Leaderspeak with Debra Walton
Debra Walton is Chief Revenue Officer at Refinitiv. She leads a global team operating in 65 countries in sales, client and partner relationship management and market development activities for Refinitiv. Debra is a tireless advocate of gender equality who speaks globally on diversity and leadership and is Executive Sponsor of Refinitiv’s LGBT+ employee network. We were deeply inspired by her story and her passion for her work and we know our readers will be as well.
Could you tell us about your story and how you came to be where you are?
I grew up on a sheep farm in Australia at a time when less than 5% of Australians went to university or pursued higher education. In my small town of about 4,000 people- maybe two people from my high school went to university. My parents were working class and their aspiration for me was to leave school, get a good job for a girl, and likely marry a farmer. On Fridays, in our farming community, the farming parents would come into town to pick up their kids who boarded at school, so banks would always employ extra staff on a Friday. My mother thought it was a perfect job for girls because when you get married, you’ll be able to just work on Friday. So I left school and I confess I actually chose the bank that I wanted to work at based on the fact that I preferred their uniform over the other banks in town! I never went to college.
When I was seventeen, I participated in a big fundraiser beauty pageant and I ended up winning a trip around the world. I had never left Australia at the time. It was a really big deal in my town and the whole town was following my journey. I still have a picture of me with the pilot getting on the plane, it was in the local newspaper. It was the first time I’d even been on a plane. I went off and around the world for three weeks and when I came back I realized there was a big exciting world out there and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a small town. So I moved to Sydney.
In time I ended up working for a brokerage firm in Sydney. They had built a bond analytics platform to analyse fixed income securities and wanted to try to turn it into a business. I joined them to lead sales. We successfully sold to all the financial institutions in Australia and New Zealand, and then set our sights on going global. We tried to get a partnership with Reuters, with no success- but we had a good connection with one of their competitors, Telerate. My boss came into my office and said “You need to get to New York because we’ve got a meeting with Telerate and we told them that you’re there on vacation. So you need to leave, now.” I had never been to New York. I remember feeling completely sick in the stomach and nervous. Me? In New York? I’m this young 25 year old off a sheep farm and I'm gonna go meet all these smart, fancy New Yorkers. But the lure of a visit to New York motivated me and made me excited to make the journey.
So I jumped on a plane and made the 25 hour journey to New York. The connection in Telerate was David Darst, a partner at Goldman Sachs at the time, who had written the Complete Bond Book. Which, back in the eighties was the Bible of financial markets. We managed to go in and pitch to Telerate and they loved our product. I came back and pitched it a few more times and then we entered into a joint venture with them. A senior executive at Telerate (who remains a close friend to this day) asked, “How do we get you to come and live in New York?” and I was quick to respond: “Just ask me.”
At that time I was engaged to be married, so I came home to Australia and told my fiancée we were moving to New York. On the back of that deal, we took the Australian company public and I became the youngest female board member of an ASX listed company at that time. I worked at Telerate for about seven years. Cantor Fitzgerald was one of our major partners and I ended up being enticed out of Telerate to join Cantor as a member of their leadership team. I was one of the first female partners at Cantor. That was a very interesting phase in my career for many reasons, but particularly because it was so heavily male dominated. All of the guys that sat in the executive office were good friends, they all played golf together on the weekends, and their wives were all friends.
How’d you fit in?
It was challenging. Firstly, I was a chronic sufferer of imposter syndrome- mostly because I didn’t have a university degree! The feeling plagued me for a significant part of my career. At every panel I have sat on and every leadership team event I ever went to, I would always read everybody's bio to see if there was anybody else that hadn’t been to university. It was a big issue for me to deal with. But at Cantor there was an added challenge. When we would do social events I was never really sure whether I should sit with the wives or sit with the guys that I worked with. It was the first time I had ever really experienced a challenge around inclusion, something I appreciate full well today. I try to be conscious of it for others, especially in light of recent events in the United States.
But for the most part, Cantor was a very positive part of my career journey. And I like to think I was an important part of their journey. While I was there, we were actively involved in spinning out Cantor’s technology platform, ESpeed. My husband Peter, who I had moved to New York with, was tragically diagnosed with brain cancer and he was given three months to live. We were both 38 years old and in many ways at the very prime of our lives and a potential young family. My world literally fell apart at that point in time. I'll never forget sitting in the doctor’s office and being told that the person I loved so deeply, the other half of me, was going to be gone in three months. It was unimaginably horrendous. At Cantor we were deep in the midst of doing the ESpeed spin off; I had a huge work challenge and a devastating situation at home. Peter ended up living two years. I really was only able to manage because I learned to compartmentalize my life and live in the moment- but mostly I managed because I had so many incredible friends that helped us get through it.
With the help of friends I managed to keep things together for the better part of 18 months, but it got to a point where one day Peter asked me to stay home and be with him. ESpeed was getting close to spinning off and it was one of the biggest career opportunities I’ve ever had in my life, but in my mind the choice was clear and I decided to stop working and stay home. I have never regretted that decision to this day. Espeed spun off and made a ton of money, but tragically, most of the team who headed up ESpeed ended up dying in 9/11. I didn’t go back to Cantor. I decided I wanted to do something different with the next chapter of my life.
A friend of mine was starting a business, a technology platform that was intended to deliver straight through processing for equities trades. I began by helping out with the investor pitches but quickly learned that once you go down that path and you raise money, investors want you to stay in the business. In hindsight it was not the best career decision for me, but it was a great learning experience. Up to that point many people had told me I should run my own business, should be CEO, etc. I did it and I frankly hated it. It was one of the worst and most lonely career experiences of my life, no double exacerbated by having just lost my beloved husband. One of the lessons for me was that you really need to be honest with yourself. If you don't want to do something, don't do it. Everybody was telling me I should be CEO and maybe it was just the wrong business, the wrong environment, the wrong time for me; but it was not for me. I learned that I like working in a large organization, I like the brand association, I like the resources. The business folded after 9/11. At that point in time Thomson Financial was coming to the fore. I was introduced to Sharon Rowlands who was then CEO of Thomson Financial and I joined there in 2003. Since then I was part of the Thomson Financial merger with Reuters to become Thomson Reuters. I lived in Switzerland, where I was Chief Product Officer. Then we spun out the financial business and Blackstone took 55% of our company and we became Refinitiv. 10 months after that we sold the whole company to the London Stock Exchange. As a management team, we increased the valuation of the company by $7 billion in 10 months. In the 17 years I have been with this company I have seen many changes in the corporate structure and I have had 13 senior leadership roles including being the Chief Content Officer overseeing all of our operations centers in Bangalore, Beijing, Manila and Gdynia. I am now the Chief Revenue Officer. I am continually reinventing myself, even at this stage of my career.
I have to say, I'm incredibly inspired. The fact that someone like you could talk about Imposter syndrome stuns me. We have it and the fact that you acknowledge it means a lot to a lot of people who hear you.
It does. I remember the first time I ever talked about it. I attended one of our sales kickoffs in Europe and was asked to host a women's dinner. At one point I questioned the audience: “Okay who's ever experienced imposter syndrome?” and nobody put their hands up until I said: “I did!” and all of a sudden everybody put their hands up. I think it's one of the most empowering things for women to share with each other that they actually experience it because it's such a relief. To be able to say: “Shit, I'm terrified every day that someone will find out that maybe I can't really do this job,” was so relieving for many. In fact, my push to women, and men, is that if you aren’t regularly experiencing imposter syndrome, then you likely aren’t stepping out of your comfort zone and taking on stretch roles. You aren’t optimizing your full potential.
What qualities do you value the most in your team?
I have my four C's. The first is commitment. I want people on my team who are committed to being the best. The second quality is curiosity. To me, curiosity is the ultimate driver of learning and you need to have that curiosity to want to learn and develop. We all need to continuously learn about the market that you work in, about new technology, your clients, and how you can solve their problems. I am on a mission to build a learn-it-all culture at Refinitiv. The next of the C’s is confidence. I remember when we first started doing the pitches to Blackstone and I was seeking advice from people who had worked with private equity and they advised me that one of the things that private equity are looking for is a confident (and competent of course) leadership team. You obviously can't be foolishly confident but you need to believe in yourself. The fourth C is courage. That speaks back to imposter syndrome again. To really step into those stretch rolls or step up and stand on a stage and be noticed takes a lot of courage.
What questions do you always ask in interviews? Do you have a go-to question?
You know, I think I’m terrible at interviewing people. This is probably the skill that I still need to perfect most of all. But I always say that I want to hire people that would pass the 5 hours in an airport test. Many people know I say that- earlier this year I had to travel from Orlando to Bangkok and one of my colleagues was with me. We left the hotel in Orlando together, travelled to the airport, flew to Amsterdam, sat opposite each other, had seven hours in Amsterdam airport, flew to Bangkok, and then took the car to the hotel…it was 31 hours in transit together. In Amsterdam airport toward the end of the seven hour layover we decided to have a glass of champagne and some delicious oysters in a beautiful new bar- they ended up having to page us for our flight. When he went on stage in Bangkok he told that story: “You know how Debra says she has a five hour airport test? I think I passed because we almost missed our flight!” I trust that all the AI systems, and the people that screen people before they get to me will sort through skills. For me it's about chemistry.
What advice would you give your 25 year old self?
Be courageous. Just be courageous. And be honest with yourself about what's really important to you at that specific point in time. When people come to me for mentoring advice and career advice my first question is “What's really important to you in your life right now?” Because your career is just one part of it. When I lost my husband- I realized that life is too short to be with people that you don't love, spend time with people you don't like, or work in a job that you are really unhappy doing. So be honest with yourself. Follow your heart. I think if you do something that you love you'll be great at it.
Who’s helped you believe in yourself?
Mostly me. Because if you don't believe in yourself it's kind of hard to get other people to. Also, I must say that I was very lucky to find love twice, and my wonderful husband Marc is truly amazing. He has helped me always stay grounded, to keep things in perspective. He always says, “In 100 years from now no one will really remember this.” He helps me not overthink things. The other thing he says which is spot on is: “You can only do the best that you can do.” And I think if you really believe that, that you always strive to do the best you can, that you demonstrate commitment, curiosity, courage and confidence, and that you really act with integrity, you’ll be fine.