Thriving Through Complexities

September 15, 2017 - Dotti Reeder
11 Min read


I first addressed this topic with a gathering of women plastic surgeons last fall. My discussion focused on the experience of working women and women in positions of decision-making and authority, sharing how challenging it is to navigate the complexities of work, wealth management and family. Through my own experiences, I have seen how important it is to learn how to strike a balance with the challenges and demands of everyday life.

In her commencement speech to the graduating class of Dartmouth College on June 8, 2014, Shonda Rhimes described her role as a working mother this way: “If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the trade-off. That is the Faustian bargain with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel one hundred percent okay. You never get your sea-legs. You are always a little nauseous.”

Although this topic originally contemplated issues specific to women, its themes are applicable to anyone navigating life’s challenges: a parent advising a son or daughter; anyone guiding children or assisting other family members; anyone running a family’s business or unexpectedly taking over family business operations. We all have different paths to the position in which we find ourselves—but there are lessons for each of us, man and woman, who struggle with similar circumstances and challenges on our individual paths to success. The most important thing for each of us is to take responsibility for writing our own story. If we don’t write it, someone else will, and we may not like the ending.

My own story is one comprised of striving to find the balance between work, wealth management and family. I am a Managing Director with Tolleson Wealth Management. I’m also the mother of two children, Preston, who is 24, and Alex, who is 21. My experiences and professional journey have helped provide me insight on how to balance a career, family, philanthropic interests and achieving financial independence.

Competing in a High-Pressure Profession

The topic of finding a work-life balance has fostered a complete industry of self-help gurus and would-be industry experts. You probably are familiar with Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean In. She managed to create some dialogue around women in the workforce. But her perspective largely ignored institutional and environmental factors that contribute to the problems that people in high-pressure professions, particularly women, face.

In her blog “How Our Engineering Environments are Killing Diversity,” Kate Heddleston described women in technology as the canary in the coal mine. “Normally when the canary in the coal mine starts dying, you know the environment is toxic and you should get the hell out. Instead, the tech industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary. Lean in!’ When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? — except the problem is that there isn’t enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.”

So what is the problem for women in business or anyone managing complex family interests? What is the problem, really – is it the individual or the environment? One must develop the discernment to quickly evaluate the environment and determine how to adapt one’s style. It might be as simple as observing how successful people in the group perceive and react to challenges, how they build relationships and how they compete for opportunities. Two practices are powerfully effective.

First, every person benefits from a great mentor or sponsor who is willing to guide you and share time and experience. A sponsor will also help you navigate through the current environment and take an interest in your individual development. Listen to them and take action on their advice.

I’m the product of a wonderful upbringing by parents who were “in the school business.” My father was a school superintendent and my mother a teacher of the deaf. Conversation around our dinner table was about anything and everything except business. I was a good student and, when I was a senior at Highland Park High School here in Dallas, I was accepted and planned to go the University of Texas in Austin. I had heard that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life, so I thought I’d study fashion. I was 18. What else was there?

That’s when a friend’s father stepped in. He encouraged me to study accounting, making a case for the opportunities it would open for me and instilling in me the confidence to go for it. Of course, I had to take action and do the work, but this advice and continuing support put me on the path I’m on now. Since then, I’ve benefited from many other wonderful mentors throughout my career — and still do.

Secondly, we all need to practice resilience, which is critical to any person’s success. As a previous accountant, I tend to look back at my life experiences and categorize them into two groups, like a “life experience” balance sheet. On the left side of the page are my life experiences – my “assets.” These include all of the experiences that warm my heart and of which I’m most proud. Life would be great if the list ended here, right? Well, there’s also another side of the page.

Like the right side of a financial balance sheet, this part of the list usually lists liabilities. These are the things that you deduct from your assets to arrive at your net worth. This side of my life experiences balance sheet would include things like struggles and challenges I didn’t anticipate. However, I don’t let these “liabilities” define or stop me from my growth. In fact, it was through some of these disappointments that I learned the most.

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that the climb to success is rarely linear. It’s more like a jungle gym with multiple paths to the top – I love that analogy. This was my path before I knew it was a “thing.” Early in my career, I needed a pretty steep learning curve to hold my interest. I knew it was a bad idea to job hop, so I looked for a career path that could accommodate a broad range of underlying experiences and then added specialty training around the core. This enabled me to move through my career by finding what appealed to me and what I was good at. I started my career in public accounting before moving into banking and credit training. At one point, I talked myself into a six-month project in investment banking and ended up running the municipal training desk. Eventually, I moved into portfolio management, trust administration and a Family Advisor role. I’ve learned how important it is not to be afraid to take lateral moves that provide opportunities to build additional skills.


Reconciling the Demands of Family and Career

Most people, particularly women, start to feel the pressure of work-life balance when they decide to have children. Until then, women are pretty well matched with men. The pressure can start subtly with coworkers’ or a boss’ concern about a woman’s pending absence for maternity leave. And, the pressure on women escalates from there as responsibilities from both work and an expanding family place more demands on her time. Men experience the same pressures, but usually more subtly because society has tended to assign primary responsibility for childcare to women. This results in the negative connotation that a woman who is successful in her career must not have time to spend with family—but people don’t say the same thing about men. As a matter of fact, in the past, men received “extra credit” for taking on a family-related chore like carpool, taking the kids to the doctor or staying home with them when they are sick. But that is the definition of parenting.

When I became pregnant with my first child, I was a municipal bond trader for a major bank. I was the only woman on the trading desk and the first woman in the department to take advantage of maternity leave. At that time, maternity leave was six weeks long and I was expected to resume a full schedule immediately upon my return. There were no facilities for nursing mothers. There was no childcare. It was exhausting and the guilt, excruciating.

At that point, I learned that I couldn’t do it all – not by myself. I eventually learned to accept that, while I thought I could figure out how to have it all, I couldn’t have it all at the same time. In order to succeed, I had to be strategic in my vision, intentional in its execution and emotionally brave in my personal and professional relationships. What I learned was to:

  1. Prioritize—know what matters to you and make it a priority.
  2. Set expectations for what you can do and delegate the rest.
  3. Find a real partner. It is important that you find a partner, or partners, whose priorities align with yours and who are willing to communicate openly about how to work cooperatively toward shared goals.
  4. Find out what works for you and ask for it.

After my second child Alex was born, I took 15 months off while I contemplated a change in career from trading to investment management. I devised a job-share arrangement with my employer at the time, where two of us shared the same investment management clientele – the first of its kind at that firm. At another time, I negotiated a flex-time arrangement so I could pick the children up from school.

Part of what we need to do is bust through the frustrating societal myth of women being able to “do it all.” Anecdotal evidence suggests a changing tide among our younger set – the attitude that men today are more interested in finding balance. One example is the wider acceptance of parental leave for new dads. We need to band together, support each other and change the accepted “normal” for professional women—and men.


Giving Back

Giving back is important because it connects us with others and our community. It’s generally something we are introduced to early in life, often from experiences like picking an angel off the holiday angel tree with our parents. When we give back – whether it’s through time or money – we can also gain an important perspective about our own life situations and, at the end of the day, feel like we get more back than what we gave.

Finding causes to give to is easy, but finding the time in our busy lives is hard. My suggestion is that you pick something that fits into your life as it is now. For example, if you have children, get involved in their activities, such as sports and Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. Drive carpool once a week or month. My daughter was a gymnast. This was my favorite carpool of all. Our gymnastics carpool moms included a physician, a Ph.D., a concert mistress and a rocket scientist!

I also recommend participating in a professional organization. Learn about needs in the community. It may have leadership training programs that provide an overview of community needs and some board training. Use these opportunities to learn about board service and for introductions or for board placement. If you participate and add value to an organization, word will get out about you and you will be sought after to contribute to other organizations.


Achieving Financial Independence

Financial Independence – What does it mean? One definition is having the ability to make a decision independent of the financial impact. The question becomes: who has the ball?

I’m here to tell you that you are responsible for the success or failure of achieving your financial independence. I say this because you control two of the three most important components: saving and spending. As you manage your responsibilities and manage the family’s business, think about saving in terms of “pay yourself first.”

Then, make a budget. In the end, it’s all about spending, no conversation about spending is complete unless you talk about debt. To be clear, debt is to be avoided, if possible. Sometimes, it can’t be avoided so I distinguish good debt from bad debt. Good debt is low-cost financing that is used to assist in the acquisition of an asset that you expect to appreciate over time and the cost of which would exceed most buyers’ ability to pay cash, such as a home. Destructive debt includes any debt used to buy consumer assets (those that go down in value through use or passage of time), such as furniture, automobiles, technology, toys, clothing, etc.

So, how do you achieve financial independence? In our business, we see a lot of confusion around personal financial management, so I suggest two strategies:

  1. Prepare a plan that maps to your goals.
  2. Build a liquid portfolio first.

Remember, the responsibility for achieving your financial independence rests with you.

When you’ve achieved a level of financial independence through wealth, it’s important to remember that spending still matters, as does understanding debt and taxes. Risk management and protecting your assets often requires a more customized solution. But when you understand your wealth and what you can comfortably spend, you are better positioned to maintain it. Each person and family has their own set of unique challenges and long-term goals – which your individual plan should acknowledge. When dealing with generational wealth, financial education is important to pass along to younger family members who may not understand how to be financially independent despite their level of wealth. Teaching them to be good stewards of their resources starts with understanding the fundamentals of spending, savings and debt.

Although goals and plans may be different family to family, the theme remains the same. Understanding your wealth and then knowing how to make sound financial decisions is the greatest measure of financial independence.


So, what does it all mean?

We’ve covered a lot in this article: striking a balance, competing in highly pressured environments or industries, finding a way to give back and understanding financial independence. It will always be a challenge to strike the right balance – you are not going to have it all at the same time, but you can come up with your own formula for happiness and success.

Earlier this month, our Family Education Program speaker Greg McKeown presented the topic of essentialism and the importance of doing less, but better. In his book entitled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg explains that essentialism “is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.” When life presents you with different responsibilities and challenges, it’s important to remember to keep clear about what you realistically want to achieve and what makes sense for your success. It also means you may realize that on the surface, success isn’t always easy to define.

When you think about what success actually means to you, the response shouldn’t be “everything” or “to have it all” because those answers lack clarity. Greg warns us that this type of thinking leads us to be overworked and distracted – and I agree. We begin participating in trade-offs, often ones that aren’t truly valuable to our goals in life. Instead, we need to understand how to properly define our success and use that to guide our progress – real progress. Learning to say no is okay. Cutting something out that isn’t working is okay. Make sure the things that you agree and commit to make sense for your life. Sometimes it’s as simple as stepping back and asking yourself if what you are about to agree to is a meaningful use of your time and energy.

Don’t let others write your story; trust your instincts and find what’s essential within your life. As Mahatma Gandhi says, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”