I’ve been preparing for throughout my 15-career. I was brought in because there’s a transformation happening within the industry. It’s critical to every investment company’s survival to become data-driven in how they operate. I’m building a team of 30-40, doing work that’s important to me, that I’m good at, and that I’m paid extremely well for. Here’s how I got to this place, and what I wish more women knew about getting there, too.
Make investing in yourself a second job. Early in my career, I was role-focused. We’re taught by so many external forces to fight for promotions and other rewards that are supposedly in short supply. My most unproductive years were the ones I spent focused on promotions. Then I started asking, What does the world need? Where do my skills fit in? I started investing in myself. I got my graduate degree in data and started doing my own research on trends and bringing what I learned back to my organization. Even when I was in a project management role, I started pushing my interest in data by creating new initiatives. Something clicked for me when I moved away from focusing on the next title and other superficial corporate ways of connoting my value within my company and started focusing on investing in myself to be demonstrably valuable to my industry. After having a few wins under my belt, I then began asking, How does my salary align with what I’m doing? The value of a promotion started to diminish for me. A title alone is not a good indicator of your worth. For example, the salary ranges for a vice president or executive director in financial services are very broad--from the low $100Ks to seven figures. I’d rather have more money than more titles! When I focused on building the value I bring, all the noise fell to the wayside.
Identify what you want to be known for. What would you like to be so known for that people will want to bring you their company to do what you do best? For me, it’s the intersection of tech, process and business goals, and at that intersection is where data resides. I built my credibility in this arena slowly, in an honest and disciplined way. Eventually, knowing my area of expertise gave me the comfort and confidence to make somewhat risky career moves that paid off. I was able to build skills that are important regardless of--or rather, in addition to--whatever initiative my boss was pushing. I had the confidence to pitch ideas even with a potential negative blowback. Eventually, I became the go-to person for data challenges, which allowed my title to catch up. Finally, people outside the organization started to recruit me. It was understood, ‘You have a data problem? You need to call Charlotte.”
Close the information gap. Sheryl Sandberg talked about the ambition gap, but I don’t think women lack ambition--they lack information. It’s by sharing information, and that includes how much we earn--we can disassemble the corporate structure that’s been in place. The number I asked for --and received!--in my latest position would never have come out of my mouth if I hadn’t had honest salary conversations with my mentors and peers. I wouldn’t have known what to ask for, and I would have lowballed myself.
If it’s a new position, assume that you’re the expert on what it should pay. If you’re being interviewed for a newly created role that you have experience doing, don’t assume the hiring manager or HR rep is the authority on what the role should pay. The point advantage is in your court. Price your own talent intelligently by having salary conversations with others in your field. And know this: Women are so often, because of their conditioning, overqualified for almost every position they take on.
Own the interview. To be the preeminent candidate for the role, you want to establish you have info the other party doesn’t have. To do this, the questions you ask are even more important than the ones you answer. Try asking: Do you know what this role looks like when it’s done well? You’d be surprised how many hiring managers aren’t able to answer that question, because the person who was in the role before didn’t succeed. Asking this question allows you to put a new value proposition on the table that they weren’t considering. When it’s time to negotiate, you’ll be able to defend your number more easily, because you know you’re bringing the company something they didn’t have before.
Negotiating is easy when you do your homework. Because I’d had salary conversations before interviewing for my current role, I knew my target was $500k total compensation. I was making $400k total comp at the time. I was recruited for this new role, and the recruiter gave me a range up to $475k. They asked what I expected to make, and I said $500k to $525. When I got the offer for $500k--$275k base salary with a bonus and long term incentive, my husband and I both thought, I guess this is what it looks like when you do your homework. Some folks might have countered, but I’m happy I got my target and also closed the deal on a positive note instead of prolonging a weeks long negotiation for a slim increase. I’m well compensated for the role I’m doing and there is still room for my employer to reward me for a job well done.
What makes you different is your superpower. I’m a Black/Latinx woman of color in the fintech world. Statistically speaking, less than 1 percent of the leaders in this field look like me. That’s been my superpower. No one ever saw me coming. When people meet me, they might underestimate me. A white male that talks a good game, they might expect big things from, but often, I’m brought in as the clean-up crew because that person has failed at the role. We aren’t going to solve stereotypes in our lifetime, unfortunately, but showing up, doing good work and taking credit for it is a very powerful way of working to erase them.
Know that opportunities abound. It may seem like great jobs are hard to come by, but there are more than enough seats in this world for people who generate value. There are plenty of them. They haven’t even been built yet! So many of the roles I’ve had didn’t exist until I got there. What is business, after all? It’s not just an exchange of talent and money. It’s about delivering what the world needs now.