Kathie Starks, Branch Manager and Head of Asset Servicing at Bank of New York Mellon, leads teams from the start with a firm belief in success. For her as well, success begins in your mind and from there influences the language and actions of everyday life. A viral belief in success that inspires the whole team.
Kathie Starks and I are sitting in “Gallo Nero”, a superb Italian restaurant near the Old Opera House. The restaurant is not all that big and very tastefully decorated. Gold-framed mirrors and beautiful paintings adorn the walls painted in a soft red. The tablecloths match the walls; the tables are set with candles. We are served by attentive waiters. Kathie just had a delicious turbot, and I had pretty much the best sea bream ever. We continue to sip the sparkling white wine we ordered to accompany the fish, and I’m delighted that she’s ready to answer a few questions for this book.
Kathie is Branch Manager and Head of Asset Servicing at BNY Mellon, a global bank. I’ve known her for a while now, and I’ve noticed that she approaches big goals in her own special way. You might call it “carefree” in a positive sense. Kathie looks relaxed and confident, even when her goals are super demanding. I’m interested in how she does that. Is it a special personality trait that lets her always believe in her success?
“Well, I was raised a bit differently than most people,” Kathie explains. “Even though my childhood was in the 1960s.” For the most part, these were still authoritarian times that only slowly moved towards openness and self-realization. So what exactly was it that her parents did differently? “Specially my dad always told me that I could do anything I wanted. Even when others said that this was something only boys could do. Our parents even bought toy cars for us girls. And we were allowed to wear jeans, just like the boys. We didn’t have to wear dresses like all the other girls had to in those days.” So Kathie’s parents let her do her own thing, and when she wanted something, it was all right? “Yes, we were raised a bit ‘anti-cyclically’. Yet my father always expected us all to become doctors or lawyers. Well, that didn’t happen. But what my parents taught me was that anything can happen if I want it and really believe that it’ll happen.”
“I knew it would be good. Therefore, I didn’t have to work day and night to make it work.”
When it comes to being successful and achieving big goals, you can hardly ask for a better belief system. I ask Kathie how it affects her in business today. “Well, I started in the new company, and from Day One I was convinced that we’d be successful,” she says. ”I knew that the previous four years hadn’t been very successful and that many employees were frustrated. But I didn’t pay any attention to that. I think it’s like a virus. Believing in success is contagious. Soon some of my colleagues started to think and talk like me. After a few weeks everybody did. From then on everyone believed that we’d be successful.” Was it just Kathie’s way of talking to people, or was something else involved? “Actually I think my words contributed the smallest part. I entered a room and knew things would run smoothly. We’d be successful. Apparently I radiated what, to me, was a given thing. That’s why nobody doubted it. By the way, I didn’t have a Plan B, because I knew that everything would work out anyway. You could say I had this extreme serenity, almost a kind of fuck-you attitude, but in a positive sense. Namely that I won’t put myself under pressure under any circumstances. I knew things would work out. That’s also why I didn’t have to work day and night to make things work.”
That makes perfect sense to me. Kathie just does her thing even when there are critics – but then there always are. When it comes to criticism, she’s resilient. For me, this has a lot to do with mental strength. A personality trait that was not necessarily considered one of the most important success factors in classic change management. I’m curious about how Kathie sticks to her guns. And how she deals with resistance. Kathie considers that question for a moment; then she says, “When I join a new company with my attitude – and by now that’s been five or six times – it’s always just about the same. I say, ‘We’ll do this, it will work and it’ll be fine.’
Kathie Starks und René Esteban (Autor von “Do Epic Stuff!“) im Restaurant Gallo Nero, Frankfurt a.M.
I will have convinced a few people within a short time. These are the ones I work with. We then define the first strategic issues together. We think about what activities we need for our strategic goals. And then it works like a vacuum cleaner: We suck up the rest of the people. First there are two, then three, four, five, six, and in the end I have a highly motivated team. Sometimes I hear people say about the first team members that they weren’t good performers, I should replace them. But I don’t care about that kind of talk. My life is about seeing how people evolve. My training in coaching and team coaching helps me do just that.”
Impressive. I want to know if Kathie never has any doubts in herself. “Yes, I have”, she blurts out. “I’m suffering from ‘Impostor Syndrome’.” Kathie laughs. “In every new job I wonder why they hired me.” Seriously? I’m perplexed. Even if self-deprecation is involved here: Where do her self-doubts come from and how does she deal with them? “It’s just at the very beginning, and maybe it’s also a typical female trait,” Kathie says. “When women apply for a job, they want to be able to do 80 per cent of what’s required in their new position. I can only do 30, maybe 40 per cent when I apply for a job anywhere. That’s why at first I consider myself a miscast. But when I start working in my job and realize that people are benevolent and supportive, I quickly forget about that. Deep down inside I don’t have any self-doubts. And I never listen to the critics but always to the advocates. They’re everywhere. You mustn’t think: He or she is definitely against me; everybody wants my job. Giving up that kind of competitive thinking is very helpful.”
“Friction within the team is normal – and we welcome it. Creativity & innovation only exist if conflicts are viewed positively.”
And what if there are real difficulties? “A Swiss friend of mine, who also works for a bank, in a very high position, once told me never to call anything ‘difficult’,” Kathie says. “Because that sounds as if I can’t do it. It’s better to call it a challenge. Because I can definitely tackle that. Of course there are moments when I’m not sure whether it will work out with a certain team, a certain company or their products. Then I deal with it with a sense of humor to lift my spirits again. Once I stood in the pouring rain at the railway station and spotted a rainbow that had formed over our office building. I took a picture of it, tagged it with the hashtag #signsfromthegods and used it in a presentation.” What a wonderful anecdote! It sounds like emotions are important to Kathie. And that she enjoys to playfully seek confirmation that she is on the right track, rather than dealing with her doubts. “That doesn’t mean we never had any conflicts,” Kathie intervenes again. “There was a lot of friction in the team – and we welcome that! Creativity and innovation are only possible if conflicts are seen as something positive.” That makes sense. What else is important to Kathie?
“The language,” she reveals. “I use a very positive language. I also try to speak only positively about other people. For instance, we have a rule in our team: If we have visitors from other countries, specially seniors from our bank, we will always find something positive about any team member that we will say to all those present. Of course it has to be authentic, or else you can forget it. This creates a powerful we-feeling. Another example: There are certain words that I use in my team over and over again. I make it a point to call ourselves ‘Team Germany’. For several years Germany used to be a problem for the corporation. Well, that’s over now. Now we are ‘Team Germany’ with great self-confidence. We’re the successful team. Words do work.”
About the author
René Esteban is the founder and CEO of the consulting company FocusFirst GmbH.
With his team he supports executives in the global corporate environment to achieve their most challenging goals with focus and inspiration – and at the same time to develop the corporate culture towards more empathy and humanity.