What it takes to become a leader

November 8, 2021 Walter W. Bettinger II
Advice to the next generation of talent on how to develop and advance in their careers.

Every quarter, I hold a meeting in which I answer questions submitted by Schwabbies from all around the country. 

The quality of the questions often makes me appreciate the curiosity of our people and prompts me to really think about our business or my own career, including this question from a former Schwab intern who has joined us full-time: “I just wanted to know how can I become an executive one day? I’m a first-generation graduate. I have huge goals, and I want to make a difference. I want a seat at the table, but I know that takes time.” 

This is such an important topic for me: how to help our talented Schwabbies develop and advance in their careers, and while I could have spent the whole hour on this question, here’s what I shared.

You need to start with three essential ingredients: education, awareness, and ambition.

  • Education: I don’t equate this with attending the most prestigious or expensive university in the country. It’s more important that, wherever you are, you study, learn, listen and take advantage of what is available to you.  

  • Awareness: This is about articulating and owning your goals. Be aware of the goals you’re striving for, and make sure you only take actions that keep advancing you in that direction. 

  • Ambition: No one ever accomplished anything without the ambition to try, and the willingness to try also means that you’ve got to have a willingness to fail at times. It’s not about being a failure, but rather experiencing degrees of failure. I certainly have had plenty of experience at that. And you’ve got to own the outcome. You can’t blame a third party. You can’t look for a scapegoat. You don’t want to be a victim. You want to own your decisions, words, and actions. 

So, how do you put those elements of yourself into practice as an emerging leader?

  • Be a positive influence for everyone around you. I’ve said many times: no one ever chose to follow a negative person. When my wife and my children were young, we used to play a game at the dinner table where each one of us had to describe at least one example that day where we filled another person’s “bucket”—meaning when did we use our words or actions to help make someone else feel better about themselves. When we meet the needs of others, we build our own self-esteem and self-confidence, which is critical if you want to be a leader.  My wife and I would always say that when we are filling other people’s buckets, it’s actually the best way to also fill our own. 
  • Don’t be the source of negativity, or what I sometimes call a “crisis creator.” Remember that if you are ever criticizing another person and your audience is nodding their head, don’t think they’re nodding their head because they agree with you. Maybe they’re just nodding their head because they’ve learned that the more they nod their head, the faster they can get away from your negativity. 

  • When it comes to work, ask your manager to give you the toughest assignments. Take them on and do the best you can. Struggling to achieve something that’s difficult is going to teach you a lot more than taking easy assignments that anyone can do. When I am evaluating a candidate, there is nothing more frustrating than when I hear them say that they’re managing their career. To me, "managing their career" sounds like taking easy tasks that they think they can do well, rather than taking on tough assignments that they may fail at. Taking on tough assignments means getting in the arena and really trying.

  • Be respectful and treat everyone with honor. We live in a polarized world, and you can differentiate yourself simply by being a person who doesn’t judge or accuse others. Be someone who doesn’t only think that your personal views are the right ones and that people who see things differently are wrong or, worse, evil. Being balanced builds your credibility and demonstrates that you’re an even-keeled person. Again, no one chooses to follow a negative person.

In my experience, the more you can try to exhibit these types of behaviors, you’ll find yourself in a position where others want to push you up that ladder towards more impactful roles, helping to reach the senior executive ranks.