Kim Ann Curtin

“You can only develop leadership when you trust yourself. And to trust yourself, you need to know who you are. Begin there. The Ancient Greek aphorism ‘know thyself’ is the first step I’d recommend. You aren’t going to be an effective leader unless you do,” advises Kim Ann Curtin on the first step a business owner should take to develop leadership. As the founder and CEO of The Wall Street Coach, Kim Ann Curtin took the time to talk with us about developing leadership at companies in the finance industry.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey to where you currently are professionally as the founder and CEO of The Wall Street Coach?

I started working in finance in 1999 as an executive assistant. About 8 years ago, I launched my own executive coaching business after working with an executive coach myself. Working with a coach changed my life. It empowered me and I found it so life changing that I felt compelled to become a coach myself so that I could share that empowerment with others. Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, talks about people finding their “bliss;” and I felt that coaching was my bliss. However, about a year in to launching my business, I was struggling because of the slumping economy and I couldn’t make ends meet.

While discussing my concerns with a friend of mine, she suggested (rather unusually) that if coaching was my “bliss,” perhaps I should consider coaching for free until things stabilized. So on October 7, 2008, in a sharp business suit, I sat myself down on the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street with a sign that read “The Coach is in: Free Coaching.” This, coincidentally, turned out to be the same day that the market dropped more than 500 points.

Almost immediately, I began coaching passersby that sought my advice and counsel. I saw people from all walks of life – traders, secretaries, bankers, even bike messengers – some of whom had lost their jobs or were confused over what to do as they watched their investments disappear. I sat on that bench almost weekly during lunch hours for an entire year, encouraging and helping find solutions for them to find equanimity under very trying circumstances. Eventually, journalists began to notice me sitting there and dubbed me “The Wall Street Coach,” and my focusing on working with those in finance began. A new name for my company took hold, too.

Does your company have a personal mission statement?

Yes. It is: “Creating wealth & meaning.” We have worked with a lot of clients that have success by the world’s standards, yet they are longing for more meaning in their professional and personal lives. It’s our mission to assist our clients with creating more meaning and more wealth, but we define wealth beyond simply monetary parameters.

What inspired you to work with executives and teams in the finance world?

Finance was an industry I was familiar with because I worked there for many years. I saw the challenges it presented for many. Knowing there was a real need, especially at the C-Suite level, for more authentic leadership and self-awareness inspired and still inspires me to do this work. I genuinely enjoy working with the people of this industry and providing them with powerful tools that assist them in their day-to-day lives. I understand the challenges they face having worked there myself. Assisting them in developing a better sense of self increases their ability to trust themselves, which in turn has them work more efficiently and effectively with their peers, direct reports, and of course their clients. I get to see results for them and their teams immediately, which is very gratifying.

How does one become a leadership authority in the finance world?

Know first you who are and the kind of leader you want to be, as well as what topic you care about and can continually be interested in and curious about. Define your focus. Don’t be distracted by what others are doing or known for. Find an issue you’re passionate about and go for it. I think it is better to focus on becoming a leader first and then allow the rest to happen organically. I do believe that the finance world is in great need of innovative authentic leadership to point the way toward a more conscious future. That is what inspired me to find what I now call “The Wall Street 50” and why I built my book, Transforming Wall Street, around them. What Wall Street needs now more than anything are authentic, passionate, and conscious capitalistic leaders. Become a leader wherever you are. Bloom where you’re planted. If you feel compelled to lead, then do it and don’t let anything stop you.

What are the greatest challenges when it comes to developing leadership at companies in the finance industry?

The greatest challenge is that some firm’s top brass still don’t take responsibility for the lack of leadership they see within the firm. If you aren’t seeing it at the bottom, it’s because those at the bottom aren’t experiencing it from the top. Some managers still rule their teams with the outdated and ineffective “carrot or stick” approach when dealing with their people. William Edwards Deming said it best, “The worker is not the problem. The problem is at the top! Management!”

What are some of the ways that you think leadership skills can best be developed?

The first step to improving leadership skills is to improve one’s consciousness or self-awareness. I developed these 5 practices to help people become more awake:

    • Self-Responsibility
    • Self/Other Empathy
    • Emotional Non-Resistance
    • The Internal/External Journey
    • Self-awareness/Mindfulness

These practices help everyone become more aware and assist you in becoming the leader of your own life – personally and professionally. I elaborate on each of them in my new book, Transforming Wall Street. Every one of them represents a different step in trying to understand yourself, including your needs, feelings, and values, and in turn assist you in understanding those around you.

Do you think positive thinking is an essential part of leading others?

Yes, although positive thinking should not be encouraged just for the sake of it. As a leader, one has to do some serious assessments in the midst of many challenging situations. You don’t want to ignore or leapfrog over the “hard to deal with” matters just for the sake of seeing the glass half full. True leaders are willing to speak the hard truth when need be. Positive thinking should not replace an honest and realistic evaluation. But assuming that there are procedures in place to make honest appraisals, then optimism from leaders will certainly breed positivity and encourage productivity. Leaders need to live in the context of endless possibility.

What are some of the criteria that you use to measure successful leadership?

Employee satisfaction tells me if the firm has successful leadership. Employees need to feel that they are valued and that their needs are being met on a regular basis in order to remain productive and effective. They won’t be able to keep your customers and clients happy if they aren’t happy themselves. Client and customer satisfaction is the next indicator of leadership success, and then measuring the stakeholders (which of course include the shareholders). Are their expectations being met and satisfied? Positive leadership has a ripple effect, but it always starts at the top.

Do you have any practices that you always follow when providing feedback to others?

I constantly engage in the work that I teach others so I, myself, use what I defined earlier as The 5 Practices. Additionally, when I coach or consult with a client and provide feedback, I usually ask them what they want to walk away with so that the feedback itself will be in service to that goal. I also practice neutrality so that the client’s agenda alone is what is at hand. I practice what I call “third level” listening, so that I can hear what clients are saying and even what they are not saying. This is a deep listening technique that assists the client in hearing themselves and their own thoughts usually for the first time. When you are listened to deeply, you usually hear yourself in a new way and therefore can be clearer on the choices you make or on the direction you go towards in the future.

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