Women in Commercial Finance
Featured in The Secured Lender
Gordon Brothers' Mackenzie Shea and Cal Shusta were recently profiled in The Secured Lender's June issue. The article profiles women in the industry who exemplify success, hard work and dedication. Here they share their thoughts on building a career in commercial finance.
What advice would you offer to women just starting out in the industry?
Shusta: Early in your career, it can be intimidating to advocate for your positions around more experienced people. However, you’ve been hired to do that. In order to make an impact you have to put yourself out there, and take a risk. My advice to those just starting out is to trust yourself. Ask a lot of questions and speak your mind. This will help you learn and build confidence.
Shea: “Know the law, you’re useful. Know the facts, you’re indispensable.” That advice translates beyond just the legal profession. Being new to any field, there is so much about the subject matter you don’t, and can’t be expected to, know. That will come with experience. But you can learn the deal specifics cold, whether that be the people, places, projections, or problems of a company, in a way that makes you invaluable to those senior in your own organization. That only requires effort. Once others start to rely upon your factual knowledge, you’ll be included on calls, in meetings, and with clients. And as it turns out, those settings are where you actually gain the experience.
What do you know now that you wish you knew in the beginning of your career?
Shea: That it is not necessarily a linear path. Instead, I have come to view my career like building blocks. Whatever you’ve built may get knocked down (voluntarily or involuntarily), but even so, you’ll still have the same number of the same size blocks and can reconfigure them into something new. I’ve had jobs ranging from retail clerk, street vendor, and child nanny, to defense contractor, and bank employee, to bankruptcy lawyer. In my current role, I’m constantly surprised just how much those earlier stages of my career help. Realizing you have the supplies and skill to build a career of your own choosing may just give you the confidence to do it.
Shusta: I wish I spent less time worrying about not getting it perfectly right. Engaging in an iterative process and evolving my position over time has been far more important than starting out perfectly. Our rebranding was a great example of this. No single contribution made that what it was. It was the process of refining ideas over time that was so critical. It can be messy and I had a tendency to avoid that early on, but that has actually been where some of the best work of my career has come from.
What kind of role has mentoring and/or sponsorship played in your career?
Shusta: I was fortunate to have some exceptional managers and mentors that encouraged me to take on new challenges. I’m incredibly grateful for that support and I try to pay it forward. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
Most of my career has been spent at Gordon Brothers and that has been a great benefit. The firm is large enough that there are a lot of opportunities but also small enough that I’ve had access to those opportunities and to people of influence within the community to guide me. Many professionals of my generation have bounced around a lot, especially early on in their careers. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to grow and evolve in one place. Over that time I’ve developed strong bonds with people I admire and I don’t think that’s as common in other environments or when changing jobs frequently.
At work and in my personal life, I’ve also been fortunate to have been surrounded by strong women that have made their own way. They have been very positive role models for me in terms of how to approach life and career.
Shea: I’ve been incredibly lucky in this regard. It began with a federal bankruptcy judge and his court staff when I served as a law clerk my first year after law school. It continued with a senior partner at my law firm who spent the next seven years vigilantly guiding me to become a partner myself. And over the past two years since joining Gordon Brothers, it has multiplied with our general counsel and key executives taking a vested interest in my long-term success here. There is a material difference, however, between having a mentor and having a sponsor. Mentors teach you something; sponsors give you the platform to use it. So while you can have many mentors, you can’t succeed without at least one sponsor. Recognize the difference and seek out the latter. When I describe myself as fortunate in this area, it’s because all of these individuals offered me both mentorship and sponsorship.
Shea: Recognize that the best and brightest generally speaking may not be the same people who have the specific qualities that lend themselves to success in this industry. In terms of the restructuring niche, it is seeking out those “type A minus” personalities with a passion for deals and team competition who aren’t expecting a 9-5 experience, who will thrive in messiness and chaos, and may not necessarily be Ivy-educated at the top of their class. Then, because the time we have to develop talent is limited, we need to quickly identify those bright young minds who also possess an “X” factor, something that makes them uniquely valuable to an organization and focus attention on retaining them long-term rather than spreading ourselves too thin in an attempt to keep everyone.
Shusta: As long as there’s opportunity, I think ambitious and bright people will flock to the industry. Beyond that, staying competitive with other industries as workplace culture evolves is important. Diversity of leadership is a big part of that, especially when it comes to cultivating the next generation of female leaders. Having balance at a senior level sends a signal to junior employees that this is a place where you can make a difference, that this is an industry where you can build a career up to the most senior levels.