Don’t be ashamed to say “I Don’t Know’ or ‘I Don’t Understand’. It just means you don’t know YET or understand YET. And you won’t know or understand till you embrace your vulnerabilities as a leader to ask for help and clarification. It’s a strength to do this, not a weakness. It is dangerous for your business if you are worried about how stupid a question looks.
As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Smith, the CEO of Source Financial Advisors and Founder Wife2CFO.
Michelle Smith has spent her 29-year career dedicated to the financial services sector, including the past 20 years of her life advocating for ‘All Things Inclusion and Empowerment’.
Whether her role as the CEO and Founder of Source Financial Advisors, a registered investment advisor (RIA) firm that specializes in financial empowerment of women going through or recently divorced through its trademarked Wife2CFO educational program, or co-founder of The IDEAL School of Manhattan, an independent inclusion based school in NYC that she co-founded for her son who has Down syndrome, Michelle is in relentless pursuit of creating an equal and transparent playing field for women with their money and children and their education.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
MY MOTHER. You read that right. My MOTHER. She was going through a second divorce in the late 70’s, and at the time was running my step-father’s second shoe store location, a novelty shop she opened called Balderdash, and a nursery school. My cousin at the time was the Chairman of the Board at Merrill Lynch-Government Bonds, and he saw the entrepreneurial spark in her and encouraged her to apply at Merrill Lynch to be a stockbroker in sales. Our favorite joke is that I moved out of the house when I left college, but then moved into her office.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Fortunately, I did join Merrill Lynch and my mother was already quite the story, there, and with my cousin’s legacy, I was fortunate to have an entry that was more of a glide path than hot coals. I still had to bust my butt as a woman in finance in the mid-80’s, and of course, I had to deal with all of the Wall Street backdrop in that time, as a young woman in her 20’s that movies were (literally) made about. I had a branch manager at one point tell me after talking a Meyers-Briggs type of vocational test that I would be best suited to stay an administrative assistant in a tight dress than try to get myself into the Merrill Lynch Financial Advisor training program.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
a. I had a great role model in my mother.
b. I have had a life where I was presented with many challenges and learned resilience. Resilience isn’t taught. Resilience is developed if you choose to develop it. My father left our family when I was 3 ½ and my brother was 6 months old. My mother worked 4 jobs to keep food on the table and clothes hanging in the closet. My son was born 19 years ago with Down syndrome. I didn’t sign up for that and never imagined I could ever develop the resilience I needed to parent a special needs child and live then first year of his life in and out of hospitals, ER’s and ICU’s. It was brutal. And then when it was time for him to go to school in NYC and I saw the hidden and often not so hidden and implicit bias of the schools toward special needs students. So I co-founded The IDEAL School of Manhattan. What was it that Sheryl Sandberg was told after her husband died? “Well, Plan A isn’t an option, so go kick the shit out of Plan B”.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going well. And for me to be able to say that amidst a COVD-19 backdrop, in an industry- financial services- where people were hit with 2 of the things that scare them the most- dying alone and without money. I am so proud of my company and our relentless mission and vision and for the leadership we have provided women- especially women who are very new to being the CFO of their lives-in the worst market and pandemic we have experienced. And hopefully never will again.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yes. I was working for Merrill Lynch as an administrative assistant. And a call came in to the branch manager. And the gentleman announced himself as Win Smith. I was half listening so asked him again for his name, and he emphatically responded “Win SMITH. As in ‘Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & SMITH”. I learned pretty early on that I better do my research and know basic things about a company I worked for or the role I was in.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our niche and our trademarked Wife2CFO program and platform. Not many financial advisory firms can say they have a steadfast vision and commitment to helping women Design Their Financial Destiny. It’s not just a shingle we hung up last year to capitalize on the demographic wealth transfer changing hands from men to women. I have been committed to this for decades. It’s not a marketing tactic. And I am deeply committed to it because I grew up witnessing and experiencing 2 divorces at very young ages.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Align what you are good at with what you like to do. Doing something you hate and are bad at is a recipe for disaster and burn-out.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
IDEAL School of Manhattan. The hundreds of women who I have helped level the playing field for in their divorces.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Determine what type of CEO you are and what your leadership style is so you can surround yourself with people who are strong where you aren’t. Example: I am not a micromanager. I don’t dive into details well. I am strategy and big picture vision. Early on, I surrounded myself with others like me. We had a lot of strategy but little tactical. A good sound business needs vision and execution or vision never gets executed. And having just a bunch of tactical execution people does no good without a vision and mission to carry out.
- Don’t be ashamed to say “I Don’t Know’ or ‘I Don’t Understand’. It just means you don’t know YET or understand YET. And you won’t know or understand till you embrace your vulnerabilities as a leader to ask for help and clarification. It’s a strength to do this, not a weakness. It is dangerous for your business if you are worried about how stupid a question looks. And btw: you are judging the question as being stupid, not others. As I say to my newly-divorced female clients: ERADICATE this from your vocabulary: “I have a stupid question”. Replace it with: “I have a clarification question”. Even your voice changes when you change the words. You ask from a position of power, not weakness.
- Know Your Numbers. Cold. Know your operating budget in your sleep. Know your overhead. Know your variable expenses. Know your Key Performance Indicators. You cannot measure what you do not have command of and you can’t have command if you don’t what your metrics should be.
- Know the financial benchmarks in your industry for a healthy business. Understand what you ‘should’ be budgeting for. What % of your overhead should be allocated to a real estate lease or purchase? What % of your overhead should go to talent and the team? Know what healthy budgets and expenses look like for a comparable business in your industry so you know how to plan from before Day 1.
- Apply for a line of credit BEFORE YOU NEED IT. In the years when I really needed a backup line and source of financing to avoid using my own savings, I couldn’t get one. Better to fix a leaky roof when it is sunny out.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think I am on that path between my Wife2CFO and the IDEAL School of Manhattan. EVERYONE told me it was stupid to focus my business on the narrow niche of divorcing women and to start a never-before-done Inclusion elementary school in Manhattan when none of the co-founders were educators.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
LinkedIn: Michelle Smith Source Financial Advisors