Emily Hollis On Leadership

The CEO of ALM First Financial Advisors talks early risks, leadership skills, and winding career journeys.

Emily Hollis wasn’t thinking about becoming a CEO when she graduated with her dual MBA and MA from Southern Methodist University. With a natural gift for math, Hollis was determined to break into the investment industry despite the fact she was making a major career jump from her life as a professional ballerina. She worked in sales for several retail investment brokers before moving into the portfolio management side of the business.

Emily Hollis, CEO, ALM First Financial Advisors

“It was difficult to get into the buy-side of investments as a woman, especially 30 years ago,” Hollis says.

Although she made less than her male peers, Hollis seized the opportunity to prove herself as an outside contractor and within two months secured a permanent position in the Treasury Department of a Fortune 500 company. When her boss left four months later, she earned a promotion and began building experience in foreign currency trading. She also started gaining insight into derivatives by managing a $500 million portfolio.

Today, Hollis is the CEO of ALM First Financial Advisors, an SEC- registered investment advisory company that she co-founded in 1995. Hollis has helped the firm grow to serve more than 250 credit unions and community banks across the country, representing more than $220 billion in assets. She frequently shares her expertise at industry conferences and events. Here, she reflects on her experiences and shares insights on being a female leader in a male-dominated field.

On taking a different path …

I was a professional ballerina prior to business school. I decided I had had enough of the art’s lifestyle, including the low pay and physical challenges. I vividly remember studying for the GMAT on the bus while on tour for the Nutcracker. Despite the lack of support from my peers, I ended up with a very high score on the entrance exam, and to my surprise Southern Methodist University sought me out. I was one of six that was offered a full scholarship, and I was the first ballerina to complete its dual master’s degree program completing both my MBA and MA simultaneously.

My MBA friends thought I was crazy to take a low-paying contractor job two years after graduating, but sometimes you just need to find a way in. I was fortunate that it gave me a foray into the markets and investment arena. I also learned a lot about perceptions, as removing my professional dance experience from my resume aided in landing my first investment industry job.

On leadership styles …

I’m empathetic and confident, which I believe are important traits in a leader. You need empathy to understand people’s needs and the confidence to move in the right direction. Beyond empathy and confidence, education is also important for leaders, as you need the ability to educate your team when strategies or ideas are off the mark.

I believe in having an open door and a strong work ethic. I believe in leading by example and modeling the type of service that I expect our clients to receive, so I make sure to be approachable and listen to my staff.

Anyone can walk into my office, and I love the energy and creativity my employees bring to the table. I always encourage my team to think outside the box a creative drive and the discussions that ensue from new ideas are what have made us prosper.

I also believe I should not make all of the decisions; instead, I should ensure the best decisions are made.

On finding inspiration …

I love to start my day with early morning fitness classes that get me moving. I draw a lot of professional inspiration from my relationships with other CEOs and from our board members, who provide great insights. I find inspiration from my three children, who are the center of my life and continue to challenge me and teach me life lessons.

I am very passionate about the arts world, especially New York City where my former roommate is a Tony award Broadway producer. I’ve invested in several of her musicals and attend opening nights regularly.

CreditUnions.com’s On Leadership series spotlights notable leaders across the credit union landscape by discovering how they joined the movement, learning what makes them tick, uncovering career lessons and successes, and seeking advice for the future of the movement. Read the whole series today.

On difficult decisions and teaching moments …

A few years ago, we were two years deep into a major tech development project to visualize some of our reports. After sinking a substantial amount of money into the project, it became apparent that although we might be able to see results, they would not be optimal or sustainable, so I pulled the project.

I learned there is a fine line between guiding a company to be prepared with a detailed business plan inclusive of timelines, budgets, and market research versus helping the company be one that is agile, responsive, and able to recognize a flawed plan and move forward.

Another turning point for me was when I stopped trying to be perfect, as I realized it makes a leader unapproachable. As I grew older and settled into my role as CEO, I realized that in order to set a cohesive culture, I need to calm tensions, inspire creativity, and act quickly. Employees need to be comfortable taking calculated risks and engaging in conversations so we can achieve our full potential and deliver what our clients need.

On advice for others …

Trust your instincts. As a leader, a lot of different things are coming your way. It’s your responsibility to understand your clients and ensure you don’t spread yourself or the organization too thin. Keep the vision, the passion, and, above all, your confidence.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

June 18, 2018

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