As Chief Operating Officer for UBS Group Americas and Wealth Management Americas, Kathleen Lynch is a dedicated team leader and motivator. Having achieved a role both professionally and personally rewarding, she enjoys paying it forward, acknowledging the support and encouragement she received from her own family and colleagues along the way.
“I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I have my Irish work ethic,” laughs the woman with the M.B.A. from NYU as she sits behind her desk at the UBS headquarters in Manhattan. This is Kathleen Lynch’s sense of humor – wry, honest, and humble.
“My parents raised us to make sure that we had every opportunity in front of us. And they felt that education was the foundation. My mom would say, ‘I’ll make your bed, you study!’ There was a work ethic that was instilled in us early on, and I would say that has carried me forward.”
As a young college graduate in the late 1980s, with a degree in business from Bucknell University, Kathleen Lynch took the road less traveled, and went where not many women had ventured before – Wall Street.
Today, she is one of the most successful executives in the financial industry, having spent her whole career with two big-name investment banks, currently at UBS where she is COO for UBS Group Americas and Wealth Management Americas, and is a member of the Americas and WMA Executive Committee.
But it was at Merrill Lynch, then the leading financial firm on Wall Street, where Kathleen first found a home and a culture that she continues to emulate. “It was my first job; I worked there for 23 years. I grew up there. And in terms of the people, the camaraderie, the partnership, Merrill Lynch was a really special place,” she reflects when we met at the Midtown UBS offices in mid-summer. “It had principles. Responsible citizenship, teamwork, respect for the individual. That’s how I was raised,” she says.
When the Irish America team and I arrived early for our meeting, she was already in conversation with our photographer Kit DeFever – engaged and interested. As I watched her, arms folded across her chest, listening, I intuited past generations – her grandmother and aunts gathered around the hearth fire back in the cottage in Co. Donegal where her mother was born.
“She’s a really beautiful woman,” Kit said later. He, who has had a career photographing top fashion models, was struck by Lynch’s naturalness and her down-to-earth manner as much as her stunning, at times even ethereal, looks – we all were.
She is not a tall woman but appears taller because she holds herself well – the straight back and good posture a throwback to her years as a cheerleader. In fact, she looks as if she might, if requested, still do a decent double jump. “I started cheerleading in 3rd grade and did it all through high school,” she says.
She assumed leadership roles early in life. “I was the first female to be elected president of our student council when I was in 8th grade at our middle school. I was also on the debate team. A wallflower I was not. I liked people and I was outgoing. I think actually over time I’ve probably dialed back a bit, but I always enjoyed being in the middle of things. I’m glad that I’m part of a big family.”
Lynch grew up in Florham Park, New Jersey, the fourth child in a family of five – four sisters and one brother. Her mother Norah was born in Burtenport, a small fishing village in County Donegal, but left Ireland when she was 18 to join her sister Mamie in New Jersey.
Mamie worked for the Catholic Church and Norah got a job there too. Soon afterward she met Frank Lynch, who came from an Irish family in Newark. The son of a milkman, he put himself through Seton Hall and became a lawyer. The couple met in Newark’s McGovern’s Bar and married when Norah was 21.
“My mother came off the boat, she didn’t go to college,” Lynch says. “Her commitment was to raise a family. In our household, it was all about education. My parents always said, ‘You get into the best college you can get into and we’ll take care of the rest. Just work really hard.’
“My mother was lovely. People would talk to her and tell her everything. I used to say that she worked undercover because while ingratiating herself, she had a high radar for baloney and could kill you with a look if you were doing something you shouldn’t be doing or if you didn’t measure up.”
When I venture to suggest that Lynch herself has that ability as well, she smiles knowingly. “My husband says the same thing about our daughter Áine. She will give you a look that will just knock you down. He calls her Apple, as in the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
Looking back, Kathleen says she doesn’t know how her parents did it all. “I know my mother could stretch a buck better than anyone. She would take that station wagon to the garage sales, and it had all the college stickers – Dartmouth, Bucknell, Stephen’s Institute – on the back.”
Paying tuition for Ivy League schools was the least of it.
“I remember going through my father’s papers after he died and seeing his tax returns. I marveled at how they did it, and even managed to have a second home at the beach.”
Sadly, Kathleen lost both her parents in 2000, but she’ll always be grateful for their encouragement. “My father used to critique my writing and tear my essays apart, which is kind of funny because one of my early jobs was as a speechwriter.”
It was also her father who decided that his outgoing daughter had the stamina for Wall Street.
“I remember I was studying for the LSAT, and he said ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Well I thought I would be a lawyer.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t be a lawyer. You want to go into business!’ So I went to Bucknell University and got my degree in business, and I interviewed with Merrill Lynch, and you know, I haven’t looked back.
“I like the pace of this industry, I like that one of the roles of a COO is you’ve got your hands in everything. I like the multi-dimensional, multi-tasking range of what I do. And surprisingly I didn’t think I would’ve liked it, but when I took on a leadership role, I found that I really like managing people. It takes a lot of time but you can really make a difference in other people’s lives, and you can actually identify talent and push them to new levels that they never thought they could reach. And nothing’s more rewarding than when someone comes back to you and says, ‘I didn’t think I could do it but you pushed me, you supported me, you never let me fail.’”
And just as she sees her job as COO as that of a team motivator, she is also a cheerleader for her colleagues on Wall Street whose contributions she says are not always recognized by the media.
“There’s a lot of good that comes from this industry. Yes, we’ve had some challenges; we need to earn our way back. And there are a lot of quality people in our industry who are earning their way back every day,” she emphasizes.
“As clinical as the financial services industry is perceived, the reality is we’re made up of people who care about each other, who have homes, have families, have responsibilities to take care of – but sometimes tough decisions have to be made, and that’s hard. But there’s an energy! There’s a real sense of having a responsibility to give back to the community, a unifying commitment; there’s an allegiance. I like the film Gladiator, when Russell Crowe says, ‘Everybody go in a circle and come together, we’re stronger.’ I say that to my team all the time, ‘We’ve got to do a Gladiator!’”
One of the more difficult of these moments for Kathleen was during the 2008 financial crisis when Merrill Lynch was felled by subprime mortgage lending and taken over by Bank of America.
She had risen from tax analyst to COO, and now the company she had committed herself to was no more. “I’ll never read a newspaper again in terms of the merger of two companies and not really appreciate how challenging that is for the employees or even the managers,” she says. “And it was a completely different culture [after Bank of America took over]. We went from 60,000 people to 300,000 people.
“It was a really difficult time,” she recalls.
One of the hardest things for Kathleen was that many of her long-time colleagues had left Merrill to go to other organizations or semi-retire as she stayed behind. “I felt a commitment to my team, in terms of making sure they got through the merger, and I felt a responsibility to stay within the organization to make sure they were all right,” she says.
One of those who moved on after a lifetime career at Merrill was Bob McCann, her former boss, and mentor, who arrived at UBS in 2009 as CEO of Wealth Management Americas.
When he called and asked Kathleen to come and work for him at UBS, she says it was “a no-brainer.”
“Literally, it was a three-minute conversation,” she explains. “I had gotten my team at Merrill through a good four years after the acquisition, and I was excited to come join him in UBS and work with former colleagues such as Rosemary Berkery, Brian Hull, and our Group CEO Sergio Ermotti.”
The relationship between the COO and CEO is an all-important one. And in the case of Lynch and McCann, it is one built upon trust – over two decades.
The two first met in 1992 at Merrill Lynch, and as she says herself, that first conversation could have been a career killer.
“I was working on another project and someone said, ‘You know there’s a guy who’s looking for a business manager, you might want to interview with him.’ So I remember walking into Bob’s office, and he looked up and said, ‘So, Kathy’ – down in the trading area, everyone was like Tommy, or Billy, or Joey – and I said, ‘Excuse me, it’s Kathleen.’ And it was one of those moments; he looked over his eyeglasses like, ‘you’re kidding me, right?’ And I’m like, ‘But you know what? That’s my name! It’s Kathleen!’”
Suffice it to say, Kathleen got the job, and the self-assurance that she exhibited as a young employee stood her well as she took on different roles working for McCann. As he moved up the ladder, Kathleen did too, absorbing all that he could teach her.
“There were so many occasions where I’d be with Bob in his office doing work and he’d have a conversation or a phone call or a meeting and he would always include me in on all of that. Looking back now, I had no idea at the time what a priceless training ground it was; just to be able to watch somebody like Bob at work; how he handled business situations, how he handled relationships, how he handled a problem,” she recalls.
She is clearly happy with the move she made to UBS in June 2012, and though her title sounds daunting, she finds her job “personally and professionally rewarding.” Asked to break down the role of COO, Kathleen explains: “You have responsibility for the front-to-back control of the entire business – everything that takes place – operations, technology, human resources, and for the overall strategy and relationship with UBS regulators.”
In other words, “basically having oversight and making sure all the dots are connected, being a valuable contributor to the executive committees, and supporting the entire organization.”
One might expect to find someone with Kathleen’s responsibility to be a mite frazzled, but in person, she displays an outward calm. It comes from a deep trust in her team to exhibit her same loyalty, work ethic, and community mentality, which she asks from all of her employees.
“I like it when it is not all about them, it’s more about the team. And you can tell that very easily in terms of the number of ‘I’s’ in a conversation. ‘I did this, I did that.’ I don’t even like that on a sports field when I watch my children play lacrosse. I’d rather have my child get an assist than get the goal because it takes a team.
“It really just comes down to basic stuff. In addition to work ethic, loyalty’s a big deal for me. Integrity is a big deal for me as well, especially when you get into a role where there are a lot of people counting on you. If there’s a break in the integrity fabric, the damage can be broad.
“And that’s not fair to the team that you’re working with or the people who are counting on you to deliver. So integrity, loyalty, and commitment are what I’m looking for.”
Commitment and loyalty – are the very traits that Bob McCann values in his COO. “Kathleen is committed to being the best wife, mother, friend, and colleague she can be. She is very loyal to the people and organizations that have shaped her as a person,” he says.
Prior to assuming the role of Chief Operating Officer in March 2013, Kathleen’s job was working with senior management on a number of key initiatives including the strengthening of UBS’s regulatory and operating framework.
“I would say the regulatory environment has changed our industry, especially on the heels of the financial crisis,” she says. “Making sure that everything passes the standards of the regulators is very important. Sometimes it’s made the work not as much fun, so we have to figure out how to work it into the fabric of how we operate, versus that’s all we focus on. I like to say that you just can’t leave it to audit or to the control functions; everybody needs to have a risk management mindset.”
UBS has one of the most diverse workforces of any financial institution, and women are an important part of that equation. “I feel it’s very promising to actually have more women come into the organization. If you look at Bob’s executive committee, he has three females, and he recently hired a CEO in Brazil who is female,” she says.
That said, Kathleen does believe it’s important to “de-gender” the conversation. “Being a woman in this industry you just need to continue to know your details, know your facts, contribute, and provide value. And then that whole female-male conversation gets taken out of the equation and it becomes more about contribution.
“Men and women think differently, so to have a very effective team you need to have both. And again, that’s why people shouldn’t be thinking, ‘Oh, there’s not a lot of women in the financial services industry.’ You should think about, what’s the opportunity. And then figure out a way to make it work.”
“I think firms are really trying to figure out, how do we either keep women or bring women back,” Kathleen says.
“What I’ve often said to women is that you need to define what’s important to you. And if you want to stay in the business, you should come up with a proposal that will work for both the firm and you. You need to take stock of what your priorities are. And I do have certain goalposts in terms of what’s important.
“You make very deliberate decisions and trade-offs. Because the reality is, you have a job and you have a commitment to the firm.”
But even given the opportunity, it can be difficult to balance work and family. According to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, “43% of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for a period of time.”
It was pretty much an all-male industry when Kathleen started her career and she thinks Sandberg’s book paints an unfair image of men in business. “My experience has been completely opposite. The men in this industry have been nothing but supportive of me. When I was going to school at night for my master’s at NYU, they [her male supervisors] would let me leave at five. I’d come back afterward. They’d put more on my plate because they knew I could do it, but they always supported me. So the early chapters of that book I didn’t agree with.”
But there are some areas with which she’s in agreement. “I absolutely agree with Sandberg’s point that the most important thing is to make sure that you have a good support system. And like I always say, I married the right guy.”
For the early years of their marriage, her husband Tim Maseker was in sales and traveled about 70 percent of the time. “It put a lot of stress on me, working all day and then having to take care of the kids at night,” Kathleen explains.
“One morning, the alarm clock went off and Tim was supposed to go to London. And I said, ‘That’s it. I can’t have you traveling all the time.’ I was pregnant with Declan, our third child, and I said, ‘Why are we raising a family like this? You’re always away, I’m working crazy hours, this has got to stop. Don’t go to London.’
“He went on the trip, much to my chagrin,” she laughs. “I don’t always win!”
“But we sat and talked and I reminded him that he had always wanted to teach. He said, ‘but I don’t want to do that until I’m 55, 60 – you know, later.’ I said, ‘But why don’t you do it now? You’d be home more for the kids. You wouldn’t be traveling. You’re going to miss them growing up!’
“So he actually got a job at our local high school right there in Madison and he teaches business. He’s been doing it now for 10 years. It’s great and because we love the beach we have a place on the Jersey Shore. So now he spends the whole summer at the beach with our kids. I would actually say he’s probably the best friend and the best toy my kids have. And I would tell you, if I were my children I would want him home more than me, because he’s a lot more fun than I am,” she laughs.
Which is not to say that the children are not a team effort. “There are times when he’s got a commitment at school and I have to adjust my calendar. So I always look two weeks and six months forward and we look at our calendars and say, ‘Okay, who needs to be where?’ All three kids are involved in lacrosse travel teams. One has got to be in Baltimore and the other one’s got to be in Richmond, Virginia. If I have to take Friday off, I take Friday off. But I get the work done. You just have to be mature about how you handle it. And you have to set your priorities. And I do have certain guideposts and I’m not going to sacrifice on my children. One of my strengths is I’m very organized.”
Kathleen’s parents were a team, and family and community were the center of their lives. “I like to think my husband and I do the exact same thing in terms of how we manage. He’s terrific. And it goes back to what our core principles are, and it’s about family.”
They met on the train commuting into the city when they were just out of college. “I remember seeing him on the platform, I’m like, huh! So two weeks went by, and there was one time when the train pulls in and everybody’s getting out of the seats, and he let me go in front of him. And I said, okay he’s a gentleman! So we got off the train and I turned around and said, ‘Hi, my name’s Kathleen, what’s yours?’ And he said Tim. And then I said to him, ‘I noticed you work at Merrill Lynch.’ And he’s like ‘yeah, I do.’ And I said, ‘well, so do I.’ So this was in 1987, Fatal Attraction was the big movie at the time [laughter], so I think he was thinking, ‘God! I’ve a funny bunny here!’”
The two became good friends for a year. “Then he was my best friend. Then we started dating, and we got married in 1993. So you never know! To those young people who wear their earphones, I say unplug! Unplug yourself because you never know who you might meet.”
Tim is also Irish on his mother’s side, and he and Kathleen love to golf together (something she’s planning to do lots of in retirement). Before they had children they spent time in Ireland, golfing at clubs all over the island, and meeting up with her parents for a week at the end of the trip. All of their children have Irish names: Aidan, 15, Áine, 12, and Declan, 11. Her face lights up when she talks about them. Kathleen is glad that her parents got to see her son Aidan. They had married in St. Aidan’s church, she learned after she and Tim had picked the name for their firstborn. And she sees their untimely passing in 2000 as a lesson to pay attention. She doesn’t want to hurry one minute of her children’s growing up.
“My commitment to the firm is extremely important, but my family is my ultimate guidepost,” she says, though she acknowledges that means she can’t always be at every event. In the evening of the day we spoke her daughter had a concert.
“I changed my schedule,” she says beaming. “I will be at that concert tonight. Last night I didn’t see them before they went to bed. But that’s okay!”
Lynch obviously takes great pride in her balancing act, which she also maintains between her work and charitable endeavors.
Through Bob McCann, Kathleen became acquainted with the American Ireland Fund (AIF) and she was involved in fundraising to bring “Sesame Street” to Northern Ireland (The show added two new muppets, a Catholic and a Protestant muppet, to promote understanding through the muppets to the kids.) She was also involved in raising seed money for a program that helps Irish children with speech impediments.
For Kathleen, fundraising for the AIF was again a no-brainer. “It’s kind of appreciating where you’ve come from. I always did, based on the upbringing with my parents, so when I’m introduced to organizations like the AIF, I am happy to support them. I am proud of being Irish,” she adds.
Lynch is also quick to point out the culture of giving back to the community that is embedded in the financial industry at large, even if it often goes unrecognized.
“Here at UBS we’re constantly looking at how you can make a difference. We are very focused on education and entrepreneurship, so a lot of our charitable contributions are anchored around those two key cornerstones.
“We’re fortunate to have fruitful careers that are rewarding professionally and financially, but I think [the financial sector] is one of the most giving industries,” she adds.
“And it’s not just after 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy. There’s always been an outreach of people within this industry to give back. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that someone here isn’t fundraising for a good cause. They bring that passion and commitment to all they do.”
In a word? Wall Street is “cool.”
“If anybody told me that I could have a job like this when I was going through school, I would have said, ‘No way, like, that’s just too cool for me.’ But now as COO, I get to oversee so much and really help make connections across the firm for efficiencies, productivity, for developing talent, promoting talent. It’s a really cool job. It’s really, really cool.”