Robin Ross is the founder of R2 Coaching, a leadership coaching practice. Prior to opening her business in 2013, she spent 30 years in the financial futures industry. From 2005 to 2011 she was managing director of interest rate products for CME Group (Chicago Mercantile Exchange), overseeing the world’s largest and most diverse interest rate futures and options operation. Prior to that Ross worked at Cantor Fitzgerald & Co., JP Morgan and Credit Suisse First Boston and owned an operated an Introducing Broker, a brokerage firm that deals directly with clients. She is actively involved in a variety of endeavors that help women create sustainable income including Deborah’s Place, a provider of supportive housing for women in Chicago, on whose board she serves.
You spent many years in finance. How did the creation of R2 Coaching come about?
R2 is a regression formula that people use in finance. When I first launched my practice a year ago, I was looking for a name that was easy to remember – R2 for Robin Ross – as well as tied to my background and my niche. However, I’ve coached people from all sorts of industries, not just finance. I even coach Cornell MBA students as well.
I left the future industry a little over two years ago after a very successful 30-year career. I had a lot of fun. But during the last year or so it dawned on me that three years of zero interest rates, increased regulation from Dodd Frank, and corporate politics had taken a toll on me. One day I was flying back from New York City for the 18th week in a row—I had gone back and forth negotiating a deal—and I realized I wasn’t enjoying it any more.
And then it dawned on me that I didn’t have to do it anymore. My kids were grown. College was paid for. My ex-husband was paid off. I had a choice.
How long did it take you to act on that?
It took a while. But three or four months later I resigned. I agreed to stay for six months of transition, and I left at the end of 2011 without a clue of what I was going to do with my life.
Was it scary or liberating?
It was a thrill. It really was. I have an adventuresome streak in me. I’ve done lots of strengths assessments in my coaching and one of my character strengths is bravery. I wasn’t uncomfortable or scared as a lot of people might have been. I have always felt confident in my ability to succeed, particularly when I do what I love.
The career you’d had before wasn’t one for the timid, was it?
No, it certainly was not. I spent 23 years as a broker on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor. I started covering Wall Street firms back in 1982 for a small clearing firm, and then launched an Introducing Broker with my then husband. After I had my two kids, I ended up working for CS First Boston (now Credit Suisse), and JP Morgan, managing sales teams on the trading floor. Most of my direct reports were men, and there were very few women on the floor in trading or sales positions. So, no, it was not for the timid. But I loved it.
The Chicago Mercantile Exchange hired me in 2005 to manage the interest-rate futures product line that I had brokered for 23 years. I built that team from three people to a global team of 15 people—and that was fun, too. It was an exciting time in the financial futures industry.
What did you most want to do when you left all that behind?
There were two things I knew I was going to do. First, I was going to give myself at least three months to breathe, and not make any decisions. Second, I had signed on to volunteer for an organization called Women in Progress, which sells fair trade goods under the name Global Mamas. It’s based in Ghana. I spent six weeks in Africa – a month in Ghana and two weeks in Botswana. I had a ball. That was a great experience.
Did that experience help you transition from your earlier life?
It really did. It helped me put things in perspective, step back and see what’s important to me. It also helped to crystallize my belief that all of us—and particularly the women I worked with—are more alike than we are different. We all share the same concerns about family, education, healthcare and clean water and so on. We all want to be happy.
These are very industrious women who run businesses making jewelry and batik clothing. The Global Mamas location in Cape Coast is run like a co-op, and the women are true entrepreneurs with real drive and ambition. I talked to them about how to manage and motivate their employees, how to make sure orders are filled on time, and how to grow their business and market their products.
Before I left for Ghana I hired a coach to work with me when I got back to help me think through what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Did that inspire you to become a coach of others?
It did, although it took me awhile to arrive at that conclusion. I like to use mind maps [visual organizers for brainstorming]. I’m a visual person. So I created this mind map with different business ideas and possibilities. They ran the gamut from a social-enterprise business for florists—which I still may do some day—to a fair-trade store, to consulting in the futures industry. I kept looking for the common threads of what I had enjoyed most during my career. I loved the financial markets, but what I enjoyed most was managing people, helping others succeed, mentoring, and coaching. I also am passionate about helping women succeed. Finally, I thought why not become a coach and help women break through their inner glass ceilings and achieve success in their careers? That’s what lot of my work is about.
Did your work in fields that were disproportionately male influence your desire to focus on helping women?
Absolutely. There were countless times when I would be the only woman at a dinner or conference. But to be honest, I never really focused on gender as an issue for me personally
But over the last decade while working at JP Morgan and CME Group I noticed there were certain trends and traits that were common to the women I managed. For example, women are less likely to ask for promotions, opportunities, and raises. We are less likely to speak up in meetings, particularly if we disagree. We don’t negotiate well for ourselves. There are a whole host of things I began to notice that were holding women back in their careers, and that I felt I could help with.
Are these traits you saw in yourself and overcame during your career? Or did your self-confidence help you bypass those limitations?
Maybe it’s that bravery trait. I didn’t know enough to be afraid to raise my hand or to speak when I thought something wasn’t right. But it is true that I always negotiated much harder for my team than for myself. I would be the fierce mother lioness to make sure my team was treated fairly, often at my own expense.
What is it that most of the women you coach hope to gain?
I believe that I can be the most help to women by helping them work through their limiting beliefs and helping them see that the biggest obstacles to achieving their goals are the limitations they place on themselves. The more aware we become about the limiting beliefs and assumptions that we hold in our heads – and see them for what they truly are – the easier it is to gain self-confidence. Once we can label our limiting beliefs, we can also begin to recognize our strengths as well. Then you can step back and say, “I may not be the best at project management, but I’m a really good strategic thinker.” Or I’m good at managing people, or I can negotiate well or whatever your strength. Coaching is really about helping clients turn challenges into opportunities.
Are you saying there are no barriers put in front of women by others? Or are you saying those external barriers are easier to overcome?
I’m not saying that glass ceilings don’t exist, because I’ve bumped into them. I have a few bruises myself. However, I believe the bigger barrier to success for women is our own internal glass ceiling, which is comprised of our limiting beliefs, our inner critics, assumptions, and interpretations we make that often have no basis in reality. For example, we tell ourselves we aren’t qualified for the role, so why even apply? Or we assume that because we failed to get the promotion last year, we don’t have a chance this time around.
Do you think that those kinds of self-limiting barriers differ between women and men?
We all have them. Our culture and society ingrains many of them when we’re born. But I do think that women tend to pay more attention to the inner barriers. I think this is because in general, our wiring and energy level is different. Most women come at things from a very caring, service-oriented perspective. We put other people’s concerns and wishes before our own – we are the good daughter, the good wife, and the good mother. That can sometimes get in the way of what we want to accomplish in our careers. It can amplify our limiting beliefs and erodes our self-confidence.
I know you mentor, did you have them?
I didn’t have any mentors who were women. Early in my career I had a great boss who was a mentor for me. When I came to Chicago I had a sponsor who truly advocated for me and helped me get promoted and be recognized. It’s one of the many reasons I feel strongly that women need to help other women. There simply weren’t many women available to mentor me during my career.
Many women are unsure how to find a sponsor. What’s the best way?
It’s not an accident. You have to cultivate sponsors. When I talk to women, I ask them to think them about their network within their company. Sponsors don’t have to be in your immediate department, but should be someone in a senior position with whom you can cultivate a relationship. The reality of it is, in financial services most potential sponsors will be male, which is fine. But you need to identify a person who is senior enough to advocate for you in meetings when opportunities arise. To call you out, give you credit, and make sure others recognize your strengths and accomplishments.
You need to ask yourself what you want to do. What’s your career path? Most women—most men, too—haven’t taken the time to set long term career goals. Once you figure that out, scan the horizon for the people who can help you achieve your goals. Think up two or three levels in your company. Who can help you blaze your career path?
Did your mother work outside your home?
No, my mother was a stay-at-home mom. My father worked in sales and marketing for International Paper Co. for much of my younger life. We were living in Little Rock, Ark., when I was a teenager when my father began selling municipal bonds for T. J. Rainey & Sons. I became fascinated by municipal bonds, and I wanted to know what that world was all about.
My father would bring home these big books called Moody’s to look up call features for the bonds in his client’s portfolios. It was tiny type and my father’s eyesight was going, so he used to ask me to research the call features for him. That’s how I learned what a municipal bond was.
When I was in college [at the University of Arkansas], I kept telling him, “Dad, I really want a job down at Rainey.” He’d laugh and say, “No. I’d rather tell people you’re a piano player in a whorehouse than tell them you work in the muni bond business.” But I kept nagging. One day he came home and said, “Robin, if you’re really serious about this, you need to go talk to my boss right now. We’ve been through three Kelly Girls in the role of assistant to the underwriter. One just quit. If you want the job, go talk to him.”
Did your brave gene kick in then?
It did. That was my junior year in college. I took my Series 7 exam [for research analyst certification] when I turned 21. I might have been the youngest female to pass the Series 7 at the time. I was told that, but I don’t know for certain.
T.J. Rainey & Sons wouldn’t hire me as a salesperson. They said I could be a registered assistant but they didn’t have an opening in sales. I knew the manager of the Dean Witter office in Memphis, and I called him and said, “My best friend just moved to Jacksonville, Fla. Do you have an office there?” He said yes. I said, “Can you check and see if they need a registered sales assistant there?” They did. I interviewed over the phone and they hired me, sight unseen.
I packed my little car and moved down there. Within three months I had a job selling bonds for a bank in Jacksonville. My best friend growing up had majored in journalism and was working as a television reporter in Jacksonville. She said, “You should move down there, too.” I thought, “Sounds good to me.” So that’s how I ended up in Jacksonville selling bonds.
As they ascend that career ladder, many women confront the challenge of balancing work and home demands. You’re the mother of two. How did you achieve a balance?
I have two wonderful kids. When I was raising them, I was working on the trading floor in Chicago and living in Libertyville, Ill., 48 miles from the city. So I commuted almost 100 miles a day.
When the kids were very small I had nannies to help. But then my husband retired, so he was able to get the kids to school. I had to leave for work at 5:30 in the morning. I would pick them up from tennis on the way home, make dinner, and help with homework.
As a working mom, some things have to fall off your plate. I like to tell women that just like you can’t eat everything at a buffet, you can’t have it all at the same time in life. No one can. Something’s got to give. For me what gave was my personal life. Everything revolved around my kids or work. I neglected networking and girlfriends and more. But if I had to do it over again, I don’t know that I’d make any different choices.
My roles got bigger, my responsibilities got bigger, and work was more demanding. When my son was a junior in high school I chose to take a step back and stop managing. Becoming a producer gave me the flexibility to leave work earlier and spend more time with the kids. I felt I was missing the important years, and they were growing up so quickly. Both my kids played tennis and both were really good. The summer of my son’s junior year I took a month off and just traveled to their tennis tournaments with them. That was a choice.
It echoes what you said earlier about not being afraid to say what you want.
You have to say what you want. You have to be honest with yourself. That’s the hard part. And you have to let go of the guilt. Many women feel guilty if they’re home and not working, or if they’re working and not home. It’s so common, even with very talented, successful women. You have to let go of the guilt. You can’t be everything to everyone. What is most important is to live a life that is aligned with your values. I feel I was able to do that.