CEO and President of Sigma Associates, LLC
Rebecca Steele, an incredible courageous woman and mother, reveals her valuable lessons as a senior
executive woman leader. From playing junior Olympics basketball to her excitement in advancing women’s
inclusion, Steele shares her unique journey and what the future holds for her life and career.
NAWRB: What have been the proudest moments in your life, professionally and personally?
Rebecca Steele: Well, I have a lot of proud moments. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career, but mostly ups. My proudest moments are when I could build successful organizations and was given the opportunity to lead, motivate and execute. A perfect example was the challenge to build, grow and integrate Countrywide and Bank of America’s retail sales platforms. That was huge!
We did it in under 12 months. We fully integrated every sales site, corresponding sales documentation and the leadership team. We focused on the culture and realigned the management team to work in a effective manner. That was a fast paced assignment. We completed the integration quickly and fully executed through a high level of collaboration, exceptional communication, and by focusing on the business and metrics management. It was a challenging but fulfilling outcome.
I think one of my proudest personal moments was completing college during my early career. I worked and paid my own way through college. I earned my MBA at night while working during the day and focused on what was going to make me a successful businesswoman in the future. I knew it was going to be really hard to get there, but I never gave up. I was determined and I succeeded.
This was my introduction to independent decision-making and my proof that I could set goals and accomplish them. Getting through that first five or six years and being successful showed me I have what it takes. I knew if I tackled other big challenges or opportunities in the same way, the sky was the limit. I am really proud of this, personally.
I have had such a great opportunity to lead and show other women and diverse groups how to be successful and network. Being a role model has brought me a great deal of satisfaction. To this day, people will call me and say, “Hey, look, I have this situation with my boss,” or they’ll have a communication question or concern. I feel satisfied that I can help and give them advice. They often come back and say, “You know what, that advice was really helpful,” or, “I got that job and I really appreciate how you coached me.” As important as helping homeowners, doing a great job and being a great leader for businesses is helping other people reach their goals and objectives, and feeling like I really made a difference.
NAWRB: Who has inspired you most throughout your life?
Rebecca Steele: Picking one person is really hard because I have a lot of role models. The truth be told, here is what I have secretly done with role models. I study people, such as the bosses that I work for, people that I work with and anyone I look up to. I always find things they do well and things that don’t align with me. I’ve taken several strengths from many people to help build my success.
There have been people I have worked with who made me think, “This is how you build a team. This is how you
inspire and motivate people.” That’s the art of running a business. The technical side comes from people who aren’t good at running businesses but are great at solving problems, getting the data together and analyzing it. Over the past 20 years, I have observed all these types of people and thought, “How do you pull that all together?”
I’m a big believer that it is not just about being smart or being a subject matter expert in what you’re managing. It’s about the art in leadership, networking, communicating and overcoming political situations. When you start to combine these things, you’re perfecting the balance it takes to be successful.
NAWRB: What if you had to pick one person?
Rebecca Steele: I have to say my father influenced me the most in the decision to get a great education. He was a chemical engineer at DuPont for almost his whole career. He worked really hard and put himself through school.
His parents died when he was very young in high school. He was very independent and hardworking, worked for everything he ever had. I think I learned a lot of discipline from him that motivated me to reach higher, be better, set my goals really high, work towards them and not give up.
My dad’s name is Floyd and he lives with my mom in Tyler, Texas. To this day he is so smart, always spending time thinking and reading. He’s led a great life and had a good career. I hope I can do the same.
It’s harder to narrow down in my professional life. I really respect Sam Cooper, who I worked for during my first round at Chase. He was at JPMorgan Chase his whole
career. He started out in a think tank and was super innovative and creative. Sam has the funniest personality in the world, and he could crack a joke better than anyone in an intense situation and sort of calm people down.
On the flipside, he was really smart and I loved to watch him. He could work a room and get people to say yes. He was very talented, and even though he’s retired from Chase he’s still as funny as ever. People who know Sam and have worked with him laugh every time I mention his name.
He could make the tough decisions in the business’s best interest. He was very ethical and moral, and had really high standards for himself and everyone around him. I really appreciated that. Some people would ask, “How do we get around that?” He would say, “This is what we’re doing, this is how it’s going to be, and by the way, here is how we’re going to run that.” He took the tough decision-making out of it for us and led us through some very difficult situations. To this day, I think I still have a lot of work to do in that space.
NAWRB: Congratulations on being cleared with prejudice in the 2008 financial crisis. What is the most important lesson you learned from this process?
Rebecca Steele: That the truth is hard. It takes patience and stamina to fight for yourself, for your reputation and for the truth. You cannot give up on that. One of the things I learned is it doesn’t matter the toll, personally and professionally, it is so very important to be true to your integrity and ethics. At the end of the day, that’s what you have. You have yourself.
Regarding reputation, you can make bad decisions where you don’t fight for yourself, but you have to dig deep because 20 years later all you have is the truth and memories. Rebuilding your reputation is really hard.
I felt that as hard as it was going to be to stand up and fight, there was never a question of whether or not I was going to do it. People ask me what I regret and wish I had done differently. I have to tell you that there’s not one day when I question myself because I knew the truth and I embraced it. If you can put that positive energy toward finding the truth and fighting for it, the negativity goes away over time. You must have a lot of stamina, patience, and you must be able to face the consequences of your decisions.
I made my decision and stood by it. I fought hard and know it was the right thing for me to do. It might not be the right thing for everyone, but it was the right thing to do for my family and me.
NAWRB: Having proved your innocence, what is next for Rebecca Steele? What are you looking forward to most now that the case is over?
Rebecca Steele: It’s continuing to challenge myself, stretch myself in building and leading businesses that make a difference. I want to be a part of huge innovation, whether that’s for the mortgage industry, a different industry, housing in America, or helping women grow and learn. I think I will be involved in all of these areas. I want to make a difference.
What I am looking forward to the most? I think it’s being able to represent our industry and women with my head held high, and people respecting me as well as me respecting
myself for being successful in a very challenging situation. Also, knowing I can take my energy now and put it toward more productive uses, rather than always thinking in the back of my head, “I have to continue fighting this.”
Mental energy, I’ve found, gives you a lot of push and creativity. I feel 10 years younger now that this weight has been lifted and I can really contribute. I’m excited about this and working with really great people, building great teams and being successful together.
NAWRB: You have had a very successful career as an executive woman leader. What are some pending professional goals you hope to achieve? Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
Rebecca Steele: It’s a whole new career for me. If I think about it I took a step back, but it wasn’t really a step back. It was a change for me and now by embracing change I can control the outcome. It’s sort of a blessing. I have created new skills for myself that include taking on new and unfamiliar territory and leading through a successful outcome.
When you work for big banks for years you get comfortable, and I tend to lose a little energy. I now have a lot of my energy back; I have my creativity and a lot of options. It’s so cool and I’m excited. It almost feels like the start of a new career.
In 10 years, I see myself successfully managing a startup and helping other women be successful. Also, continuing to be excited about change, our industry and the opportunities. The fact that I can pull a lot of energy from my extensive experience in large and small companies, but also with the dynamics of leadership, courage and patience is incredible. To me, that brings a lot of power to the table that I’m excited to share.
NAWRB: Do you have any hobbies? What is your favorite way to spend your time when you’re outside of work?
Rebecca Steele: I like to work out. My latest workout is spinning and cycling. I have just become addicted to spinning and think it’s a great exercise. I’ve met a lot of cool people and it’s been really fun for me.
I like to cook, I really do. I also like to drink and study wine. If you ask my friends they’ll say, “Oh, she goes to every restaurant in Philadelphia.” I’m always trying different foods and wines. I’m a total foodie. I love Asian fusion and places with tapas. My plans on my bucket list are to travel. I love to travel and I like to just pick up and go.
NAWRB: What is the most trenchant piece of advice you can give to other executive C-suite women in the competitive workplace?
Rebecca Steele: I would say be true to yourself. Challenge and surround yourself with people you trust. If you don’t have a couple of people with whom you can really discuss challenges and opportunities, honestly it’s really hard to change, adapt and grow. You really have to open up with people. You must be honest with yourself first and then you must be able to open up to some confidants that you can really trust.
The other thing which I think is just as important is don’t think you have to do it by yourself. Surrounding yourself with people, giving people credit and pulling them up makes both parties and the teamwork more successful. It is not about you; try to take yourself out as the focal point. It’s about helping influence others to be successful.
I found that I was really bad at that, at letting go and understanding how to use and build teams. That’s one of the things I still work on. It not only makes you a better and more balanced person, it helps you gain a following and people who will be friends for life, individuals who you admire and admire you equally. It’s such an important dynamic to have. I think a lot of women, like me when I was starting out, struggle with this. I’ve learned to be more grounded and help people around me become more successful.
NAWRB: What excites you most about your work as CEO and President, Sigma Associates, LLC?
Rebecca Steele: I get to manage projects that are really creative. We are doing special work that is helping special causes. We get to pick not only the work we do, but also with whom we work, and that’s just such a fantastic thing that doesn’t happen a lot.
NAWRB: Why is it necessary for women to support one another? Do you think that gender-based barriers are still prevalent in today’s workplace?
Rebecca Steele: It’s essential that women support other women. There are not enough women working in management and C-levels in our industry. I find it challenging, even though I’ve done it for many years, to work with large groups of men. There are a ton of women who are smart, capable, and have the desire to move up, but they feel they don’t understand the path or don’t have the confidence. Companies are actually losing out on them.
If you think about it, half of the mortgage industry is women. Women are in operations, sales, and the lower level. I feel that as you go up, there are less and less women. It was like this 10 or 15 years ago and it’s still the same today. It may be a little bit better but not a lot. I feel that the businesses are losing out and women are losing opportunities to be dynamic growth leaders and make a difference for themselves, their careers and the companies in our industry.
We have a long way to go and I feel like in the past 10 years we’ve stood still in some ways. I feel that it’s unacceptable. It is not okay. A big turn off for me is when women don’t support other women. All of us have had help, assistance and mentoring. Whether it was a man or a woman helping us move forward and be successful. Giving back and paying it forward is just something that you do, and we should do it collectively. That means carving out time from your busy schedule to do these things. We must give back; it should be an obligation.
NAWRB: You lived in New York for a few years during your time at JPMorgan Chase. What do you miss the most about The Big Apple? What do you miss the least?
Rebecca Steele: I miss walking home from work the most. I had this great walk from 70 Park Avenue up to the Upper East Side. I loved that walk. Every day I would decompress. My gym was on the way so I would stop there and then walk home. I love the city, walking, the people. It was just a really great time.
The least fun thing was the rush on Fridays to get home because I would go back to New Jersey on Fridays and Saturdays. I don’t miss the rush to the train station or the heat in August. When I was in the city during the week I had a place on the Upper East Side. That was such a fabulous time.
NAWRB: When you were a teenager, what did you want to be when you grew up? Do you still have a passion for that field?
Rebecca Steele: The truth of the matter is I wanted to be a biomedical engineer. I wanted to create artificial limbs and blood and I was just fascinated by that, which is really what led me into chemical engineering.
I like to read the news about what’s new and innovative, whether it’s pharmaceuticals or biotechnology; I’m fascinated by how far we’ve come. Technology like artificial hearts, limbs and fingers changes peoples’ lives. That’s really what I wanted to do with biomedical engineering, things that no one else could ever do to make peoples’ lives better. I think it’s about quality of life.
My daughter has Type 1 diabetes and I’m a big fundraiser and donor. Last year I hosted the national leaders and doctors doing research worldwide for juvenile diabetes at my house.
They’re doing some really interesting research so I’ve turned my focus toward understanding it. There will be cures for diseases that are just not curable today, whether it’s cancer, Type 1 diabetes or others. It’s so important and fascinating to me. Mostly, I’m interested in making sure we can do the research, understanding how they’re using the money and spending their time coming up with cures.
NAWRB: What is something most people don’t know about you that they would be surprised to find out?
Rebecca Steele: I learned how to shoot a gun when I was six years old. I lived in Texas. We had guns and we learned how to shoot when we were really young. I haven’t done it in forever but I could probably pick it up again. To me it wasn’t strange; it was just what we did. Some people say, “That’s really weird!”
The other thing people don’t know about me is I played junior Olympics basketball for the state of West Virginia. I had a ton of letters in high school and was really athletic. I loved that experience because it taught me a lot about people, myself and that environment.
Maybe it’s surprising to people that for the longest time in my career early on I never really looked at my paycheck and I didn’t care about it. I just worked the work to succeed. When I was running the sales force I never set goals around compensation, ever. I think that would probably surprise some people.
The other thing I would say is I am a big dreamer. I’ve always had these big goals for myself. I’d tell my friends and they would think I was nuts. I would tell them I didn’t know how, but it was possible. I’ve always had this attitude that I can do anything from a really young age. I never said no to things. I challenged myself in every single aspect, whether it was school, sports or anything.
I did try just about anything. Even in college, I played softball and volleyball, and then I decided I was going to go out for the crew team. I was rowing crew in Philadelphia and I did that for three years. I didn’t even know how to row, but I figured it out and got good at it. I used to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and run to the boathouse. It was cold. By the time I got to my 8 o’clock class my hands were frozen. I had trouble holding a pencil. It was intense, challenging and an amazing experience.
NAWRB: We all experience pivotal moments that go on to change the course of our lives. Can you pinpoint one of these moments in your life? Did it seem significant at the time, or did you realize it’s meaning afterwards?
Rebecca Steele: I would say when I was found liable in my court case. That was the day that pretty much changed everything. It was scary.
I knew it was significant and that it would be in the media. I didn’t know the repercussions it would carry, in the short term especially. I had no idea how I was going to make it through. I felt I had lost control. One thing that’s really difficult and stressful with situations like that is not a lot of people come to you. More people go away from you than come to you to help.
I found there were some key women and others who came forward and had been through very similar situations. They were able to help and talk to me about it. It helped me through the decision-making of what was coming in the next week, month and year. There were a couple of women in particular that I felt I needed to make it through.
This has taught me that I need to help other people through these type of situations. I can help! You might think, “Well, they’ve got lots of friends, they’ve got lots of family,” but when somebody goes through a unique situation like this it’s so stressful and unknown.
I feel that my situation was almost a blessing in disguise. I mean, it was really hard to go through but you have to look at the opportunities that came out of it. I feel I’ve become a better person and mother. I think I’ve learned an awful lot that I can now bring to the table.
NAWRB: Is there anything you would like to tell our readers or touch on that we have not addressed?
Rebecca Steele: I’d like to thank Desirée Patno, NAWRB CEO and President, for believing in me and giving me such a great opportunity to lead the Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council. It’s such a great group of people. I feel that hasn’t just helped me in my recovery mode, but it’s also given me a lot more confidence. I’m excited about the moment, helping and mentoring more women and working toward the objective that we set in the diversity and inclusion council meetings.
I’m looking forward to the next year, the growth and results with excitement. I want to thank you for that.