Erin Callan was the kind of super-successful executive who never needed Sheryl Sandberg to advise her to “lean in” to her career. She joined Lehman Brothers in 1995, and in late 2007, at age 41, she was named chief financial officer. CNN later called her “the most powerful woman on Wall Street.” Then she lost at all. In a truly devastating essay this weekend in the New York Times, Callan laments all that she gave up in pursuit of her career.
Callan had been a glamorous figure on Wall Street: young, attractive, female, and spectacularly successful. But she resigned from Lehman in 2008, under heavy pressure as the company spiraled, eventually to collapse collapse. After a brief stint at Credit Suisse, she essentially disappeared from public view.
That makes this weekend’s bracingly honest op-ed especially notable. Callan returns to explain how work gradually took over her life, from preparing to-do lists on Sundays to working all day. That kind of work ethic is often fetishized in our culture, including in circles that would like to more women in the C-suite. But Callan has taken off the rose-colored glasses.
Sometimes young women tell me they admire what I’ve done. As they see it, I worked hard for 20 years and can now spend the next 20 focused on other things. But that is not balance. I do not wish that for anyone. Even at the best times in my career, I was never deluded into thinking I had achieved any sort of rational allocation between my life at work and my life outside.
And she questions whether that brutal schedule was even necessary to succeed:
I have often wondered whether I would have been asked to be C.F.O. if I had not worked the way that I did. Until recently, I thought my singular focus on my career was the most powerful ingredient in my success. But I am beginning to realize that I sold myself short. I was talented, intelligent and energetic. It didn’t have to be so extreme. Besides, there were diminishing returns to that kind of labor.
“I now believe that I could have made it to a similar place with at least some better version of a personal life,” she writes. As it was, that personal life suffered mightily. Her friends and family “got what was left over” after she had given all she could to work. She and her husband divorced.
After her fall from career grace, Callan married a second time in 2011, to a firefighter she had known for years. She put her East Hampton house on the market for $3.95 million last fall and moved to Florida. She seems to have found a measure of happiness. Still: “I can’t make up for lost time,” she writes. “Most important, although I now have stepchildren, I missed having a child of my own. I am 47 years old, and Anthony and I have been trying in vitro fertilization for several years. We are still hoping.”