As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Marlena Kaplan.
Marlena is Chief Financial Officer of CMNTY Culture. She is a financial executive with a strong track record optimizing processes across financial systems with a collaborative and analytical approach to client and partner engagement. She is a hands-on leader who has built and mentored teams of accounting and operations professionals.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Overall, the trajectory of my career path has been a combination of hard work, a great network and good timing.
I was the first in my family to graduate from college so unlike some, I did not have the benefit of much career guidance early on. My mom moved from Puerto Rico to NY when she was five and did not finish high school while my dad, a Vietnam veteran, dropped out of community college to spend more time with our family. Originally, I entered college as a communications major because I thought I wanted to be a DJ. However, after one great class with a great professor (and a realization that I would need a job to support myself upon graduation), I quickly pivoted to accounting. There, I found my first job through the NY Times classifieds at a small video distribution firm in Brooklyn and landed the job thanks to an informal reference check with the video rental store I worked for part-time in high school. Then, thanks to another referral by a colleague I went on to work in financial services and from there was able to work in many facets of accounting, operations and client servicing for alternative asset management firms — eventually landing at the largest firm in the business. I am thrilled to be part of the talented team at CMNTY Culture and look forward to building a world class, diverse and equitable business in entertainment and real estate.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The entire experience with CMNTY Culture has been interesting for me, every day has been a thrill to take on both the challenge of learning a new industry and the opportunity to build a business with a talented and principled leadership team. One of my most unique experiences is watching Philip Lawrence join a Zoom meeting with a song, a smile, and a positive energy that inspires all those we work with to really understand and support the vision.
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?
More embarrassing than funny, but I once made the mistake of dressing inappropriately to the office — unfortunately subjecting my supervisor to an uncomfortable conversation. It was my first corporate job, and it came as a total shock to me that it was inappropriate to wear shorts to work even though they were linen and had a matching jacket. This experience taught me to pay better attention to employee handbooks and that I should be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations if I expect to become a good manager.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have had a lot of support along the way from colleagues, direct managers, and other leaders within the organizations I have worked for. The people I valued the most are those that have been willing to provide timely and transparent feedback on ways I could improve my performance. However, one individual that stands out to me is the former President and CEO of Cadogan Management, John Trammell. John was an advocate for diverse hires on my team as well as across the business and led the charge that helped me secure my promotion to CFO for a firm managing $7.5 billion at the time, an opportunity few other women were given in asset management.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Personally, I find that being prepared by reviewing materials, conducting research, and drafting talking points in advance of a meeting are the best ways to prepare the mind. I also believe making sure that I am well fed and hydrated before a meeting starts helps the body to feel good and provide the energy needed to stay sharp. Unfortunately, in our busy world I do not always have the time to be as prepared as I would like, but I try not to stress about this by being open with others when we do not know something and following up diligently with the missing information afterward. For example, in an early meeting with a potential investor for our real estate development project, we were asked for the first time for metrics that our consultant had not included in their analysis, and we had not thought to ask for. While it was a bit embarrassing to feel that we were unprepared it was an opportunity for the team to learn from this weak point and we came together to create a ‘cheat sheet’ of all the metrics we could think based on our diverse experience and have yet to be stumped again on this project.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I think it’s important for businesses to reflect the diversity of our society and work to create equitable opportunities for underrepresented groups. Having an array of opinions from individuals with a variety of experiences, both in their personal life and work history, leads to broader thinking and better solutions. Employees in a safe and supportive environment are more willing to speak up and contribute, thereby avoiding the trap of groupthink and instead helping to push to find innovative solutions.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I think business leaders have to get comfortable putting diversity and inclusion initiatives at the forefront of their human capital solutions by being open and proactive in these efforts with employees and other stakeholders. This can only provide more opportunities for greater input in how to build a more equitable team. It may be a more organic process to include diverse candidates when recruiting at junior levels, but due to historic, structural inequities, it becomes more difficult as you look at leadership, therefore I feel we need to be a bit more flexible in understanding how a candidate’s unique skill set can lend itself to success in a particular role rather than looking to check boxes on a specific set of experiences. One example in my experience is advocating for an employee who I hired as a fund controller through an employee referral, this employee had no prior hedge fund experience but quickly proved that she had put in the work necessary to learn the business and perform her job well and when year-end raises were discussed I requested she be put on par with the other controllers on the team which would represent a significant increase for her. When asked by my bosses why I felt her compensation was much lower to begin with I answered earnestly that it was likely because she was a black woman, they approved her increase.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think there is a perception that an executive has a cushy job when in fact it is usually the opposite, as you move up and take on more responsibility you work more in the sense that you must be the one driving the vision, overseeing execution, mitigating risks, and maintaining the culture of the organization. I think what an executive does differently is the ability to analyze information at a high level, have the confidence to challenge others in a way that is productive and be forward thinking to consider what may be coming up around the corner.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think there is a myth that when we think of a CEO, we think of those that have had an amazing amount of success to lead Fortune 500 business but in fact there are millions of firms in this country alone and each has a leader in the CEO role, successful in their own way.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think the challenges faced by women are thankfully less than they once were but nonetheless there continue to be inequities in pay and leadership roles. In my experience within asset management, many of the leadership roles for women tended to be in support functions such as client servicing and finance but most of the senior executive roles are filled by professionals who have investing experience and therefore continue to be primarily male dominated. This is particularly acute in private equity where women represent under 20% of employees, less than 10% of senior roles and only 5% of board seats (Source: Prequin — Women in Private Equity Report). In addition, women still have hesitancy advocating for themselves from both a pay and work/life perspective. I was fortunate to work for an organization that allowed me to work from home while on bed rest during my pregnancy and one day a week when my son was born. Unfortunately, I lost this balance when my son was young, and I changed organizations for arguably a fantastic opportunity. I was told when interviewing that I would be able to continue working from home one day a week but unfortunately that was reneged on and I felt an enormous amount of stress having lost that balance in my life even though I loved the work I was doing and the team I worked with; it was simply more difficult to be a good parent and spouse not being able to spend as much time with them.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Considering there was no job description for my role it is exactly what I thought it would be, figuring out how to execute on an inspiring vision with a new team while working remotely through a pandemic has been the most striking difference to previous positions.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think executives need to be intellectually curious and resourceful to drive the business forward and be comfortable making many decisions each day. I also think you need to be a people person, someone that others enjoy working with and who is empathetic to and invested in the success of their employees. Having a big ego is a detriment to a successful executive because the business needs to be a collective mission to thrive, when it becomes about individuals the team can lose focus.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Enjoy what you do; no matter what the task, I stay motivated by always looking for something new to learn or to teach in each endeavor. Also, be yourself and be kind. I think happy employees are productive employees and those that enjoy working with you because you are genuine and respectful will be there to offer help when needed.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In a small way, I try to bring a positive energy to my teams by being a diligent and supportive colleague and leading by example. From an equity perspective I have used my leadership positions to hire diverse teams and from a charitable perspective I helped captain a running team to support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, helping to find cures for blood diseases that impact so many lives. I also enjoy giving back through teaching and was an adjunct professor at Baruch College, CUNY, trying to make accounting fun and have become a mentor for a number of colleagues throughout my career. Unrelated to my success, I am also a vegetarian for my health, the environment, and the well-being of all living creatures.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Be patient. When we are starting out in our careers I think those of us who are ambitious can tend to want to continue to climb the ladder as quickly as possible and not do ‘grunt work’ but you need the benefit of experience to understand how the things you think are simple or silly contribute to the bigger picture and that doing your best to master the tasks at hand is how you can best develop the skills needed to advance.
2. Accept and appreciate help when offered. I think every piece of advice has some value and early in my career I would not follow up with those that offered help because I thought I was doing great already and it made me feel somewhat insecure to accept help. Then, when my colleague told me how much work a senior executive had put into writing MBA recommendation letters on behalf of schools that I barely thanked him for and then decided not to apply to, it dawned on me that I had been less than appreciative of others’ time and wisdom.
3. Build your network. I have always enjoyed the collaborative nature of work and have made friends at every organization who have helped me throughout my career whether it be advice, a reference, or a career opportunity. I think it is easy to network with those that you think you have a lot in common with, but it is also important to reach out more broadly to expand your thinking and knowledge base. I find that I have some commonality with everyone I have met and sharing personal stories over a coffee or meal can go a long way to genuinely connecting with others. I also try to be proactive in maintaining these relationships even if it is just a quick note every now and then to check in and see how they are.
4.Take time for yourself. I think stress will be the death of us all if we let it, learn to recognize when your stress level is impacting your ability to perform at your best and take the time you need to decompress. Take a day off, do yoga, meditate, go for a walk, bake, or do whatever helps to bring balance back to your life to make you more effective in the long run.
5. Be honest. I found being open and honest is the most effective way for me to lead. To inspire others, they should trust you and feel comfortable that you have their best interest in mind rather than some agenda. I have had many difficult discussions with others about their performance and find that being fully transparent is the best way to deliver a message that clearly identifies an issue but allows for open dialogue that can lead to real change.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Universal basic income, I think as humans we deserve a basic quality of life that includes clean water, effective education, health care and a safe place to live. Understanding that these policies are difficult to implement individually and monitor, perhaps a basic income could help to simplify this and allow those resources to be put to better use such as improving education and expanding financial and trade skills training. I believe that providing a safety net can lead to more equitable opportunities for children, allow caregivers more flexibility, and provide creatives and entrepreneurs an opportunity to develop their crafts early on.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” This was very relevant for me to learn to put things in perspective and recognize when I was stressed and how that impacted my mood and reactions. Now when confronted with an issue, instead of fretting over what happened I immediately think about what the worst outcome may be and how to mitigate that risk, taking this approach has usually resulted in a workable solution.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
The two leaders that inspire me the most are Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase. Both have proven that hard work and outspoken ethical leadership can lead to stellar performance for shareholders and, more importantly, can benefit employees through growth opportunities, provide equal opportunities for diverse candidates and benefits for the communities they serve. In addition, Indra has been a trailblazer not only as a diverse woman but also as a CFO rising to the challenge to become CEO of a company with one of the world’s largest global presences.