Advice for Getting Ahead while Juggling Life and Career

Yvette ButlerBy Yvette Butler, Head of Private Bank, Wealth Advisory & Wine, Silicon Valley Bank

Sometimes career opportunities are launched in the unlikeliest of circumstances. It certainly was true for me. As an undergrad at the University of Virginia, programming was my passion. I would often stay all night in the Computer Lab programming in Cobol (a popular computer language in the ‘80s) with a six-pack of Diet Coke and experiencing pure bliss!

Get out of the basement. But technology was still in the basement, and I wanted out. My senior year, I flipped my concentration to Finance vs. Management Information Systems and headed to Wall Street as an analyst. Three months later, Black Monday 1987 happened.

I survived only by finding the smartest banker at the firm and asking for homework. I learned all about structuring municipal bonds to finance public facilities like schools and roads. The market came back quickly, and I was the only analyst in my new class trained and first in line to be assigned to the largest client.

I went on to get an MBA at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. I’m always thankful for that early mentoring experience on Wall Street. And, I share it as a lesson to young professionals: Get out of the basement and look for opportunity in adversity.

Pilates for professionals. I also learned about T-skills, the idea that the vertical bar represents depth in a certain field (for example, marketing, analytics, sales) and the horizontal bar represents the ability to collaborate with experts in other areas and apply knowledge broadly, not just in your own field. I like to think of it as professional Pilates: You have a strong core; and if people recognize you for those functional skills and your deep expertise in something, they perceive you to be stronger in all areas of leadership.

Here’s how I have applied it in my own career. My boss at a San Francisco bank asked me in 1995 if I’d heard of this “Internet thing.” Three months later, he was running the bank’s new Internet-focused division. A year later, I jumped in myself and launched a startup based on my knowledge of consumer wealth management.

Now I realized that, as an African American woman, I would not necessarily be given the same “credibility” as my male boss had been given to figure out the Internet. Instead, I’d have to build credibility to reach my goal to be a General Manager at a large bank. Luckily, my parents had prepared me with the “you have to work twice as hard to get half the opportunity” mantra, so I dug right in. I leveraged my background in strategy and finance, and expressly sought out opportunities in operations, strategy, customer service, marketing always with a focus on growth and innovation.

I’ve spent the past 15 years doing all of those things, launching divisions at several banks. I’ve come full-circle, ending up at Silicon Valley Bank. As head of SVB’s Private Bank, Wealth Advisory and Premium Wine Division, we are bringing the latest personal financial planning approaches to our sophisticated technology and wine clients. I call it digital advice with a human touch.

Identifying leadership. As you grow as a leader, not only do you have to hone your self-identified strengths, you don’t want to dismiss talents that others see in you. I once tried to recruit a younger associate to lead a program, telling her I thought she had the skills to do it. She turned me down and wrote me a three-page memo explaining that she didn’t. I remember thinking:  Even if she didn’t want the job, I think her response was short sighted. And, why would she think that I would put her in position that I didn’t think she’d be great at?

It’s good for career planning to step back sometimes and look at yourself from others’ vantage points. To successfully navigate your career, you need three types of people. First, an advocate who has a seat at the table and will advocate for your “stretch” opportunities. Next, you need a mentor who will tell you the truth about how you are being perceived. Finally, you need some peers who are willing to listen and accept the “Am I crazy here?” call and give you a supportive POV.

Juggling career and life. It’s also important to include life-work balance issues in these discussions. Sometimes, it’s been hard for me to keep it all going; and when my first two kids were younger, I launched the startup because I could do it from home. As they got older and two kids turned in to three, I needed more stability. I became a 15-year “Intrapreneur,” launching businesses within large banks. I’ve always been at the center of three of my loves: finance, technology and innovation.

When people ask me for my advice on finding balance, I tell them what I do: I wake up every morning and imagine I’m juggling three balls. Two are rubber and one is glass.  One day, the glass ball might be a school play. The next day, the glass ball might be a board meeting. Each day, the balls may change, and work and life are never in perfect balance. I try to forgive myself if one of the rubber balls drops; and I do my best not to let the glass ball break.


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