How I Got Here Jun 05 2012

Citi's Harford Worked the Trading Floor and Got Ahead

By Julie Steinberg

Suni Harford didn't get to where she is at Citigroup by holding back. She played golf, asked for promotions and worked on the trading floor. At age 50, she's now the bank's regional head of markets for North America, overseeing 4,000 employees.

Studying math and physics in undergrad at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, enabled her to stand out in interviews with banks, she said, because "they're so stunned that a woman is in physics and math, they presume you're smart!" She received an M.B.A from Dartmouth in 1988.

She learned one big lesson early: Speak up for what you want. Passed over for a promotion during her early thirties, she says she believes that happened because she never told her manager she expected to be moved up. She got the promotion the following year after speaking with her boss.

Harford began her career at Merrill Lynch in 1988, then in 1993 joined Salomon Brothers, which became part of Citigroup in 1998. She oversees all sales, trading, origination and structuring in the markets division in North America.

FINS caught up with Harford to talk about what women need to do to advance their careers, why trading floors can be useful for their rise and whether getting an M.B.A. is still worth it.

JS: What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's advice to women not to "leave before you leave"?

SH: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. A woman will say to herself, "I shouldn't take that job because it's going to be too hard or too stressful." Are you sure? If you have the will and wherewithal to make different things happen, see if you can convert the job to fit your needs. Too many women leave before they consider slowing down, then coming back into the workforce. It doesn't have to be a baby, it can be elder care or personal interests that would drive them into a less demanding career for two or three years but keep their foot in the door. It doesn't hurt to ask for things.

JS: How did you balance having three kids with your career?

SH: I took time off for each one. The first was eight weeks, 10 for the second, and 13 weeks for the third. I was very lucky because I was already managing the business by the time I had my first child. When you're the manager, there's a lot fewer hurdles in terms of how you do things. I also had the greatest nanny in the world and I still have her 15 years later. The key is finding at-home care so you can keep your eye on the ball. I certainly missed my share of family events but I hope my children are stronger for it.

JS: Some leadership experts recommend women learn to play golf so they can be included in games with top brass, but others say it's wrong for women to have to tailor their hobbies to suit men's.

SH: Reality is what reality is. If the venue is a golf course, you should play golf. When I was an associate in investment banking at Merrill Lynch, I worked in Florida, where most clients golfed. I had to learn and learn quickly. I would meet a client for lunch, then I'd take lessons with a pro, then meet the client for dinner. I eventually was able to golf with them.

JS: You studied math and science in undergrad.

SH: The greatest decision I ever made was to study physics and math. When you go later in life for interviews, they're so stunned that a woman is in physics and math, they presume you're smart! The corollary for Wall Street is there's a tremendous amount to be said for visibility. I just liked physics. It teaches you how to think about problems. You need to be aware of the repercussions of anything you do.

JS: What was your first job after college?

SH: I became an actuary which I quickly determined was not the best fit for me. At the time, there weren't many jobs for physics majors who didn't want to go into research. Then I went to business school as quickly as I could.

JS: Tell me about your career.

SH: I was a vice president in investment banking at Merrill Lynch after graduating Tuck. I left to go to Salomon Brothers in 1993, because I had been a small fish in a very big pond and I wanted to be a medium-size fish in a smaller pond. Salomon had 7,000 employees while Merrill had 40,000. I started up a group at Salomon whose primary focus was on medium term notes, a new product at the time. I was given a budget and I built out the franchise. It's now the only type of product people do now.

JS: What was it like to be a woman on the trading floor?

SH: I have a theory about women being on a trading floor. It was different then than it is now, however. A woman on a trading floor is unique, so automatically there's visibility. If there were 10 women in the top 100 employees, the senior managers knew all the women. There was a presumption that if you had a kid you would not come back to work. I spent a great deal of time convincing people I was here to say. I proactively said, "I'm pregnant but I'm coming back." I was the first woman to have a second kid and come back to work at Salomon. Now I can't count the number of employees who have three, four kids at home.

Maternity leave is hard. I stayed in touch, which was more difficult and more necessary back then. Today it's more common, women are not presumed to be leaving, and so it's less of an issue. But it's still all about visibility.

JS: What was the next move up the ladder?

SH: I was in capital markets for over 10 years and was looking for a change. I raised my hand and asked for something different, and was open to whatever they suggested. We didn't have a single fixed income research division at the time, it was four or five divisions that were part of sales units. They combined one unit under me. I went from managing 50 people in fixed income to managing 300 people across 10 different products across 11 different countries. I did that for four years.

JS: Then what?

SH: We reorganized the research division and I effectively reorganized myself out of a job. When the regional head of markets role came along I was offered the position. It wasn't apparent in the beginning, but the research role provided me product and global depth and breadth which helped me prepare for that role.

JS: Do you travel a lot?

SH: Over my 25 years I've done my share of global travel. The job I currently have happens to be regional. A regional footprint is easier on the wear and tear. It's easier to go to Boston than to Rome or Japan.

JS: Are M.B.A.s still valuable?

SH: Yes, though the value has shifted in one respect. Historically, they served two purposes, one of which was a ticket of entry to the Street. In the markets business today, an M.B.A. is not requisite. But for many of the skills essential to strong managers, an M.B.A. is still a terrific path to follow.

JS: Do you worry about not getting in enough facetime because your boss is based in London?

SH: I talk to him every day; if not in person, on the phone or via email or video chat. We have constant dialogue. He's aware of everything I'm doing. It's not a concern for me. Twenty years ago it would have been different.

JS: You once said you've never declined to be someone's mentor. Is that true?

SH: I'm happy to meet with someone, whether or not it develops into an ongoing relationship is another story. Every relationship will be different. I have ongoing dialogue with 10 to 15 men and women. Some dialogue is virtual and some is in person. Some is formal and others casual. Conversations range from reviewing self-assessments to prepping for job interviews within the firm.

I'll take groups of five junior people out to lunch on a regular basis. Sometimes that will develop into a mentoring role, but mostly it's about keeping in touch with them. I'll introduce someone looking for a mentor to a person who might be a better fit.

JS: Do women or men approach you most often?

SH: I think that women feel that it's easy to approach me because I'm a woman. But both men and women reach out. People email me all the time asking to go our for coffee, or in my case a Diet Pepsi.

JS: Have you had any career missteps or setbacks?

SH: We all have a story about not getting promoted when we think we should. I'm convinced I wasn't promoted because I never told my manager that I expected a promotion. When I pushed it with him, he was dumbfounded, and told me he had no idea I wanted the promotion...what did he think I wanted? But he had made a choice, and I think assumed NOT promoting me was an easy path to take. My mistake.

JS: When did you get promoted?

SH: 1998. I was 35 years old. I remember because I was pregnant that year.

JS: Any final career advice?

SH: Women need to speak up and raise their hand. We all tend to sit and wait for opportunities, and then we get angry if they don't come. You need to be proactive though not aggressive. If you haven't kept your boss appraised of what you do and where you want to go, then you need to change the way you're doing things.

JS: What do you like to read on airplanes when you travel?

SH: I just finished the recent James Patterson book. I'm a big mystery person. And no, I haven't read "Fifty Shades of Grey." My teenage daughter wants to read it. Maybe I'll have to use the excuse that I have to read it before she can.

Write to Julie Steinberg at

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