Teri Carstensen’s big break was when she realized that three recently acquired companies (including her employer) could be combined into one entity and successfully pitched a plan to do so. Fast-forward years later, she is still at that parent company, Fiserv, now as president of bank solutions.
I recently spoke with Carstensen about her career path from bank teller to president, including that ingenious solution that benefited her and the company (companies, really). What I was most struck with, however, was not the resume or even her personal accomplishments, but how she was more interested in the challenges and opportunities of others. For instance, discussing critical changes that occur when you become a leader, how she mentors and coaches people, and why accountability is both so important and so freeing.
Leadership “is one of my favorite topics,” Carstensen says, and she loves engaging with younger people early in their careers. She loves “the mentoring and coaching aspect of what I do,” and that was clear in our discussion.
Below, I explore some of the themes we discussed, from Carstensen’s upbringing and career achievements to how she applies those learnings to her work mentoring and coaching others.
What influenced Carstensen? How did she apply those learnings?
Carstensen’s family background was a force in what she does and why. “I feel so fortunate” about her upbringing and how her parents instilled a strong work ethic and a love of education. And her siblings pushed her, too — Carstensen called herself the “underachiever with an MBA” among her parents’ children.
“I grew up in a 450-square-foot home, and had siblings, and they all had jobs when we were young, and there were no excuses,” she says. “And we just developed this competitive spirit about ‘you can do whatever you want to do.””
In the workforce, this translated to, “Whatever job you had … you gotta love that job. And you gotta do that job really, really well.”
With those foundational traits, it’s easier to become a study of your job and your industry, to look “for ways to add value” and improve your skills, and ultimately to find and create and volunteer for opportunities.
How did this play out in reality? Carstensen was a general manager at the company Fiserv eventually acquired. Ahead of that deal, she had examined the marketplace trends — saw that smaller companies like hers were going to have to be acquired or not survive. She looked internally — saw not much succession planning had been done. She also did various analysis and hired a consultant.
Ultimately, the recommendation to sell to Fiserv was obvious. that needed to be made was clear, and “that was more important to me than, ‘What does that mean for my job security?’” she said. Instead, she focused on making the acquisition a success, as that was the right thing to do, and success would add value and create opportunities one way or another.
How she helps the next generations
Learning the right things is a critical career skill, and you can do it through observation as well as through lessons and mentoring from others.
Carstensen said she’s learned from every boss she’s had, including about things not to do. She calls herself a “student of people” with an eagerness to observe, to act and to lead. And she wants to pass this on to younger people without “telling them what to do.”
She says young people will sometimes ask her about career advancement in the form of “How do I get from here to your role?” rather than asking about the “fundamental behaviors” of building a career. They’re not ignoring the hard work of building a career, but they’re more worried about the end goal rather than the “deliberate steps and accountability to building their careers,” she says.
This is somewhat understandable. As Carstensen told me, the speed of everything today, including career development, is so fast. But, if you don’t develop those “fundamental behaviors,” a technically skilled person might ascend to a leadership role and find themselves without the right people skills.
Learning doesn’t end when you’ve ascended the ranks. Even now, she says, she hasn’t stopped looking for ways to add value, to do something differently, to organize better.
So, with all this learning, at some point a choice has to be made. Carstensen’s work in proposing how three companies could work better as one involved a goal, hard work, preparation and research, and also the willingness to move forward.
During our conversation, Carstensen repeatedly returned to the idea of accountability. “You have to look at life, at least I do, as choices,” rather than being a victim of circumstance.
How to take feedback, assess yourself and move on
Along with working hard and seeking opportunity, Carstensen said, you must be able to ask for and accept critical feedback from people you trust. That is an important distinction from “feedback,” generally. Good relationships with supervisors include asking for critical feedback.
“People want feedback when they think it’s positive but they’re not necessarily seeking it when it’s critical.”
When things don’t go well, you should do a post-mortem, see what you can do better next time.
But don’t linger on what when wrong — that’s also part of her accountability process. “Let’s not spend a lot of time on woulda/shoulda/coulda,” she says. “Take accountability, recognize you made a mistake, learn from it and move on.”
You have to be aware of your brand, she says, which includes your strengths and weaknesses. Weaknesses are inevitable. But you have to be aware of what you’re good and bad at, and “you have to modify behaviors so that [weaknesses] aren’t predominant,” she says.
That awareness extends to your career goals and choices. Be deliberate in selecting those, and then work on the relevant strengths.
Being a leader means you can’t do everything the same old way
As mentioned, Carstensen has people come to her say, “I want that job.” And she’ll sometimes reply, “Well, how are you going to behave or think differently in that role?”
New roles and responsibilities require thinking about behavior and mindset, she says. Particularly, leaders often have to give up things they used to do operationally to be thinking strategically.
Carstensen can’t do her job unless she can be OK with delegation and trust in others. She can’t do everything, so she focuses on strategy for attaining growth, on whether she has the right talent and how she’s deploying it, on culture, and building that talent below her so that she has time to think.
Lots of people “want the title or the corner office,” Carstensen says, but they need to also consider:
“What do I like to do? Are those requirements of the next role things I like and want to do, or am I just taking that job because I want an increase or a different title or something different?”
Work as part of a broader life
Carstensen is serious and driven about her work — she’s a president, after all. But she practices and advises younger people about life balance, including for people trying to start a family and get into management ranks simultaneously.
Family is the “number one priority,” but some days work comes first. The integration of work and life is literal in a sense — she doesn’t have a work calendar and a personal calendar, she has one calendar.
Get ready to work hard and be brave
Carstensen acknowledged her advice might sound easy. However, “it’s a lot of hard work — and I think embedded in all of it, it just takes courage. It really takes courage to look at your mistakes; it takes courage to be accountable for your choices … not being afraid to make mistakes, not being afraid to be out there, a lot of courage to put your hand up,” she says. “It’s easy to put your hand up, but to put it up in a way that says, ‘I want to do that, I’ll own the outcome,’ it does take courage.”
James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and original content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, HR executives and various other industries. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.