How to make it to the top as a woman at BlackRock
Sarah Melvin has worked at BlackRock for more than a decade. As an English literature major, she never planned to work in financial services, much less asset management, but she worked her way up to managing director of strategy and business development, then COO of the EMEA retail business, progressing on to chief of staff and now head of the North American institutional business at BlackRock.
Tell us about your current role, and how your career led up to this point.
Since joining BlackRock in 2006, I’ve been lucky to hold a wide variety of roles around the firm – including my most recent post, chief of staff to our chairman and CEO, Larry Fink, which I held from September 2015 up until last month.
My day-to-day work is invigorating because it encompasses such a broad variety of things. On any given day, I could be meeting a policy-maker or a world leader with our CEO; I could be meeting with a client or deeply entrenched in an internal project; I could be collaborating with my colleagues in communications or investment governance.
My role has given me a unique view of the world and of the needs of our clients globally – how global we have to be, yet the importance of being relevant locally. For example, it’s eye-opening to visit China and meet with our teams in Beijing and Shanghai, and also with the Chinese officials. It’s profound to understand what it means to be BlackRock in China.
I’m excited about my future here. Earlier this year, I was appointed the head of BlackRock’s institutional client business for the U.S. and Canada. I officially assumed this post in March.
As I get settled into this new position, I reflect on the other roles I’ve held here. I’ve led BlackRock’s Global Strategic Partner Program, a group responsible for constructing holistic, differentiated and multi-dimensional strategies and experiences for our clients. From this I have a direct view into some of the challenges our clients are facing – and how our broad range of capabilities – active investing, passive investing or our Aladdin technology, for example – enable us to engage with our clients and help them to solve these challenges.
As for other roles, I sit on our Global Operating Committee and Americas Executive Committee. I’ve been fortunate to serve on a number of other bodies within BlackRock, including the Global Human Capital Committee, which is a group of senior leaders overseeing the firm’s talent management, workforce planning, recruitment, training, appraisal and succession-planning programs.
Did you work in asset management prior to that, or did you work in a different industry?
I don’t have a traditional career path at all, and I never envisioned myself working in asset management. I majored in English Literature at the University of London and my first job was at the Prince’s Trust, a youth charity where I worked on commercializing the brand for fund-raising purposes.
After that, I joined an insurance company, doing similar affinity brand commercialization. That’s how I entered financial services.
I switched into a corporate strategy role a couple of years later and this paved my way into asset management.
What were some of your most important career turning points?
I would cite two critical pivot points in my career. The first was when I participated in the inaugural cohort of BlackRock’s Women’s Leadership Forum (WLF). I had been in strategy for a while, and realized I was getting comfortable – and it was time for a new challenge. As part of the WLF, I received a sponsor from our Global Executive Committee – and this sponsorship and coaching made me think much more strategically about my career. It was the catalyst that led to me taking on the role of the chief operating officer in our EMEA retail business.
The second critical turning point was definitely when I moved to the U.S. and started working for Larry Fink, our CEO and chairman. This experience has shaped my career in incredible ways.
What are some challenges or hurdles that you have faced moving up the ranks?
At BlackRock, each role I’ve had has been progressively more challenging. With each role, there’s a new stretch and new learning to be done. You start your career trying to get really good at one thing – then you realize you have to move from being a specialist to harnessing the collective power of the people around you. But that’s not a barrier – that’s a challenge and an opportunity.
I can genuinely say that my roles have got bigger and more challenging here. But have I ever felt there was a hurdle to my progression? Never. I truly believe that if you’re willing to work hard, there are no barriers to success here. I feel if I can do it, anyone can.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
You don’t know what you’re capable of. So take every opportunity in front of you and throw yourself into it. If you’re not a little bit scared, you’re not trying hard enough! Be curious and have fun. I believe satisfaction really matters.
What do you look for in the people you hire?
I try to seek out candidates who embrace the mindset of a student. We urge our people to be constantly studious and always inquisitive. We value a candidate’s voracious appetite to learn.
We also understand the importance of removing bias from the interview process. In recruiting for our Aladdin Product Group, for example, we’ve introduced a blind coding challenge. There’s no bias in this – you don’t know whether the submission is from a man or a woman, what school they went to, where they grew up or what ethnicity they are. This enables us to judge candidates based solely on the raw talent we see in each piece of work.
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Photo courtesy of BlackRock