Five Minutes With Cynthia Zeltwanger

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Five Minutes with Cynthia Zeltwanger, CEO and Founder of C Zelt Enterprises


Cynthia Zeltwanger was the chief executive officer of Fimat Americas during the merger with Calyon to form Newedge. After leaving the company in March 2009, Zeltwanger launched her own company, C Zelt Enterprises, and now does management consulting as well as executive coaching. She sat down with MarketsWiki’s Jessica Titlebaum to discuss how she became CEO of Fimat Americas, what she believes about women in the derivatives industry and how she got her best raise of her career.

Q. How did you get into this industry?

I was working for Shatkin Trading Company in the late 1980’s in the compliance department. I thought about becoming a paralegal so I went to work for some lawyers but didn’t like it after spending time in the trading industry. I returned to Shatkin and according to my boss, I was very aggressive about wanting promotions and raises. He said, ‘Listen Cynthia, you are obviously not going to be satisfied with the career you could have if you don’t go back to school’. He then offered to pay for law or business school if I wanted to go back.

Tuition reimbursement wasn’t the norm at the time and I was taken by surprise because all I wanted was a raise. I was in my mid-twenties and all of my friends were having fun after work. I knew that if I went back to school it would be in the evening but in the end, I decided to go for it. I say now that this was the best raise I ever received.

When I graduated law school, I was in the top 10 percent of my class. They tell you that if you are going to law school and you don’t graduate in the top 10 percent, you are just wasting your time and I was not into wasting my time.

Q. So you were at Shatkin the whole time during law school?

Yes, but the company went through a lot of changes during that time including an acquisition by LIT. The firm had seen me as a compliance person and I wasn’t sure they would take me seriously as a lawyer. After graduation, I had a few law firm offers, but I also had an offer to work at a funny named company called Fimat.

The conservative approach after law school is to work at a law firm for a couple of years to gain experience, or else your degree doesn’t mean as much. I could have done that or I could have gone to work at Fimat as General Counsel and run their legal & compliance department. I couldn’t bring myself to be a freshman again at a law firm, especially after sitting through classes four nights a week for four years. I just envisioned a partner throwing a file at me and telling me to work on it over the weekend. So I took the job at Fimat.

There were 50 people in the Fimat Americas office in 1991. I was lucky to have joined when I did because the firm was growing and expanding globally. They were looking for talented people who would take initiative. And that is what I did. I wore different hats, I wasn’t just focused on legal and compliance work. When I left as CEO of the Americas, we had grown to over 900 employees.

Q. How did you go from General Counsel to CEO of the Americas?

A few weeks after starting at Fimat, I went to New York with my boss to launch our New York office. I ended up traveling to New York every week for three years to get that office up and running. I had no idea that much travel was involved with the job but I became the bridge between the sales team in Chicago and New York. After two and a half years, I gave up my general counsel responsibilities to move to New York and run the business out there.

I knew this would be a challenge for me, but I also knew that I had to move to get ahead. So my husband and I moved out to New York. At the time, Fimat was expanding into cash government securities and Over-the-Counter (OTC) products, which I didn’t know much about and had to learn. I worked with our parent company, Société Générale on some of these initiatives.

Working in the New York office was stressful but I learned many different things. I moved back to Chicago when I heard the General Manager of Chicago position was going to be opening up. A few years later, I was offered the role of chief operating officer for the Americas. It was a new job because the company was growing so fast. I was in this role for about three years before I was offered the role of CEO of the Americas.

Q. You were Global COO of Newedge during the Fimat and Calyon merger?

Yes and let me say, that is not a prize. During a merger, there are these things called synergies and you have to lay people off, merge systems, make sure clients are happy, make sure there are no snafu’s when merging the system and migrating the customers. It was a great role because I got the global experience I yearned for but to do it during the merger was a huge effort and very challenging.

Q. What was the hardest challenge?

One of the hardest but smartest things we did was put together a recommendation to the executive committee about how to choose the backend systems platform for the new company (i.e clearing & settlement, etc). Instead of going through each individual system of both legacy companies and comparing which system was better and what features were preferable, we agreed that we would choose the systems platform of one of the legacy companies and migrate everything to that firm’s platform. Otherwise, the process would have taken forever as we would have had to evaluate dozens of software applications and argue over which one was better.

This was a very controversial decision because everyone has pride in the systems they built.

Q. What did you learn from this experience?

My goal was to get the spirit of the people together. Not everyone was on the same page but I wanted to form a united front.

It is important for me to make decisions based on what is best for the company rather than on political motives. You get a lot of grief for that and you may disappoint people, but you don’t disappoint yourself.

The point is that you don’t get a head without a lot of people working hard for you. If anyone says you get ahead alone, that’s not true. I was able to get the promotions I received and get ahead because I had a lot of people working hard for me. As a leader you get people to work hard for you by being honest, including them in decisions, and being tough but fair. I am proud of that reputation.

I think it is pretty important early on in your career to establish your core principles and values. If you don’t have core principles and know how far you will go, you can easily find that you are operating outside of who you are.

Q. Any failure or success in your career that you learned something from?

Yes. While at Fimat, my team and I had been working on a deal around the clock for several days, maybe getting an hour or two of sleep a night. I handed the document over to my new boss and realized I had missed something glaringly obvious.

He looked at it and immediately said that we couldn’t sign the document. He was right and I was horrified! I thought I was going to get fired, but I didn’t.

I had been working on too little sleep I didn’t have a clear mind. I learned from that not to make decisions when I was exhausted. Now I know to make decisions when I have a clear mind, which is usually in the morning before I get bombarded with things.

It’s funny because I found out a lot about my behaviors through colleagues that observed them. A lot of times, if your employees trust you they will share with you their observations about your behaviors. Sometimes, you have no idea that you are doing these things. It’s great when your employees trust you enough to tell you.

Q. Has there ever been a time when you felt you were at a disadvantage because you were a woman in this industry?

Yes. At the time I was the COO of the Americas and I was a candidate to be the CEO of the Americas. One of my employees had just been over in Asia and when I called him to tell him I had been appointed to the CEO job, he burst out laughing. He was a close colleague and was going to get a promotion due to my promotion so I was calling to tell him that. He was laughing and said that he had had dinner in Asia with a few of the firm’s executives the previous night and they were talking about who would get the job. When the executives asked this colleague who should get it, he said I should and the Asian executives said that absolutely no way could a woman do that job. That was in 2003.

Whether you are male or female, having someone that recognizes the work you do and will put your name in the hat for the next big job makes the difference. On the other hand, you have to put yourself out there, be aggressive and ask for the jobs as well as deliver what you promise.

I think from time to time, as a woman I have had to prove myself a little more but it is a fine line.

I think that women go over the line more often than they would like to. They work too hard to prove themselves when they don’t have to and it creates a behavioral edge. The hardest thing about being a woman in this business is finding a balance between being too aggressive and too timid. I call it a narrow band of accepted behaviors and I don’t think men have that same narrow band. I believe that acceptable business behavior for women is much more narrow than men. You can’t be too friendly, too nasty, too aggressive or too timid. The hard part is how do you know?

Q. How do you know?

My recommendation is to ask people for feedback. When I returned from New York to work in the Chicago office, a friend of mine walked into my office and shut the door. She said that I had to calm down because since I came back from New York, I had been very aggressive.

The New York office was very aggressive. I brought that same attitude to Chicago and I was running people over.

I would have burned a lot of bridges and made a lot of mistakes, if I hadn’t been told about my aggressive behavior. So again, you have to ask for the feedback and also be open to it.

Q. Did you have mentors throughout your career?

No, but I did get involved with a women’s leadership group in California . We met three times a year for three and a half days in a retreat center. We would try out new leadership behaviors and give very direct feedback. It was experimental learning and it was amazing for me. I did it for the latter part of my career, from 2005-2009, when I was already in senior roles. I wish I had gotten involved in something like it earlier.

One of the women from the California group lives in Chicago and we conduct leadership workshops with women in the area. It’s a personal passion of mine.

Cynthia Zeltwanger leads the Women In Listed Derivatives’ mentoring committee.