Morgan Stanley
  • Women Without Limits
  • Nov 8, 2022

Leading with Vision

Hosted by Stacie Hoffmeister
Come In, Let's Talk


Liz Dennis:                          00:03                     I think it's articulating that vision, putting it out there, being clear and concise and short about what it is, but then also creating a path to how you're going to execute on that vision, how you're going to paint the picture, the Bob Ross painting, if you will, and have it come to life.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           00:24                     That's Elizabeth Dennis, we call her Liz and Liz is the Head of Private Wealth Management here at Morgan Stanley. That is a big job. One that requires vision. Liz is an expert at seeing the bigger picture and guiding her group towards bold, ambitious, well articulated goals. She's here today to talk about how she gets inspired and how she sells her vision to the team. We also talk about why being seen as a visionary can be tricky for women and what we can do about it. Liz is one of the most senior women at Morgan Stanley. And in this conversation, she gets real. Real about how once you lay out your vision, you have to make it happen, or else you risk losing credibility. Real about how we as women need to stop doing all that in the weeds work we're never going to get credit for. This is all hard earned but necessary wisdom. I'm Stacie Hoffmeister. Welcome back to Come In, Let's Talk.

                                                                                Liz, hey, so good to see you. Thank you so much for joining me. I want to dive right in because I have been super excited about having this conversation with you and I want to get right to the topic. We're here to talk about vision. Let's start by defining what we mean when we say vision. What does it mean to you?

Liz Dennis:                          01:50                     Well, thanks for having me, Stacy. I love the topic and you chose it for me, which I'm honored by. But when I think about vision, I think about the actual picture and being able to see something that's either an image or a written mission statement, but something that you can latch onto. It's an objective, it's a shared goal and it's a strategy that a lot of different stakeholders can look at, articulate and then move forward with that vision. I think as I've learned over the years, it needs to be something that's both achievable but also something well beyond what you're already doing. I mean, it's the Wayne Gretzky quote of skate to where the puck is going. Where are you going versus where you are currently, but how do you give people a concise and clear image and visual of what that looks like, what the horizon looks like, and then what are the steps to get to that horizon place.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           02:53     The real reason why I wanted to talk to you, there's a bit a motive here, is about women and vision. And I'm going to ask a provocative question. Do women have a vision problem? We're seen often as doers more than visionaries, according to a study that the Harvard Business Review published, which has really stuck with me. The authors of that study found that women actually scored better than men on most leadership qualities as ranked by their peers. But there was one exception, the quality of envisioning. Men in particular just do not perceive women to be visionary, generalizing according to a study that was published by Harvard. So of course there are exceptions to the rule. We're not saying it's everybody. But there's a trend here. And the study actually concluded with the author saying that this vision thing is the only thing holding women back. So I'd love to hear your reaction to this.

Liz Dennis:                          04:02                     Well, look, I'm glad that academics are studying it because it's so important. I do think you want to be careful with the generalizations, but I think there is some truth to it. I think if we, as women, know that going in and we're self-aware, then we can help adjust on a daily basis, on a weekly basis in the big forums, in the smaller forums to say, "Okay, if there is a perception that in general women are doers and are detail oriented, I need to adjust for that quite frequently, especially as I get more senior into the executive director, certainly at the managing director level, to not have that be my value proposition." And so I have a couple of sort of tangible ways to do that.

                                                                                But one of my pieces of advice is two words. It's do less. You have to sometimes write it on a piece of paper, on a sticky note, on your computer, as a reminder to not let your value proposition be all of the minutia and all of the day-to-day and all the things that can suck you in. And I've been fortunate to have managers, sponsors, friends, peers who have reminded me of that. Don't get stuck, don't get in the weeds because ultimately as you get more senior, you won't get credit for that. And then you'll get into the ditch of, well, she's quite senior now and that's not an MD level role is not to be in the weeds and in the details. And then it takes you away from those opportunities that are really big and strategic and meaty and visionary and all of the buzz words that you want attached to you and that you already have.

                                And then I also have a couple of other tangible ways to avoid this perception, which I think is more perception than reality, which is don't report the news. We are inundated with news every single day. Everyone knows where every stock trades at every second of the day. It's not interesting. It's too much information and it's not your value proposition. In the past, it may have been in the financial services space where you were literally providing information to people and that was part of your value proposition. Now, it's what are the trends? Why is it happening? What's the so what of what you were saying? And if you don't start with the so what and end with the so what, you'll lose their attention. And the attention span of the average adult, forget child, but the average adult is seconds not minutes. So once you've lost them, you've lost them. So stay high-level, stay big picture and adjust for that perception that can quickly become reality.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           06:53                     So there's being a visionary and then there's how women are sometimes seen as more detail oriented executors. I'm wondering about a middle ground. Is there a middle layer to all of this that we need to touch on? Is there a middle layer which some might call the strategy. It's basically the how you're going to achieve that vision. Is being a strategic thinker and thinking about that how the same as being a visionary?

Liz Dennis:                          07:25                     Yeah, it's a great question. And I think it's actually a comforting one to women, or at least the women who are uncomfortable giving up that control around the detail orientation and things like that, because I think there is a middle ground and it works for so many people, men and women. But I think it's articulating that vision, putting it out there, being clear and concise and short about what it is, but then also creating a path to how you're going to execute on that vision, how you're going to paint the picture, the Bob Ross painting, if you will, and have it come to life.

                                                                                And so you can't just have the vision. If you say a bunch of puff pieces and then it doesn't actually happen, you will lose credibility relatively quickly. So it's about building the right team underneath you, making sure they all are articulating the same vision, maybe coming to you occasionally and saying, "Hey, we need to tweak this part or that part," or the painting is not fully finished, and being able to adjust along the way. But having a clear path of how you're marching forward and evolving if things, if the market changes or there's a global pandemic or theoretical things like that.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           08:40                     And then it sounds like you're also saying, asking yourself as we look at all of the work that's on our plate, why am I doing this? Is this something that I should be doing? Is this something that I should be delegating? Do less, probably the most amazing two words I've heard in a while.

Liz Dennis:                          08:58                     I'm talking to you, Stacie.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           09:03                     You're talking to me. So let's actually double click there. I am at the executive director level at Morgan Stanley and for listeners who are familiar with financial services, that is a senior level, but it's like a senior mid-career level. The next level above executive director is managing director. And for those of us who are at the executive director level, women especially, in my role as head of talent and diversity for Wealth Management Home Office, I hear and see feedback from individuals as well as feedback from managers of individuals this dynamic of women at my level being perceived as workaholics or as self-sacrificing. And I think the truth is honestly that we are caught in this difficult place of still needing to execute on a daily basis, still needing to do and still being accountable for what's done and the outcome, but also needing to find ways not just to think bigger but to be seen as thinking bigger.

Liz Dennis:                          10:17                     There is always going to be that [inaudible 00:10:20], that pull between the big picture and the details. And even as a managing director and one that is now in a senior management role, I cling on to the weeds. I do cling onto the weeds still and I have to listen to my sponsors and my managers to let that go and let that control go. But it's in some ways you think back to your career and you say, "Well, that's what got me to this position. So why wouldn't I keep doing that? That was good. It's a good thing. I'm a valued member of Morgan Stanley and this team and this ecosystem."

                                                                                But what I've realized kind of the hard way, frankly, is that I can be commercial and I can be detail oriented, but let my team manage the process beneath the surface. And they like when I pull them in. They feel valued. They feel honored to be working on a strategic project. And so letting them have that time to shine actually makes me look better because then I have a team that is all swimming in the same direction, rowing the same boat or whatever analogy you want to use, and they're the ones carrying the heavy lifting.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           11:33                     I'd like to hear about what specific steps you took and still take to cultivate your vision.

Liz Dennis:          11:42     Absolutely. First steps, take a listening tour. Who are your strategic partners? Who are your internal clients? Who are your external clients? What is working really, really well, what is completely broken and what is somewhere in between? What is the competitive landscape? What are the threats looming that we're not thinking about? And then taking all of that input. And literally I'm a note taker. I'm old-school. I use paper and pen. Reviewing those notes and saying, "Okay, what are the common themes between all of the different folks that I listened to on the listening tour and how do I synthesize those into therefore I heard this and we're going to do X, Y, Z." And making people feel heard, I think especially in this environment that we're in now is critically important, but it's always been important. Everyone wants to have a voice.

                                                                                And then it's really about repeating your vision over and over and over. We talked about attention span before. People don't hear you the first time. They probably don't hear you the second time. Maybe they hear you the third time and it starts to get ingrained. And then people start to understand and they're articulating it for you and all of a sudden you have accolades everywhere saying, "Oh, yes, I know the vision and I'm doing it because I've listened to what it is and it hasn't changed. So I don't have to get anxious that I adopted something that's going to change the next year." I think that gives a lot of sense of stability.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           13:14                     I used to have the saying, everyone thinks they're a marketer. Everyone has an opinion on how something should be positioned or how we should talk about what something is and what something isn't. And that's what's important about a brand is determining what you are, but also what you are not. So I'd love to hear about how you stay true to your brand or your vision for your team and have not allowed for yourself to be blown about by the wind.

Liz Dennis:                          13:41                     I think it goes back to the listening tour that I did and making sure that I didn't lose sight of that initial feedback. And there were also happened to be two things that I thought I was really good at, both personally in my style, my managerial skills, my approach to clients and my general ethos. So I thought, well, those are two things I'm good at and I can help influence. And they happened to be two of the most important pieces of feedback that I'm receiving. And then staying true to that by saying, I would never penalize someone on my team if they turn down an opportunity if it meant that that was the right answer to that adviser, that client, whatever the situation was, because it didn't fit into what we were trying to do for a variety of reasons.

                                And so I had to say that's part of our transparency and efficiency model, which is we can't be all things to all people and there are some opportunities we're going to have to say no to. And then also just allowing that to build on itself so that as we became more transparent and efficient, we got more stakeholders that were willing to trust us and we ultimately grew the team and had more resources because we were operationally doing a good job and we were showing growth and we were creating opportunities by sticking to what we said we were going to do. Kind of having that be our drum beat, to use the word that you used earlier.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           15:11                     Yeah. I'm struck by, again, the similarity between cultivating vision and cultivating a brand and your process of going through the listening tours, hearing your stakeholders and then distilling two key insights from them. So the question is, when you were doing your listening tour, how much of that was actually incorporating and taking kind of all the feedback you've heard versus trying to make the case for your own ideas. Like was that tension there or was it more clear?

Liz Dennis:                          15:45                     It's a really good point because I do think there's a push and pull between you can't just take feedback forever and listen forever. There are some decisions that you want to make sooner rather than later that may be, to your point, less educated by what is the consumer saying and more influenced by your gut or what you've learned over your past careers and things that you've seen and observed. So that would be an example where I don't need a focus group. I'm going to just do it and feel good about a quick decision like that. And then I think there's other examples where you have to know what you don't know. So because I didn't know the wealth management business as well, I had to get input from my own team or people that knew the way the field was structured in terms of the financial advisors, their clients, what they needed, and that needed to be informed by the focus groups and the feedback.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           16:48                     All right. Let's talk about inspiration for a minute. What are some of the things that help you think bigger when you're in a rush or when you need a spark to help you vision?

Liz Dennis:          16:59     Yeah. Look, I think we have to go easy on ourselves, especially in this environment. I think we have to be really mindful of our mental health, our physical health. I think Mendell actually says it really well. You only get one body and one mind and you got to take care of both. That's kind of on the personal level. I think from a, okay, I've had my vision, I keep repeating it, but is it fresh, is it current, I think that's where I reach out to people that I really trust and respect and look at the way they are articulating a vision. So I think about someone like Sharon Yeshaya who's the head of investor relations at Morgan Stanley and it's her job to articulate the vision of Morgan Stanley and the strategy of Morgan Stanley to our equity investors.

                                                                                She is excellent at it. She is incorporating the feedback of the equity analyst community back to senior management. She's incorporating what senior management at Morgan Stanley is talking about and reflecting that back to the analyst. She just does such a nice job of synthesizing who we are, what we are, what we're not, how clear our vision is. And she also speaks to her peers on the street in terms of what's the competitive landscape. And I think that really helps keep you fresh and current is thinking about the broader competitive landscape and that's if you're not doing that, you can risk being too internal.

                                                                                As much as I'm talking about building internal advocates in terms of cross collaboration, if I don't step outside of that and say, well, what are other firms doing really well, I think that's really important. And then just networking internally, externally. Making sure you keep your friend network current. You learn so much from peers and from friends. And just being interested in things outside of your job can spur inspiration, I think, as well.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           19:06                     Great tips, pro tips. I have one more provocative question. I hear in a lot of what you're describing a high degree of curiosity. You seem to greet your work and your challenges with curiosity. And I'm wondering, does everyone have this muscle? I mean, is everyone made to be able to vision?

Liz Dennis:                          19:31                     Well, I love it. I think it's provocative but it's a critical question because I have seen a number of people come into a new career or even just shifting into a new firm and they come in with tons of curiosity and excitement and energy. And then sometimes it is easy to get bogged down by bureaucracy or all of the different steps you need to take to get to a certain point, particularly if you work at a large firm. The biggest risk I see from a human capital perspective is people who just start getting burned out and sort of a lack of interest or curiosity, to your point. It's almost hard to cure that because if you start to check out and you start to just feel disenfranchised or disenchanted or bored, then I think it has a whole domino effect of how you perform.

I think there's an element of luck where I've had just amazing managers and sponsors in my career who kept pushing me and saying I could do more. It felt a little scary at times but I am so thankful to those people who did that because then they helped me see the version of me five or 10 years out that I certainly did not see. And so if you don't have that type of person in your career life, I do think you need to sniff around and say, okay, what other opportunities might there be within the firm for me to either pivot from a skillset perspective or pivot from a manager perspective so that I can get somebody who sees that in me.

                                                                                I've instructed a few people along the way to do that, to maybe even globally move to a different region or city or something that allows you to say, "Okay, I was disenfranchised and not curious in my old role but by making this pivot, it's opened up a whole new part of me and I'm going to bring my whole full self to this job and I'm going to crush it." That's great. I think when you can unlock that part of someone that you know is there but is maybe a little bit dormant, that's what it's all about.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           21:50                     Can one lead without vision?

Liz Dennis:                          21:53                     I think that you can lead with someone else's vision, but there needs to be a vision there. And I think in order to... So the answer is yes, but there has to be an overarching vision from somewhere. And ultimately in order for you to become the senior version of yourself from a career perspective, if you want that senior role, you have to be the one articulating the vision. That comes with compensation and that comes with promotions, meaning you don't have to have that vision. But if we're being open and honest about women's development, we want higher compensation. We want promotions. That is something good to want. That is not a bad thing. But you're not going to get that just executing on someone else's vision. I think you do have to have that to get to the next level.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           22:47                     So much of vision is believing in something that isn't yet real. There's actually a quote from the Bible around faith being the substance of things not seeing, the evidence of things not heard. I'm revealing a lot about my childhood right now. And vision reminds me of that. How do you keep faith in your vision in the face of setbacks, in the face of perhaps disbelief. And how do you get others to believe and keep the faith as well?

Liz Dennis:          23:19     To me, you have to make it real. I know that sounds strange but you have to. That's why this idea of a visual or an image or a written word that you can go back to and hold in your hand and say, okay, I may not have full buy-in on this and there's going to be a lot of naysayers and they're going to be people that poo poo it or say I don't really want to do that and that seems either scary or just something that's not in my wheelhouse. And then if you can pick up that mission statement and say, "But it's on our website, it's real."

                                                                                We may not have anywhere near full adoption and we're going to have naysayers and you just, you know that, but I have a pictorial in my head, and then you start to see the results and you say, "Okay, I'm not crazy. This thing is real and I have it on a piece of paper and I can go back to that when I get kind of weepy about the fact that maybe I don't have full buy-in and say, but it is there and I'm going to lean on it." I mean, the funny thing is the Wealth Management Business at Morgan Stanley is referred to as the ballast and the institutional part of the firm is referred to as the engine room. This idea of a ballast of something that is just steady-eddie and is there, I think that brings a lot of comfort to say, "I know it's there. I know it's real and people are going to believe in it as long as I don't waiver and I don't show maybe that I have fears or concerns."

                                                                                You can have those and you can talk about to your trusted advisors and your friends on the side and say, is this working, have those doubts and those questions. But there is a keep the faith element to it and you keep chugging along. And I've named a new head of my former group strategic client management. Is that a catalyst to say, "Hey, we've had the same mission statement for a while. What is Dawn's new vision for this group and how do I let her articulate that? What is therefore my vision for my new group and how is it evolved and unique to me versus the person who had that role previously? And what are the things that I heard as I took this new opportunity that I need to be careful about?" In other words, what are people that had this role before me, where did they maybe misstep?

                                Maybe they weren't thinking about the bigger firm in a cohesive and coherent way in how to incorporate private wealth advisors into that broad firm value proposition. And so being really thoughtful around clues, frankly, in your personal and professional life that suggests, okay, the vision is really strong but it needs to either be tweaked or it needs to be significantly revamped because all of these different things have changed. And I think if you don't do that, then you're not being true to the fact that we are in a very quickly changing world with lots of different stakeholders. So it's a great question, Stacie.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           26:24                     I love it. Liz, thank you so much. You are a tremendous partner and a tremendous inspiration. I'm so grateful for your time.

Liz Dennis:                          26:35                     Well, Stacie, I think you have a new career in podcasting. You did great, and thank you so much for having me.

Stacie Hoffmeis...:           26:43                     That was Liz Dennis, head of Private Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley. Thanks so much for joining us on this episode. Come back next time when we discuss the power of influence. Ileana Musa, Morgan Stanley's Co-Head of International Wealth Management and Head of International Banking and Lending will be our guest. Come In, Let's Talk is produced by Sarah Hartung, Executive Director at Morgan Stanley, along with the team at FreeTime Media. Music is by John Palmer. I'm your host, Stacie Hoffmeister.

Liz Dennis, Head of Private Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley, has a big job—and to do it, she uses vision. She’s a master at articulating and guiding her teams towards bold and ambitious goals. But being seen as visionary can be a thorny issue for women. Liz discusses why getting caught up in the small things can hold us back—and why we should think bigger.

Liz Dennis, Managing Director and Head of Private Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley, talks to our host, Stacie Hoffmeister, about how vision is a clear picture, beyond words on paper. Liz shares her thoughts on why it’s important to “do less” in order to succeed, and how to fight sometimes-biased perceptions of how you should work. Liz and Stacie discuss the difference between creating strategy and delivering strategy, and how bold and ambitious goals only matter if you can create – and communicate - a path to get there. Liz also gives us insights into how she sees driving strategy as a muscle: while some have an innately strong muscle, there are definitive steps anyone can take to strengthen it.

As Head of Private Wealth Management, Liz Dennis oversees a portfolio of specialty businesses focusing on ultra high net worth individuals, families and their foundations. She oversees International Wealth Management (serving clients who live outside of the United States), Global Sports and Entertainment and the Client and Field Engagement Group. Another service, Family Office Resources, addresses the complexities of managing significant wealth.

Stacie Hoffmeister, our host, is Managing Director, Head of Home Office Talent and Diversity for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management.