Ericka Leslie, Chief Administrative Officer, Goldman Sachs

Read the full interview here

  • Ericka Leslie

    Q. Where did you grow up, and what were some important early influences for you that really shaped who you are as a leader today?

    A. I grew up in upstate New York, in a little town called Clifton Park. I worked for my father, who had a very small light fixture sales agency. He had about four employees, and half of them were family. An early lesson from working in a small company was that you basically had to do everything yourself. If something broke, you had to fix it. I remember very vividly when I first came to Goldman Sachs, and I called my father and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but when the light goes out, someone comes in and fixes it.”

    At Sunday night dinners, we talked about how the business was doing. I remember my father talking about whether he could make payroll and whether he could pay himself. That was very influential to me because when you work for a much larger company, it’s important to remember that everything that happens, particularly in my role as Chief Administrative Officer of the firm, is my responsibility. I have to be able to roll up my sleeves and help solve the problems along with the employees who are dealing with the issues of the day.

  • Ericka Leslie

    Q. You’ve had a sharp trajectory in your career. As you were being promoted, what feedback did your bosses give you about why they were giving you these additional responsibilities?

    A. I think they would say about my ability to get things done at any level. It goes back to what I was talking about with my father and the family business. If I want something to happen and things aren’t happening at the pace or the scale that I want them to happen, I’m pretty good at getting to the heart of why and course-correcting and adjusting. I have the ability to really understand what’s happening, understand the dynamics, and figure out how to adjust the situation to unlock the ability to move forward. That’s really a big part of large organizational management.

  • Ericka Leslie

    Q. What’s the best mentoring advice somebody’s ever given you?

    A. Get with the program. I’ll explain that. A big part of the culture of Goldman Sachs is that there’s a time for debate, and then there’s a time when a decision is made and we all have to get on with the decision. The reason that is so important is that oftentimes in organizations, a decision will be made and people won’t agree with the decision, and they’ll either try to change the decision or they will not be an active participant in making the decision be successful. And so a big part of Goldman Sachs and a big part of our success is that once a decision is made, we all get with the program, and we work constructively toward ensuring its success.

    And again, there are parallels with my father’s business. It was a small company, and he made all the decisions. Of course we could debate the decision, but at the end of the day, he was the boss, and that was always clear. So when I came to Goldman Sachs and a person said to me, you always have to get with the program once the decision is made, I nodded and I said, yeah, I get it. I understand why.

  • Ericka Leslie

    Q. I’m sure you’ve done a ton of mentoring for other women over the course of your career. What are the most common themes that come up?

    A. If they have children, the conversation often shifts to how you manage both career and family. But when women are first starting out in their career, they really grapple with being very ambitious but feeling like there’s a time limit or a time constraint associated with that. What I try to encourage women to do is to be patient and really think of your career as a long journey.

    It isn’t something that you have to establish and begin and end within a ten-year period. It’s much longer than that, and it’s important to recognize that there is life after having a family, there is career after having a family, and you can do both.

    And prior to having children, when you’re first starting out in your career, I always tell people to be unlimited in your thinking. You can do anything. It’s a long journey, and there will be times when you’re going to be accelerating, and there will be times when maybe you’re going to feel like you’re in neutral, and that’s okay.

  • Ericka Leslie

    Q. Boards of directors are always looking for this X-factor in their senior leaders that they generally describe as leadership presence. What does that phrase mean to you?

    A. Presence is everything from how you look to how you speak and how you come across — how you walk and how you hold yourself. People would always say to me early on that I have real presence. And I never really understood what they meant until later.

    It’s about people seeing you as somebody who’s credible, seeing you as somebody to take seriously. It’s also knowing when to speak, particularly in the boardroom. I’m on a couple of boards, and I’ve learned this through observing others. In the boardroom, it’s really important to think before you speak. There are some people who like to hear themselves talk. It’s really important to listen, and to make your points at the appropriate time.

  • Ericka Leslie

    Q. What do you think is the hardest part of leadership?

    A. Patience is the hardest part of leadership. When you’re leading large groups of people, you’re never going to be able to move as quickly as you want to move. Something may seem very obvious to you, but it’s not obvious to everybody. I find that a lot of leaders don’t spend the time to bring people along with them.

    And that’s really important because if you rush, if you go too quickly, you’ll get organizational rejection. People will say they’re onboard with what you’re trying to do, but they probably won’t be. And if they’re not onboard, they’re not going to be motivated to help execute the plan. An important part of leading people is the ability to have a goal and push while being patient. You don’t want to be too patient. If you’re too patient, things will move along too slowly or they won’t move along at all. But if you’re pushing too quickly, you’re likely not going to be taking the organization with you.

  • Ericka Leslie

    Q. One of the art forms of leadership is the ability to compartmentalize — to keep things in perspective when you’re facing so many pressures. How do you do that?

    A. It’s a really, really important skill. I try to get a good night’s sleep, first of all. But I try not to let things bother me for very long. I may be nervous or upset about something that happened, and I have a rule that I don’t make any decisions on the day of or the day after something like this happens.

    I find that if I sit with something and I don’t react to it, then after a couple of good nights’ sleep, I’m ready to move off of whatever was bothering me before. And so for me, it’s about staring it in the face. I think a lot of people try to avoid discomfort, or they try to avoid pain or fear, and you can’t. You really have to embrace it.

    You have to sit with it, and you have to allow it to make you feel vulnerable or make you question your competence or your confidence. You have to live through it, and if you don’t, if you just try to push it off to the side, it’s going to be back. It’s just going to come back in a different form. And so I try to sit with the feeling of, wow, that was a terrible experience, and oh my gosh, what if I’m not good enough? How do I adjust to this?

  • Ericka Leslie

    Q. Other important lessons about leadership?

    A. The most important thing about leadership is that you don’t quit. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubt. But the most important thing, and I would say this to women in particular, is that you put one foot in front of the other every day and just don’t quit and do your best and don’t be afraid to question yourself.

    It’s okay to question yourself. People may look at me and say, gee, this person has so much confidence and they’ve never had any issues with self-confidence, and that’s not true. I’ve just worked through it. And so I would encourage people to put one foot in front of the other and persevere no matter what’s going on. And if you do, you’ll get everything that you want out of life.