As Chief of Staff for Wealth Management and a Morgan Stanley MAKER, Chris Pagano, asks questions, lifts rocks and looks around every corner. This makes her great in this key role.
Christine (Chris) Pagano grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn, where she lived for 17 years with her three siblings in a small apartment. Always craving the outdoors, she remembers being the “ringleader” in organizing activities for herself and her friends. Her work ethic was apparent at age 13, when she’d spend 12- to 16-hour days every weekend at the fair at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.
“I’m pretty sure it was breaking every labor law,” laughs Chris, remembering her first promotion—from selling lemonade in a giant lemon-shaped kiosk to the chicken teriyaki stand—and couldn’t wait to go home to tell her mom.
It was her mother who influenced Chris’s drive. “She worked so hard every day to take care of us.” A naturally curious and bright child, her mom was successful in getting Chris moved to a school that could provide the enrichment she needed. “I had an incessant need to understand the full picture and constantly asked questions about whatever I was doing,” says Chris.
That curiosity and need to understand still serves her well today, as Chief of Staff for Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley, supporting Andy Saperstein, Co-President of Morgan Stanley. Asking questions, lifting rocks and looking around every corner: it’s what makes her great at her complex and high-stakes role.
After high school, Chris moved to Staten Island and attended a CUNY College, where she earned a degree in history while working three part-time jobs. After graduation, she gravitated toward a museum job but given the low pay of nonprofit work, she took a second job on weekends proctoring financial-services exams. Eventually, she landed at an oil company. When it restructured and was sold, Chris was “blown away” by management’s decision to give almost every employee at least one year of severance. “That money so early in my career was life-changing,” says Chris, who used it to “pay off school, clear my debt and make decisions that for the first time were not based purely on economics.”
This example of how to “lead with generosity” changed her trajectory, and she carries that lesson with her in her own leadership.
Once she was no longer employed by the oil company and had some breathing room to find a next role that really fit, she came across and applied for a position at Morgan Stanley. She interviewed for the role of executive assistant to the COO of National Sales. At the interview, she had to wait three hours for the interviewee, who was handling a fire drill. Impressed by her tenacity, he sent her through to the next interview round. As it turns out, the hiring manager was born and raised a few blocks from CUNY College of Staten Island. They bonded over this, says Chris, and their “similar accents.”
Ever since, Chris has been growing in her Wealth Management role, always willing to take on new challenges, continuing to ask lots of questions and developing deep relationships built on trust. As her manager’s role expanded, so did hers. “I’ve never stagnated, because there are new projects, challenges and things to learn every day,” says Chris, who is grateful for the many opportunities to be at the table with decision-makers.
“The first time I was sitting in the boardroom at 1585 Broadway in New York City,” says Chris, “I couldn't believe I was part of the conversation, learning from generous people that didn’t look at me as if I wasn’t supposed to be there.” Eventually, she recognized her strengths. “It began with wanting to make myself useful to the team before I really knew what I could bring to the table.”
Today, while keeping the business organized and efficient, she’s the go-to person for the “questions with no easy answers or to bounce an idea around,” she says. “I get a lot of curveballs.”
Whether the problem presented is small or large, her approach is always the same: to harness as many details as possible before determining the resources to dedicate to it. “The more detailed you are, the more you’re digesting the material and the more you can contribute,” Chris shares. In fact, “the power of details is underestimated and usually, in the end, is always appreciated.”
Personally and professionally, Chris continues to be called on for advice. “It could be something to do with a specific project or about choosing a special gift,” a skill she excels at given, again, her penchant for details.
Beyond gift-giving, Chris is known for giving of herself, a generosity that comes in different shapes and forms. “Whether it’s a colleague, friend or family member, giving them your time is probably the most important thing you can do.”
Chris never forgets the generosity of colleagues and leaders over the course of her career, which she uses as examples when helping her own team. “It comes down to giving them time and space to explore and work through a problem while making yourself available to guide them.”
In fact, she lives to take the time to dissect issues and solve problems whenever she can. “I’m good at forcing myself to see the other viewpoints,” she says. “I like to say, ‘Let’s rip it apart.’ You can discover multiple solutions.”
She likens it to her favorite childhood movie, Clue, starring Tim Curry. “A fantastically funny movie with multiple endings, I always remember thinking it was over but then multiple endings would play out. That’s what people get when they ask to pick my brain. I give them different options and prepare them with a plan B, C and even D.”
Chris, a staunch advocate for women and a mentor to many, also volunteers her time to charities. For example, she is proud to have served for six years as board president for a local animal shelter in Connecticut, where she lives with Anthony, her husband of nine years, and their rescue dog named Lake.
She was recently named a Morgan Stanley MAKER—joining a distinguished group of women and men, all nominated by their peers for serving as advocates, groundbreakers and innovators for women’s advancement. Sometimes guilty of moving too fast and not taking a moment to celebrate an achievement when it happens, this recognition was no different. “I am typically right onto the next challenge,” she admits. “I like to make sure that my team feels recognized, but for me, my joy is in the work—and in flawless execution.” Those around her, however, certainly thank and celebrate Chris for her work, passion and even her constant questions.