By her own admission, ESCP alumna Marlene Pelage has always been an “outsider”: never feeling as though she belonged. But far from being a victim, this taught her from an early age the importance of resilience and adaptability. And these two competencies have been the essential building blocks of her successful career as a female business leader.
Since leaving ESCP, she has gone on to achieve notable feats – such as becoming the first female chief financial officer of a major US bank. But to get to the top of corporate America, she had to overcome outright discrimination.
“I have always been an outsider,” she recalls. “Growing up in Martinique [a Caribbean island, part of the French West Indies] as a biracial kid, I had to navigate complicated social interactions. I was accused of being too white in the Caribbean and too black for the French. Then in corporate settings, I was told that I dressed too feminine, was too ambitious, and was too different.”
To succeed, every time you fall and encounter discomfort, you have to get back on the horse. You need a relentless determination to do your best work, not necessarily chase the end result.Marlene Pelage
Lean into what makes you unique; it’s a superpower
But Pelage transformed her reality into a “superpower”, and says you can too. “After overcoming the grief and pain, you have a superpower to navigate different cultures successfully,” she says. “That fortitude to carry on and persevere, and reach out and create connections with folks that may be judging you by your skin colour – and transcend visual differences – has been vital.”
Pelage came up in her career at a time when efforts around diversity and inclusion were not as pervasive as they are today. After graduating from ESCP in 1993, she moved to New York to embark on a career in finance. In 1994, she relocated to Hong Kong to work as a risk manager at Credit Agricole, where she later witnessed the 1997 Asian financial crisis and, from London, the Y2K bug that predicted a widespread computer glitch at the turn of the millennium.
After a brief stint running a winery in California, Pelage went back to banking, spending 16 years at Charles Schwab and climbing the ranks to become the first female CFO in the bank’s history. Would she have believed that achievement was possible coming out of business school? “Absolutely not. I would have not even dared to envision it.”
In the past decade, though, she has observed a “sea-change” in attitudes towards diversity, equity and inclusion, with a recognition of the moral and business imperative accelerated by social movements such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter. But far from being a token hire, Pelage says grit, passion and perseverance have been the biggest factors in her success. Recently, she has served as the global CFO of a multimedia conglomerate, IPG Mediabrands, and today is the board director of a cyber-security corporation.
Develop relentless determination and critical thinking
“To succeed, every time you fall and encounter discomfort, you have to get back on the horse. You need a relentless determination to do your best work, not necessarily chase the end result,” Pelage tells us. “If you have those traits, they translate into inquisitiveness. That gives you attention to detail, which then enables you to find facts and spot trends. That creates competency, which creates credibility. And when you are trusted, you create authority and power.”
Relatedly, she underlines the importance of critical-thinking skills in an era of misinformation and disinformation. “The ability to take a piece of news, check the facts, and get different perspectives creates this richness and depth in information. It also contributes to your credibility, trust and authenticity as a leader,” she says.
Your moral compass and integrity, however you want to define it, is probably the most important dimension of your personality.
Follow your moral compass, build a personal board of directors
Another important takeaway is staying true to your values, our alumna says. “Your moral compass and integrity, however you want to define it, is probably the most important dimension of your personality,” Pelage reminds us. “If you try to deviate from that, you will realise very quickly it doesn’t work. You will feel out of balance. You’ve got to make business decisions that are compliant with your values.”
Last but not least, she highlights life-long education as vital for any aspiring business leader. “This is so important: approaching one’s career without arrogance and admitting that you don’t know everything.” As part of that, she recommends finding mentors who can support you when you face difficult challenges. “Some call it a personal board of directors: people who have a full license to speak frankly and tell you when you’re wrong as well as when you’re right.”
But it’s a two-way relationship, she adds. “All of this should lead to the ability to foster leadership in others. What is much more validating for me is the ability to shape someone’s life, and enable them to reach their own potential. That has been amazingly rewarding. It’s the highlight of my career.”
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