Influential Voices: Michelle R. Clayman

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Influential Voices: Michelle R. Clayman

The inaugural profile of the Clayman Insitute's Influential Voices series

by Susan Fisk on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 - 12:01pm

The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research is committed to empowering women’s voices and leadership on the Stanford campus and beyond.  To promote this goal, the Clayman Institute is publishing profiles of our Advisory Council, women and men who have volunteered their time and energy to creating greater gender equality.  Over the course of the year, student writers will interview council members-- representing many communities, including financial, legal, non-profit, and entrepreneurial. We hope these profiles will inspire, as well as begin a dialogue with our readers about what it takes to exercise voice and influence in the areas that matter to you.  We will ask each of the council members to share their histories, paths to success, and career advice.  Our first profile is of Michelle R. Clayman, Chair of the Clayman Institute Advisory Council.

Michelle Clayman Influential VoicesUnexpected journey, remarkable twists

At first glance, Michelle Clayman is an improbable leader in the investment community.  Unlike many businesspersons, she is self-made, inheriting neither wealth nor an existing company.  In an industry dominated by men (only ten percent of fund managers are female), she is the founder and managing partner of New Amsterdam Partners, an institutional money management firm in New York.  Yet despite facing these odds, Clayman has experienced resounding success.  She has grown New Amsterdam Partners to having over three billion dollars under management.  She is a thought leader in the financial community, as a frequent commentator for many financial media outlets including CNBC, BusinessWeek and Bloomberg.  Furthermore, she sits on the Boards of the Society of Quantitative Analysts (of which she is a past President), and The Institute for Quantitative Research in Finance.  In 2008, she was the first woman to receive Stanford Business School’s Excellence in Leadership Award and in 2010, she was awarded a National Council for Research on Women (NCRW) “Making a Difference for Women” award.

Journey to success and leadership

Despite her many accomplishments and successes, Michelle Clayman did not even intend to pursue a career in finance.  As an undergraduate at Oxford, she studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, and planned to pursue a career in journalism.  Fortunately though, things did not go as intended; she says, "I didn't get a job in journalism: I got a job in banking."  After Oxford, she worked at Bank of America in London and "found it to be thrilling."  She decided to leave Bank of America for Stanford's business school when a Vice President came up to her and said, "You're a very clever girl; you should really think about applying to business school.  We'll write your letters of recommendation."

Transitioning from being a Stanford MBA to founding a company was difficult; as Clayman says, "I was 26 when I graduated with my MBA, and back in the day, 26-year-olds didn't start companies."  So she went to work for Salomon Brothers on Wall Street, where she traded options for the firm account and was eventually asked to join a new quantitative research group in the equity department.  "I built models and wrote research papers, and was on the team that designed and developed the precursor to an online research system.  I spent 2-3 weeks a month on the road in the US and Europe talking to market people about how to use these quantitative methods."

New Amsterdam Partners LLCThat is when she decided to start her own fund.  "I had an 'aha' moment: Why am I telling people how to do this?  Why don't I just do this?"  Although many people reach a similar point in their career, very few people have the courage to make the leap and found their own company, and even fewer have the fortitude to keep going when things are hard.  Clayman attributes her success to "sheer bloody persistence!" In her words, "Times do get tough: do you have what it takes to gut it out, or not?  Plenty of people said, 'This is much harder than I thought it would be,' and threw in the towel."  Clayman also thanks her education -- in particular, her Stanford MBA.  "It provided me with the tools, not to do every job in my business, but the tools to know what jobs needed to be done and to understand all of these functions."

Clayman also cites the fact that she had clear goals as critical to her success.  "You need a vision of how you want life to be, but it needs to be a realistic one."  In Clayman's case, she realized that, "if I'm willing to work hard and stick my neck out, I can have a meaningful effect on things."

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Words to the wise, from the experienced

As part of our profile series, we asked Clayman for her advice for other potential leadesr.  Firstly, she says that leaders should always "make sure that [they] are well prepared,' and that they should 'never be afraid to solicit opinions and advice." Clayman admits, "I have never been shy about calling people up and asking for advice.  Most people are flattered to be asked.  I have always been a prodigious advice seeker, and lots of people have been very kind to me and given me good advice.  But you can also get bad advice, so you have to be careful about sorting through and realizing what makes sense and what doesn't make sense."  Indeed, mentors were critical to Clayman's success.  "I looked at people I knew and asked myself, 'Who do I think is admirable?  Who is someone I really don't want to grow up to be like?' And then I modeled my behavior on the characteristics that I believed to be admirable."

She also encourages future leaders to hone their interpersonal skills.  "When you're young, you think it's all about your natural abilities, and you sometimes dismiss the softer skills.  And if you go into certain environments, you are very much evaluated on the harder skills."  But to effectively lead others, Clayman argues that you must set the example.  "At times, you need to make your own interests subordinate to others; there were times when I paid my employees more than myself.  You must lead by example; you simply can't expect people to step up to the plate unless they see that you're willing to give it your all."  Clayman also says that it is important to treat others well and to do favors for them.  "It's a nice thing to do, but it also builds up good will, and it will come back and be helpful to you in the future.  Not everything is a dog-eat-dog world."

Clayman's last words of advice are particularly bold: "You have got to be a risk-taker, and realize that failure is not the end of the world."  In particular, she says that women do not take enough risks.  At times, "You're just going to have to hold your nose and go for it.  If you want a career that is different from everyone else, put your hand up and volunteer for the assignment."

The Clayman Institute would like to thank Michelle Clayman for her time, energy, and sage advice.  We hope that she has inspired you as much as she has inspired us!

We’d like to hear from our readers – what did you hear that inspired you? Do you have further questions we can address in this series? What else would you like to know?