Sophia Wajnert, the head of Credit Suisse Raleigh and global lead for culture strategy for the Investment Bank, says that the most valuable career move she ever made was also her riskiest.
“My move to Raleigh to take on a site leadership role was outside of both my geographic and professional comfort zones,” she tells Fairygodboss. “I was leaving New York — where I’d worked and lived for over two decades in the field of HR, and where I was an established professional — to a city and role I knew little about. I had to have trust in the company to move me, but also in myself that I could take on and succeed in this new challenge.”
It has certainly paid off in various ways, she adds. Since her move, she’s been able to leverage her transferable skills from a 25-year career in human resources and provide a training ground for new skills and growth opportunities.
After all, Wajnert has worked at four different companies throughout her career, each of increasing tenure. She’s now been at Credit Suisse for 13 years and, on average, has changed roles every 2.5 years to move onto roles with larger or different platforms that challenge her in new ways and keep her engaged and motivated.
We caught up with Wajnert to learn more about why she’s confident that making that initial move to Credit Suisse was still the right one, as well as the support she offers her employees and the advice she has for other women on similar career trajectories. Here’s what she had to say.
What is your No. 1 piece of advice for other women who are moving into or want to move into leadership?
If you don’t have one yet, find a good mentor. Look for someone who inspires you with their own leadership style. Talk to them about challenges you are facing and brainstorm solutions. As a former HR professional, I would be hard pressed not to also recommend forming a strong partnership with your HR partner. Whatever you’re experiencing, they’ve likely seen something similar before, know what works and can advise you on what doesn’t. Leverage them for their advice and their ability to be objective.
Also find a group of other senior women — support them, and they will, in turn, do the same for you. Lastly, continue to pay it forward by supporting other high-performing women as they grow their careers and become leaders.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to strike the balance between structured, results-driven and approachable. I like structure, I like to have a plan and I like to define goals, KPIs and roles and responsibilities. The plan is always better when you’ve gathered opinions of many, so I try to collaborate and gather input (which also creates buy-in) from various team members and stakeholders. I try to communicate by both sharing and listening. I also try to be approachable, listening to questions, concerns and new ideas. I attempt to lean into my team members’ strengths but also allow them to stretch and try new things so they continue to grow and stay engaged.
What’s the No. 1 thing you hope your employees are getting out of working with you?
I hope my employees are learning and growing, feeling inspired and engaged. I also hope I am a role model for them to reflect on (and either adopt or not adopt!) as they continue to grow their careers and become leaders of their own teams.
How do you think about making sure your employees feel well-supported in their lives both in and out of the office?
Tending to our own wellbeing is a priority. We can’t expect strong performers if our team members aren’t cared for or if we aren’t supporting them in caring for their own wellbeing. In a lot of cases, this means flexibility around family commitments, but not always. Each situation may be different, but it’s key to understand priorities and balance and remain agile.
While at Credit Suisse, you’ve built a team that you’re now leading. How did you approach this?
The strength of your team reflects on you as a leader. The best advice I’ve ever received around building a team is: hire people around you who are strong in areas where you are not, people who fill in or compliment your weaknesses. This also means hiring people who think differently than you, the more diverse the opinions are around the table, the more valuable the solutions that table creates.
The biggest mistake a leader can make is not hiring or promoting strong employees for fear that they will overshadow your own performance.
What was the best quality of the best boss you’ve ever had?
Someone who is invested in your success and understands that your success, even if it means moving on to another opportunity, is also their success as a leader...
What were your initial thoughts when you learned you were moving into a leadership role?
When I first moved into a leadership role, it meant leading a team of employees who had been my peers and, in many cases, had become close friends. This wasn’t an easy transition, but, through clear communication and transparency, I was able to both retain them as key performers and as friends.
What are you trying to improve on?
I am constantly trying to improve on public speaking. I am so envious of people who do it (seemingly) effortlessly.
Does Credit Suisse have a formal program in place for mentor or sponsorship, or is it more of a casual thing that happens organically?
We have a number of programs I could highlight. One is the Credit Suisse Real Returns program, a diversity initiative that gives talented and experienced professionals who have taken an extended career break the opportunity to transition back into the workplace through a structured program. It is a full-time, paid 12-week program that we host in Raleigh, as well as New York and other locations globally.
Real Returners participate in a program of tailored project work, training, mentoring and facilitated networking. They are given the opportunity to meet senior leaders of Credit Suisse as well as to engage with alumni of the program. The program is a great opportunity for someone to find out if they are ready to re-enter the workforce, and if Credit Suisse is their employer of choice. They gain insights into different business areas and have the chance to build a network that they can leverage for their career development.
Ultimately, what has led you to stay at Credit Suisse?
In addition to the strong culture at Credit Suisse, professionally, I’ve stayed as I’ve continued to be challenged with new opportunities that both celebrate my success and hard work, but also offer new challenges and abilities to grow.
What’s your go-to stress-relief activity or routine?
Exercise, preferably outdoors, is my go-to in relieving stress. Endorphins, oxygen and a little natural vitamin D are the winning recipe for curing just about any stress life throws at you. It all helps me clear my mind and better tackle whatever situation is causing the stress.
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