When I recently sat down to chat with Marlene Debel, she was very clear about the moment that defined her career progression - and it forms the nucleus of her advice to other women climbing the corporate ladder.
Marlene described how, “Very early in my career, I asked my boss to consider me for a job opportunity that included a promotion. From the look on his face, it was clear that it never crossed his mind that I would be a candidate. But I got the job as soon as I raised my hand. I realized that I would have been overlooked if I hadn’t spoken up.”
Looking back at that early career moment - from her current post as Executive Vice President and Head of Retirement & Income Solutions at MetLife - Marlene observed that women seemed to lack the confidence to ask for opportunities if they did not meet 100% of the job specifications, whereas men were very good at jumping in and raising their hands even if they only had a fraction of the qualifications specified.
During our conversation, Marlene admitted that it took a while for her to reach this conclusion since she often lacked female role models in the executive ranks, especially among women with families. She added that, today she tries very hard to provide that influence for other women climbing the ladder.
And Marlene emphasized that speaking up is a skill that women must continue to apply as they progress. She told me how she experienced a similar scenario a decade later: “The next time, I was solidly in upper management and a similar situation occurred. I saw the same ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a good idea’ look on his face. I got the job, but again, I had to speak up.”
Make your ambitions known
While these two experiences may sound frustrating, Marlene is clear that at the end of the day, you have to own your career. “It’s up to you to express your ambition since no one can read your mind. You need to let people know that you want to do more and are willing to try new things. And even if you don’t get the job, you are creating an opportunity for feedback, which is also helpful.”
As we talked, Marlene highlighted the importance of having conversations about your goals: “You need to ask, ‘What can I do to continue to progress and what sort of experiences do I need to get there?’”
She explained that, by framing conversations in this ‘matter of fact’ way, it becomes less emotional and it’s easier for a manager to take action: “Do your homework and prepare for the discussion. Then you’ve made it easy for the other person to help you.”
Marlene and I agreed that starting these conversations may be intimidating at first, but they are critical. She concluded that, “Essentially, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. When you do so, and you conquer something scary, it’s a huge confidence-builder and you’ll be ready to do it again.”
More about Marlene Debel
Marlene is Executive Vice President and Head of Retirement & Income Solutions at MetLife. Prior to this role, she served as the company’s U.S. Chief Financial Officer and spent five years as MetLife’s Treasurer. Prior to joining MetLife in 2011, Marlene was the Global Head of Liquidity Risk Management and Rating Agency Relations for Bank of America. She joined Bank of America with the acquisition of Merrill Lynch where she was Assistant Treasurer.
In her 20 years at Merrill Lynch, she held leadership positions across Global Treasury including funding, capital management, liquidity risk, structured transactions and insurance. Today, Marlene is on the board of the Women’s Forum of New York and is a strategic advisor to the Financial Women’s Association. She received an MBA in Finance from Fordham University and a bachelor’s degree in Finance from the State University of New York at Albany.