• Laura Hay, Leadership |

As much as we tell women to “Be confident in yourself,” that’s not easy if you begin your career without female peers, or see few women role models in your company’s upper ranks. I remember that feeling, and so does Linda Zukauckas, who began her career in a male-dominated Texas accounting firm.

Now, as Executive Vice President, Business CFO Group and Deputy CFO with American Express, Linda explains how she built her confidence through networking and accepting challenging assignments to refine her professional brand. And today she brings other women along for the ride – including high-potential American Express colleagues who follow her day’s routine to build their confidence.

Role models show “It can be done”:

As we talked, Linda recalled an occasion early in her career when she met female colleagues from a more gender-balanced office who came to Dallas to support a transaction: “If you have hopes of rising in a company, you get inspiration from seeing senior women. You think to yourself, ‘Okay, it can be done.’”

Such moments helped Linda gain the confidence to consider new assignments and speak up about her career goals. She recalls the time a male leader told her, after the fact, that the he had removed her from a list of candidates for a new role because, in his words, “It wasn’t a good time for Linda or her team to make this move.”

Linda recounts how, “I had to speak up and say that ‘Linda might have liked to be part of that conversation.’ To his surprise, I re-opened the dialogue and earned the opportunity that brought me to New York. This represented a left turn in my career, and it happened because I found the confidence to talk about my aspirations. Our male counterparts are very comfortable having those conversations, and women must do the same.”

Linda continued to pursue new challenges to strengthen her professional brand. For example, she accepted an 18-month assignment in Singapore in the midst of the Asian currency crisis even though it would uproot her two young children. Grateful for her “super supportive husband,” Linda recalls how this posting helped her grow professionally: “Thanks to the 12-hour time difference, I had to make leadership decisions while my boss was asleep in New York. I accepted the fact that if I got a decision wrong, I would have to take responsibility later and chalk it up to a learning opportunity. This really advanced my thinking, judgement and autonomy.”

Networking to build a community:

Linda points out that she has found - and navigated - new challenges through networking: “I’m a pretty big networker, and it was often out of necessity since I moved from Texas to New York, to Singapore, to the Midwest, and back to New York. Every time you pick up and start over, you need to plug in again, not just with your co-workers but also in the broader professional setting.”

Linda notes that there are many ways to network, whether through social media tools like LinkedIn or professional organizations, such as Financial Executives International (FEI), where Linda is a Past Chairman of the Board. Linda encourages casting a broad net when it comes to networking, including niches such as your college alumni, kids’ school or neighborhood groups. She is also an occasional golfer and admits that, “I am not very good, but it is a great way to break the ice and have a solid four-hour conversation with at least three other people.”

Advocating for others:

Today Linda shares her learnings to help other women network and increase their confidence. She’s the global executive sponsor for American Express’ Women’s Interest Network, a community formed in 1993 to advocate for women’s professional growth and career satisfaction at the company. Programs range from small gatherings of women to discuss career advancement, to summer golf clinics, to a shadowing program, through which a woman executive accompanies a senior leader for a workday to gain insights into their leadership style.

During my chat with Linda, she included her ‘shadowee for the day,’ Rita Solodar, Vice President, Consumer Paid Digital Channels in the meeting. “It’s really easy to do, although I try to make the day more interesting than just taking Rita to finance meetings,” Linda jokes. She adds that, “It gives us a chance to connect on a professional and personal level and this creates a way for someone like Rita to gain me as a sounding board or to form a sponsorship or advocacy-type relationship, which is always helpful.”

Rita agrees, describing how, “It’s been tremendous to get an inside view of how Linda thinks and how she manages her day and her colleagues. This is invaluable for my career.”

Linda praises American Express, explaining that, “It’s part of our culture to encourage people to step outside their office and get to know other colleagues, in part through colleague networks. Each of us has a responsibility to help create a pipeline of talented professionals who are going to step-up to more senior roles someday.”

Recalling her path from Texas to New York and beyond, Linda concludes, “It’s about giving women confidence, to be comfortable speaking up about their career ambitions and taking the chance. It’s absolutely necessary in order to open that next door.”

For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.Kpmg/mindthegap.

More about Linda Zukauckas: Since March, 2018, Linda has held the position of Executive Vice President, Business CFO Group, and Deputy Chief Financial Officer, with American Express, the globally integrated payments company. She joined American Express in 2011, in the role of Executive Vice President and Corporate Controller, following an 11-year tenure with Ally Financial, formerly GMAC. Linda held a number of executive posts at Ally, including Managing Director of Corporate Strategy, CFO of US Auto Finance, and Corporate Controller/Chief Accounting Officer. Earlier in her career, she occupied senior audit roles at Deutsche Bank/Bankers Trust. Linda began her career at PricewaterhouseCoopers and holds a BBA in Accounting from Texas Tech University.