Whether it’s numbers, people or fine-tuning a large organization, Kara Underwood has always loved puzzling out all the pieces and how they fit together as a whole.
Maybe it started with her love of Nancy Drew mysteries growing up. “I aspired to be an FBI agent,” she recalls. Instead, Underwood, a math major at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, chanced across a pamphlet for a financial services firm at the career center one day and, impressed by the variety of opportunities, applied for and got a position with Merrill Lynch’s Private Client Development Program.
Math and mysteries notwithstanding, Underwood quickly discovered that she had a good read on people, their motivations and strengths and how to help them develop their potential. It’s a skillset she has plied to great advantage at Morgan Stanley, whether it’s been developing and implementing a diversity strategy for the Financial Advisor ranks in Wealth Management or her current role as Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Wealth Management.
Named a “Woman to Watch” by Investment News, Underwood says there’s no secret to what makes her good at her job. “There is a misconception that finance is all about the numbers. It's really a relationship business” she says. A mother of two who earned her MBA from NYU by attending night classes while working fulltime, Underwood says she understands the struggle today to achieve more and just how hard it can be.
Every day, no matter how busy she is, she carves out time to take someone to lunch. “It's a way for me to build relationships with key partners or pay it forward by investing in our talent coming up through the ranks. If someone reaches out to me, I'm going to help. I love coaching people and helping them to find the right path to contribute and excel.”
All of those connections across the organization come in handy. When Underwood assumed leadership of the Wealth Management diversity effort, the first thing she did was to quadruple the size of her team with the right people providing her with insights. That also allowed her to have “boots on the ground in our branches because driving change from headquarters wasn't going to move the needle,” she says.
Underwood also helped cultivate more networking groups within the firm, including the Forum for Women, Multicultural and LGBT Financial Advisors, noting that the business case for diversity has never been stronger. “Wealth in America is diversifying, and it's important that our financial advisory force reflects the communities we serve and the communities we aspire to serve. Clients demand it now.”
In her current role, Underwood's job is to make sure that Wealth Management has the best and the brightest branch managers among its ranks. "Our branch managers are leaders of their branch and community. It's a critically important role and we take a great amount of care in selecting and developing our management team."
Underwood sees the workforce as a giant puzzle of different hues and shapes that come together to form a cohesive whole. “You're exploring points of view that might not have come up otherwise. You check one another and avoid group-think,” she says. “Having more diversity of experience, gender, race and ethnicity helps large organizations like Morgan Stanley make smarter decisions. I love being a part of that.”