Q&A with Kimberly Owens of TIAA

Kimberly Owens is a Senior Director and Associate General Counsel at TIAA focusing on asset management law, corporate integration, and subsidiary governance. Prior to joining TIAA in 2004, she worked in private practice and previously served as a law clerk in the Western District of North Carolina to Chief Bankruptcy Judge George R. Hodges.

I recently was able to chat with Kimberly about her move from private practice to TIAA, her experience at TIAA and how she balances work and home life. This interview has been condensed from its original form.

Q: Have you enjoyed the move in-house?

I have enjoyed the change immensely. I can’t honestly say that I would have enjoyed the change were I not completely smitten with the work that we do at TIAA. To go in house is to have one client for the rest of your career, and you have to believe in the work that client does. The reason I am still here is because I believe in our mission. Everybody in my family is either in the teaching field or in the medical field and I feel that when I represent TIAA I am safeguarding their retirement – that is a powerful motivator.

Q: How do TIAA’s values impact the way you and others approach the business?

For me personally, TIAA’s values are a powerful driver of my day to day. I think for people coming here, it’s easier to accept some of our idiosyncrasies and see that some of our historical risk aversion is merited when you’re focusing on what we’re actually safe-guarding. People do not come here to make a quick buck and view it as a stepping stone; people come here to do good work for the long haul.

Q: What are your goals and aspirations for yourself and for the organization as a whole?

We’re trying to get to something that we call “Vision 2020” with some very aspirational goals for the organization to continue to stay relevant for the next 100 years, as we’re coming up on our 100 years in 2018. That’s a fun milestone to be rolling towards and it helps that we’re all rowing in the same direction.

The company’s Vision 2020 goals are also my personal goals – some of those are very quantitative and deal with the amount of profits, assets under management, offices and products, while others are very qualitative in terms of improvements and customer experience. Additionally, we’ve acquired a number of boutiques and one of my challenges is to preserve their value while sharing our own vision and mission and bringing them into the family.

I have some fairly high aspirations for our North Carolina office. I would like to continue to advocate for this office to be aligned with the goals in New York and have a voice in how we develop as a legal group. Another one of my goals is going to be making this office work better together and to embrace the diversity that can be brought by putting different people on your teams.

Q: How do you go about making sure those who might be looked over for opportunities are put forward?

We’ve had a lot of training around what’s called micro bias, which is basically little things that you say, that you don’t even think about, that can marginalize or diminish people. I think we need to breed greater sensitivity to that and avoid making assumptions. As a woman particularly, it can be hard to have assumptions made about your willingness to travel, for example, because you’ve got kids. I felt that more when my children were younger – a sense that I was shut out of things if they would take excessive time or resources because “she’s got toddlers, she can’t do it.”

Q: Do you think that is something women are still experiencing or do you think the company, and culture in America generally, is moving forward in terms of how we treat women with children?

I think culture is moving forward. Companies such as mine are excellent places for working parents – and I use this term advisedly, because more men are taking on responsibilities and wanting to be involved in what’s going on with their kids.

There are times though when there can be almost a competition between women, and we need to be our own best advocates and supporters as opposed to competitors. Sometimes we can see each other and think, “I’m not enough of a mom if I’m not on the parents/teachers association,” and “I’m not also doing this or doing that,” and you can get spread a little thin. There’s always a lot of backlash whenever any high-profile woman says you really can’t have it all, but it’s just true. You do have to make different choices at different phases of your career and it’s true of all parents, not just women.

Q: Are there sacrifices you feel like you are making now in terms of the way you balance home and work, or have you found a balance?

I feel pretty balanced now, but most of that balance is borne by the fact that I have an incredible partner. My children are all teenagers now, which on some levels is easier than when they were toddlers, and on some levels is harder. Their issues are bigger now and the consequences of a bad decision for them now seem greater, so I feel I need to be there supporting them and be a voice in the back of their heads when they’re making these decisions.

Q: Do you feel that you’re a role model for your children?

I do believe that, but to be honest it’s been years since I’ve asked the question because now they’re teenagers and do little more than grunt. Back when they used to have more fulsome discussions with me, one of the twins would say “When I have a wife, she’s going to stay at home.” That used to really bother me because I felt like he was trying to tell me that he wasn’t getting enough of me at that period of time. But it may have been that he just saw other women in the neighborhood and their lifestyles that I need to, as a working woman, be able to value too. My original reaction was “How can you say that?” but I’ve since tried to instill in him a sense that families come in different flavors, and he can value that without diminishing me.

Q: Do you have any advice that you want to pass on to aspiring professionals?

There are three things that I think of when I think of the advice I’ve been given, that came in different stages of my career or legal path.

One was in law school and it was back when we had to write essays seemingly for hours. The professor said to me “If you get to the end and you’ve run out of time remember you did what you could in the time allotted.” That always stuck with me, as it’s a fairly good description of life in a lot of ways and it’s always been something that has been in the back of my mind about my career. You can beat yourself up and chase perfection, but you do what you can in the time that you have – and that’s good, that’s enough.

Another piece of advice I got was in one of the first years I was in practice and a very southern lawyer who was in my first law firm said “What our clients want is that we do good work, fast.” So I’ve tried to be decisive and not go through 37 different “what ifs” with clients when really what they want is a clear and decisive answer.

The third piece of advice is to be genuine and to be comfortable with what you don’t know. As a young lawyer, I often would think I needed to have an answer to everything, but sometimes you don’t have an answer and that’s very much part of the process. A client is really better served by someone who’s honest with them and can tell them “Well I don’t know the answer to this, but let’s figure it out” as opposed to somebody who nods his or her head and smiles.

The only other thing I’d add from my own career is that you should always say yes. Even if an opportunity seems as though it’s outside your skill set, you can say yes to that and just figure it out. Don’t think that you have to say no to opportunities because you don’t have the experience. There’s always a first time and everybody has to start somewhere, so it might as well be with you.

Alice Hallewell is a trainee in Debevoise’s London office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.