Achieving Life Balance in Your Financial Career

a interview with Denise Palmieri

All too often, professionals get caught up with the demands of a high-paying financial jobs and gradually lose track of the other important aspects of their lives. Or wake up one morning feeling like they have become a slave to their profession, yet not really having any viable alternatives.

We recently spoke with Denise Palmieri, Director of Client Relations at the Pinnacle Group, a national recruitment agency for the alternative investment industry, for her unique perspective on what financial professionals can do to avoid such a predicament.

Her “Aha” Moment

Palmieri was a lawyer for more than a dozen years, building a dynamic, specialized boutique law firm in the Washington, DC area with 55 lawyers and a thriving practice. Then one day things changed.

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“I was at a workshop where everyone in the room had to introduce themselves, but you couldn’t use a traditional moniker. So, I couldn’t say, hi, I’m Denise, I’m a lawyer. Or I couldn’t say, hi, I’m Denise, I’m a mother or a wife. I had to make it about what I stood for or what my passions were. And I suddenly realized, oh my gosh, that’s all there is.”

“We, as a culture, often define ourselves by our work, by what we do. But that’s only one small part of who we are.”

Five Years on the Road

It was a watershed moment for Palmieri, who shortly afterward, sold her interest in the firm, bought a motor home and took off for five years of criss-crossing America, in search of her true passion.

“During those five years, one of the things that I did was, once a month, I would go to a pancake breakfast or something like that to meet local people. And to whoever had the most interesting job, I would say, ‘Hey, why don’t I just come to work for you for a week? You don’t have to pay me. I just want to see what it’s like to do what you do.’ It was an opportunity to open my eyes to all of the other things that were out there. Because, obviously, all I’d ever been was a lawyer.”

Palmieri worked on a dairy farm and a lobster boat, in a paint factory, and dozens of other places. Finally, she realized what she loved most was both her ability to sell, and the opportunity to change peoples’ lives. She joined the Pinnacle Group in 2001, a position that enables her to do both.

How to Think Creatively About the Next Stage of Your Career

“At Pinnacle Group, I travel about 40 weeks a year. I’m in a different city almost every week and meeting candidates and clients and helping people think creatively about the next stage of their career or how they can add good people to their business, to develop their businesses.”

“There are some great folk who have been in the venture capital industry, for example, and have decided to go out and do something quite different with their lives. There’s a gal I know named Catherine. She was at Summit Partners for a number of years and then went on to American Securities.”

“After several years, she said, ‘Is that all there is? Yes, I’m making a big pile of money and doing a bigger deal and another bigger deal and another bigger deal after that. But if I were to drop dead today, is that it?’”

Her friend left the firm and started something called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. It’s a non-profit organization that’s designed to teach inmates how to be legitimate business leaders. And over the course of the last five years, her friend has brought in other venture capitalists to help fund the program and to be mentors to prisoners upon their release.

“This has resulted in a very low recidivist rate,” Palmieri said. “They have less than 10 percent of prisoners returning to prison after release, which is really phenomenal given the prison population.”

“So here is someone with this amazing talent as a venture capitalist or as a private equity person. And she said, ‘I think there are other things I can do with my life.’”

Passion Play

People need to be thinking creatively about what else they can do. What are your entrepreneurial skills? Or if you’re not entrepreneurial, what are the things you are passionate about?

“There are lots of stories of people who do things just like that. There’s a great story about a guy who had been in private equity and he lost his job. And he created something called Blank Boards. They’re snowboards that don’t have any logos on them. He started selling them directly through his website, so he doesn’t have any middlemen or retailers. And every time he sells a snowboard, he contributes a bit of money to offset the carbon costs.”

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He thought creatively about his options. He combined his passion and skills to develop a new venture and make a difference at the same time.

One of the challenges for people when they’re at this place in their life is to start thinking creatively about what they are passionate about. “What do you love? If money was not the object, what would you do with your day?”

A GPS System for Your Life

The financial industry is notorious for long hours and work-life pressures. But do financial professionals have to leave the industry and do something completely different to achieve balance?

“As a society, we’re starting to become more aware of what work-life balance means. It comes down to making the right kinds of decisions, understanding what’s most important to you. Where are your values? Where are your priorities? And then making what I call “The GPS decision,” Palmieri says.

The GPS Decision starts with knowing your destination and understanding what your values are along the way. Then, each time an opportunity or obstacle appears, you can determine whether it’s pulling you off-track from where you really want to go.

“A good example is, on Monday night, I’m speaking at the Women’s Association of Venture & Equity Inc. in Boston. But I got a phone call to speak at Harvard Business School on Wednesday. I can’t fit that into my schedule. But I was thinking, ‘It’s Harvard. If I say no, they’ll never ask me again. And wouldn’t it be great to speak at Harvard?’”

“But I can’t really fit it into my schedule. I would have to find four extra hours that don’t exist. So if I look at what’s most important to me, being stressed out and trying to cram another four hours into my already over-packed schedule, I have to say no,” Palmieri said.

“I think many of us end up making decisions that leave us out of balance, because we haven’t thought about what balance means.”

What if You Have a Lifestyle to Maintain?

It’s all well and good for a business owner like Palmieri to sell her company and run off on a 5-year sabbatical. But what about the myriad of financial professionals who have 10 to 15 or more years invested in their careers … a home, a mortgage, a lifestyle and family obligations to meet?

In that case, you may have to realign your choices, or at the very least, become more aware of the choices you’re making, says Palmieri.

“If you’ve got this big expensive lifestyle, you have to decide what’s most important. Do you really want to keep earning a million dollars a year to support your lifestyle, even if it means a job you hate? Or would you rather be in a job you love, but which means adjusting your lifestyle? Neither choice is better or worse. But you can’t stay in a job you hate to make a million dollars and hope things will magically get better.”

“In this environment, if you’re struggling to find a job at perhaps the same level you’ve been at for years, because you were let go or downsized, it could be time to think about what makes you happy. Especially if you want to stay in finance or alternative finance.”

“I have a good friend who was a managing director at one of the bulge bracket investment banks and he lost his job. And he’s been off for seven or eight months. And he said, ‘I really hated it. Being a banker is killing me. I just hate it. I have no time with my family. This time I’ve been off has been really great.’”

“So I said, why not do something that you love? I think his life revolves around scuba and golf. Why don’t you do something related to these other activities that you like?” And he goes, “Oh, I’d never be able to support my lifestyle.”

“What about downsizing your lifestyle? He and his wife spend about $80,000.00 a year on vacations. You could cut your vacation budget by half. And your kids could go to public school. You spend $16,000.00 a year in property taxes.”

“I said to him, you could find a job that pays you half of what you were getting before. Perhaps $600,000 a year instead of a million. Still a very good income.”

“And he said, ‘No, I couldn’t give up those things.’ Okay then. Let’s just be conscious of the choices and decisions we’re making. If the lifestyle you have is more important than being happy in your job, then you have to stop being unhappy about your job. Because that’s the choice you’ve made.”

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Achieving True Work and Personal Life Balance

“I’m not an anti-capitalist,” says Palmieri. “I think people should earn as much money as they want. But if you set your GPS device on making the most money possible, then you have to recognize that you will not necessarily end up at the destination of having the best relationship with your family.”

“And vice versa. If you go crazy and you just set your GPS on staying home with your kids, then you’re probably not going to make a boatload of money.”

“The question is, where between those two extremes do you set your GPS? So you know the decisions to make to stay on track for balance.”

“Balance is like a scale. Every time you put more on one side, the other side gets out of balance. How are you bringing things back into balance, consciously?”

Palmieri recalled the 1974 folk song by Harry Chapin called “Cats in the Cradle.” In the ballad, a father is repeatedly too busy to play ball or spend time with his son. When the son finally grows up, he’s too busy to spend time with his father.

“When it comes to work-life balance, there are no cellular rollover minutes,” Palmieri laughs. “You don’t get to call them in. Like Bruce Wasserstein (the investment banker who co-founded the investment boutique Wasserstein Perella & Co and later founded Wasserstein & Co., a private equity firm). He passed away recently. He was just 61 years old. Even as a billionaire, it’s not like he can say, ‘Hey wait! How could this happen to me?’ It’s going to happen to all of us.”

“I’m not an advocate for a “screw tomorrow, don’t plan your future’ philosophy. But there has to be a balance. So every time I have to make a choice in my life, I go back to my GPS of what’s most important to me. But most people just wander along.”

“We graduate from college. We get a job. We meet the person of our dreams. Get married. Have some kids. Buy a house. Save for retirement. The kids go to college. And then, for most of us, that’s about how far we have things figured out, right?”

“It’s just kind of meandering and wandering along. Then, all of a sudden, we realize, gosh: I was trying to get to Walden Pond and instead, I’m in downtown Manhattan.”

Tools to Help You Get Started

Palmieri recommends several books to get people started at thinking about creating more balance in their lives. One is The Number: What Do You Need for the Rest of Your Life and What Will It Cost? by Lee Eisenberg. The book helps people decide what’s “enough” financially.

Another is Save the World & Still Be Home for Dinner by Will Marre, which helps people rethink where they are in their life plan and focus on what really matters to them.

“Most of us, whatever work we’re doing, want to feel like we’re doing meaningful work. And finding that meaningful work and balancing it with your life is important.”

“What happens is, at some point, perhaps you’ve lost your job so now the work part of your life seems out of balance. Or your spouse is leaving you. Or there’s distress at home. Or you’ve gained 40 pounds because you never manage to get to the gym. Something causes you to recognize, uh-oh, my work-life balance is out of whack.”

How Do You Regain Balance?

“Moving from one job to another job only works if you know what went wrong in your previous job and you don’t recreate that. Why are you moving? What is going to make a difference in your life? Otherwise, you’re just exchanging the devil you know for the devil you don’t know. And you’re going to be unhappy again.”

Are you recalibrating your life?

Are you moving toward the things you are most passionate about?

“In the end, when we look at our birth certificates, we only have a stamp in, not a stamp out,” Palmieri says. “We don’t know when our ‘return date’ is. But when that day comes, to use a movie analogy from Mr. Holland’s Opus: Don’t die with the music inside of you.”

About the Pinnacle Group:

The Pinnacle Group is an executive recruiting firm focused on providing superior service to LBO and Venture Capital Firms, Investment and Merchant Banks, Mezzanine Funds and Debt Funds, Fund of Funds and Secondary Funds, Real Estate Investment Firms and Hedge Funds. The firm is headquartered in Arizona. For more details, visit their website Pinnacle Group