‘Stretch Yourself and Keep Learning!’: 3 Women’s Unique Paths to Management and Their Best Advice

Sponsored by DTCC

Karen Duffy, Marisol Collazo and Poonam Verma.

Photos courtesy of DTCC.

Profile Picture

“I love what I do, and I want that enthusiasm to permeate throughout my organization,” says Karen Duffy, Managing Director at DTCC (Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation) for the SIFMU (Systemically Important Financial Market Utilities) Delivery Department. 

Karen’s positive attitude took her from a position as a software developer at the beginning of her technical career to working her way up the ladder “from individual contributor to manager, director, executive director and now my current station,” she explains. Now, she manages a global technology team whose mission is to develop and maintain critical clearance and settlement applications.

At DTCC, Karen has many accomplished women leaders as colleagues. One of whom is Marisol Collazo, who is responsible for Relationship Management at the company. Her team’s focus is “to lead with a consultative mindset and to be strategic advisors to our clients, advising on DTCC services to meet their evolving needs and collaborating to develop innovative solutions,” says Marisol. She has also had an impressive career journey at the company, including acting as the Business Development and Global Head of Strategic Partnerships and the division CEO (Americas) for DTCC’s Global Trade Repository.

Another woman leader at the company is Poonam Verma, who has served as DTCC’s Managing Director for Cybersecurity Services for over twelve months. Poonam explains that she works with her team to make “day-to-day decisions about security” as well as to provide “enterprise services to protect DTCC and its staff, assets, systems and clients.” For Poonam, she started in this key position after leaving her previous security role at JP Morgan Chase.

While all successful leaders, Karen, Marisol and Poonam have all followed unique paths from being individual contributors to where they are today. To learn about their leadership advice and styles, how they promote work-life balance and what they hope their direct reports get out of working with them, all three leaders took the time to chat with Fairygodboss. Here’s what they had to say...

How has your work changed since you went into leadership at DTCC?

Karen: As I moved from individual contributor to manager and leader, my day-to-day work has changed a great deal: shifting from what I could accomplish on my own to that of setting up others for success. My overall approach to work has also changed dramatically, as I’ve moved from being steeped in the details of software development and coding to positioning myself on the “balcony,” so to speak, so I can observe trends and create strategy at a more macro level.

Marisol: The shift from individual contributor to leadership is a journey. I began taking on leadership roles mid-career and learned from my many mistakes. The skills that make you a great individual contributor are not the same skills needed to be a great leader. You must allow your employees the space to work through issues, fail and recover, all while guiding them and, more importantly, resisting the temptation to provide the answers. 

I also learned the importance of getting to know your employees, what inspires them, what skills they possess and how to leverage those skills to their greatest potential. As my leadership competencies have matured, I focus more on creating high-performing, diverse teams. That goes beyond physical diversity — I also see the value in having different styles of thinkers, a mixture of various skills and people with experience from different sectors. It creates more dialogue, challenge and better outcomes.     

Poonam: I’ve been in leadership roles for many years, but, in this role, I’ve had great opportunities to think strategically and dig deep with my engineering teams to fix complex technical issues. My overall approach to work is to provide value, deliver, look at the big picture and bring others along for the ride!

What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual or team that’s been particularly effective?

Karen: One strategy I value is the, “Know, Feel, Do” communication model that promotes a clear, crisp understanding between the speaker and recipient to concisely articulate what one wants the listener to take from the conversation, why it’s important and what subsequent actions are needed. When I find myself struggling to articulate context and requests to staff, I take a step back and reframe the discussion to utilize this model.

Marisol: If you want to move a team or individual in a particular direction, you need to invite them to be part of the process. Actively solicit your team’s input, explain the why and its importance and seek their thoughts. By doing this, they see themselves as an architect of the change and will commit to the goal with greater purpose versus mere compliance.

Poonam: Continue to stretch them out of their comfort zone, giving them new opportunities, they haven’t had before so that they can continue to build new skills and capabilities. That also leads to a sense of accomplishment when your mind says you can't do it, but you prove you absolutely can. That feeling is super rewarding.

What is your No. 1 piece of advice for other women who want to move into leadership?

Karen: I would advise women to know and be true to themselves and to rely on their own strengths as leaders as opposed to trying to fit themselves into some mold of what they think a leader should be. Authenticity is key. For me, managing with empathy and humor feels natural. I’m much more effective and respected as a leader by leveraging those qualities than by trying to assume more gravitas or aspiring to some textbook definition of executive presence.

Marisol: If you’re new to a leadership position, there are really two that are critical:

  1. Own your authenticity. We can be our own worst enemies with the internal voice telling you you’re not good enough, don’t have sufficient knowledge or need to learn more. If someone assigned you this role, then they believe you’re exactly the right person for it. I’ve found that the more I bring my whole self to a discussion, the more that authenticity becomes empowering, and my confidence continues to build.    

  2. Don’t go it alone. The first 90 days of leadership will require you to understand multiple facets of the role, talent assessment, how the organization collaborates, company politics and key influencers. Identify others in the organization that you can lean on to help you navigate these first 90 days. Leverage them for their expertise on what you’re looking to accomplish and how best to do so. This also has the double benefit of building alliances with this network.

Poonam: Be confident, speak your mind, be an expert in your field and go for those opportunities that you may initially think you’re not a fit for. Stretch yourself and keep learning.

How would you describe your leadership style?  

Karen: Empathetic, energetic and directed. I’m part servant leader, and I focus on enabling my teams for success, but I also believe that strategic thinking and making tough decisions are key leadership qualities.

Marisol: I would define my leadership style as a purpose-driven, collaborative one. I believe in doing “big” things and recognize the importance of bringing others along for the journey. I lead with kindness and empathy, but I’m firm and steadfast in where I want to go and the excellence I expect. I believe that people excel when they follow purpose, not orders.  

Poonam: Open. Transparent. Available. Compassionate.

What’s the No. 1 thing managers must do when onboarding new employees?

Marisol: You must get it right! The onboarding process tells an employee a lot about a company. A good onboarding experience builds immediate brand loyalty to the company and keeps a new employee excited about the journey ahead. It also begins before day one. 

I schedule time with my new employee before they start and give them a general overview about what to expect. I’ll often direct them to a particular section of our company website to read about an important initiative or strategy my team is working on and assign them a buddy (outside of my direct area). This buddy helps the individual navigate the organization and provides a safe space to ask questions they may not want to ask their colleagues or me.   

Poonam: Reach out and communicate with the new joiner to make sure they’re excited. On day one, greet them and spend time helping them. Set expectations, give them a buddy and check in. My own boss did something similar, and it made my first day and week super smooth. I had meetings already scheduled, and everything worked out wonderfully!

What’s the No. 1 thing you hope your direct reports get out of working with you?

Karen: Joy. I love what I do, and I want that enthusiasm to permeate throughout my organization.

Marisol: My hope is that my direct reports would say I lead with a strong and clear vision and that they professionally thrived from my leadership style.  

Poonam: How to think differently. Also, how to hold others accountable and meet your commitments. Building credibility is key if you’re going to provide value to a company.

How do you ensure your direct reports feel well-supported in and out of the office?

Karen: The art of listening and providing flexibility to my staff are key. As a working mother, I’m attuned to the demands of homelife and caregiving against that of a challenging career. It’s particularly important to me to ensure that my staff know that I “get it” and value them and their contributions enough to give them the flexibility they need to be successful.

Marisol: The pandemic has blurred the lines of in and out of the office and heightened the importance of supporting my direct reports. Providing flexibility for them to address family matters or mental health is key. I encourage parents to have their child sit on their laps during calls and welcome pets when we have our one-on-ones. This also deepens connections with my team and creates greater team spirit.

Poonam: This is important because work is part of your life, not your whole life. You should be able to step away, be with your family, do things that you love and be able to come back to work and do what you do best there. I live what I say — I tend to my family, I do service work every night and, when I’m in the office, I’m focused on my work 100% of the time.

What’s been your most valuable career mistake?

Marisol: Continuing as an individual contributor in a leadership role. This was a big mistake in my early career, one that many make. I thought I did everything right by setting a vision and acting on it, but I found that I was the one doing most of the work. I thought I was being a good leader by answering my team’s questions and focusing on the task.  

What I later learned was that my team didn’t really understand why we had to change course, and I had failed to empower them. A valuable lesson: resist the urge to act immediately, bring your team along and have them contribute their ideas to the process.  

Poonam: Putting up with a toxic boss. It was stressful and impacted my health, and perhaps I should have looked for other opportunities sooner knowing that my boss wasn't going to change.

While at DTCC, how did you build the team that you’re now leading?

Karen: I've been conscious of not hiring in my own image but rather cultivating a diverse group of individuals with different backgrounds and points of view. I also believe that it’s important to know oneself — including your own limitations — in order to create a team that counters and compliments your personal challenge areas.

Marisol: In building teams, I focused on the skills needed to advance my goals. I write this down before I start to assess individuals. Then, I look at the individuals in the team and determine how they do on a maturity scale against these capabilities. Hiring new talent is also a key component of building a team. I take a broad view of where I can find that talent rather than limiting myself to the industry sector that I’m in.

Poonam: I assessed the current state. I spoke to everyone on the team, stakeholders and leadership, and I documented what was going well and where there were opportunities. Then, I used my past experience to develop a plan based on people, process and technology (in that order). I started to gain feedback, and, as I received buy-in, I entered the execution phase. So far, it’s a huge transformation, but thankfully, it’s been seamless!

While building your team, what surprised you most?

Marisol: Potential or superior intelligence does not equate to a high-performing individual. I’ve seen many individuals who are smart and show great potential but fail to reach it. I’ve also seen many individuals who are of average intelligence with strong work ethic achieve outstanding results. Thus, I’ve learned to adapt what I look for.

Poonam: Team members were skeptical about whether change would happen. I was surprised, even after sharing the plan, that it didn't sink in with them until we began to hire. I realized later that they hadn't had an opportunity to really know me and my leadership style. 


Fairygodboss is proud to partner with DTCC. Find a job there today!