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From Junior Analyst To CEO: How Sonya Mughal Led A Dynamic, 27-Year Career With A Single Employer

Sonya Mughal is the first female CEO of Bailard, a San Francisco-based wealth and investment management firm that manages nearly five billion dollars. While women only hold 20% of leadership roles in the financial services industry, Bailard is 40% women.

Sonya’s career stands out because she dedicated her entire 27 year career to Bailard, starting as a junior analyst in 1994, and later serving in multiple C-level positions (including chief operating officer, chief risk officer, and chief investment officer) before being appointed CEO. In contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found, on average, women stay with their current employer for 3.9 years. For those of you who are debating whether to stay or leave your current employer, Sonya provides some insight on that calculus.

This article is one of a series of Nancy Wang’s conversations with female leaders. Previous entries include:

Nancy Wang: As you progressed in your career from junior analyst to CEO, did you have any doubts about wanting the level of responsibility of a CEO? And if so, how did you manage these doubts?

Sonya Mughal: I am incredibly humbled and honored to have been given this opportunity to lead our company forward. I grew up on the investment side of the house but then I had opportunities to expand my knowledge. I became chief investment officer in 2008, and navigated the Great Financial Crisis, along with my colleagues. I expanded my career after that by becoming chief operating officer in 2013, where I started to understand not only more about the industry, but about the business. I’m also daunted by the challenges that lie ahead. Bailard is a very open and collegial set of folks who have worked together for a long time. I’m surrounded by incredibly credentialed folks in my senior management team and at the company. So while I have been named CEO and I am responsible for taking the company forward, I am not doing it alone. That is how I have overcome any doubt; I know I have a team with a lot of talent and experience to lean on.

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Wang: What do you think are the three most valuable experiences for climbing the corporate ladder?

Mughal: Before I answer, I want to say the phrase “climbing the corporate ladder” doesn’t quite apply to our company, because the team is very accessible. That being said, I’ve learned valuable lessons along my way. That said, I want to share three lessons from my career.

The first lesson is to understand the big picture, because it really helps you connect the dots. Do more than just the task or the job in front of you as it pertains to the overall company goals. And never be afraid to say, “I don’t understand.”

The second lesson is to learn by doing. Give every single job everything you have. Be passionate! Throw yourself into it. Take ownership and pride in your work product no matter what it is. You will understand a lot more that way. 

Finally, learn from those around you. Like I said, we’re a very diverse company. We’ve got all age groups, all levels of experience, and several areas of expertise on both the wealth management and the investment management side. There is a lot to learn. There are diverse ways of thinking, approaching problems, and managing portfolios. Knowing this has helped me get better. 

Wang: Absolutely. That’s great advice for anyone looking to accelerate their own career. I’m sure during your 27 year career at Bailard, you’ve received calls from recruiters trying to entice you with large offers to join other companies. Would you take me through how you made the decision to remain despite other potentially lucrative opportunities? 

Mughal: I love that question. It’s an easy one for me to answer. I feel incredibly lucky. I found the company in 1994. I had just graduated with an undergraduate degree in math from a small liberal arts college in Virginia and I essentially needed a job. But I ended up at a company that is very values based. We value accountability, compassion, courage, fairness, excellence and independence. That has carried us through where we are. 

I had the opportunity to work directly with founder Tom Bailard and I worked side by side with my predecessor, Peter Hill. I’ve been able to do many different things at the company. So while I’ve spent the entirety of my career at one firm, my career has been very dynamic. So the ability for me to be at the table, be able to lead the company and be able to sleep at night is a given because we at Bailard are so values based and values driven. I know there are a lot of great companies out there. I found mine 27 years ago and I have never, ever thought of leaving. 

Wang: I know you are a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA). Women represent 57% percent of college graduates, 40% of all Certified Public Accountants (CPA), but only 18% of CFAs. What do you think is the difference between CPA holders and CFA holders? As a prominent member of the CFA community, what do you think can be done to increase the representation of women in your field? 

Mughal: Our industry has an incredibly long way to go on this. Women and minorities in general are incredibly underrepresented. Investment management is still a very male-dominated field. I think it all begins with education, frankly. I want to expand knowledge of what it means to be financially literate. The CFA Institute and the Investment Advisors Association, among others, have done a lot to already broaden the reach of the field. I think each of us has a job to do, but I think it starts very early. I hope that we can spread the awareness of this career because it is an incredibly fulfilling role and job once you know about it. 

Wang: Speaking of financial literacy, what is your advice about how and when people should speak with a wealth advisor and how people can pick the right one? 

Mughal: That’s a great question. I’m clearly biased. I think everybody can benefit from having a very clear financial roadmap. And individuals and families generally will consider engaging with advisors when they start to accumulate assets or when their needs become a bit complex. The beauty of how investment advisors or financial advisors typically work is every relationship begins with a financial plan, and there is nothing more personalized and customized than a financial plan. Your financial plan analyzes your life situation and starts to map to your next destination, whether it is paying for your children’s education, buying your first home, preparing for retirement, caring for aging parents, or setting aside money for charitable contributions. All of that gets put into a financial roadmap and then you start on your journey. 

How you should choose an investment advisor or a wealth adviser comes down to trust and fit. Lots of information is publicly available; most advisors maintain websites. Their firm’s reputation is incredibly important. Learn about which firm you are going to work with, your advisor’s tenure, and their clients’ longevity. These are the pillars that firms are built on. This will hopefully be a relationship that lasts for decades and can continue into the generations. Give a lot of thought on who you pick.

Wang: That’s great advice. In closing, is there anything else you’d like to share? 

Mughal: Obviously, I love what I do. And I love where I do it. I would encourage anyone to join an employer that you’re passionate about, with values that align with yours. Value alignment is the key to the recipe for long term career success. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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