1. What attracted you to your chosen field and profession?
Becoming an investment banker wasn't my long-standing aspiration. In fact, I didn't know much about life on Wall Street. I was raised by a single mother in Dayton, Ohio, and was fortunate to attend The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut on scholarship. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, like Perry Mason. Before I knew what litigation was, I knew who Perry Mason was. My plan was to go to law school and become an attorney. During college, I decided to do a joint law and business school program at Harvard.
At business school, a classmate asked me if I were interested in investment banking. This piqued my interest. So, I applied for a summer internship at what was then The First Boston Corporation. I was one of 450 to 500 people interviewed for two internship positions. I was offered one of the two internships. I accepted. Ultimately, I decided to go into investment banking. That's where the smartest people in my business school class were going. After graduation, I joined First Boston's Mergers and Acquisitions Group.
2. What person, opportunity, or game-changing moment had the biggest impact on your career?
The two events that truly shaped my career were joining First Boston, where I worked with Joe Perella and Bruce Wasserstein, and going to Wasserstein Perella when they started their own firm. Banking is an apprenticeship business. I learned from the best professionals in the industry on how to advise clients. Clients rely on your technical expertise, experience, and judgment to render the best strategic and tactical advice. Working with Joe and Bruce on many of the major transactions in the 1980s and 1990s gave me the solid foundation. To date, I've advised on hundreds of deals valued at well over $600 billion.
3. Share a story about an interesting or difficult negotiation and how you were able to gain more influence and leverage as a result.
I believe in candor, transparency, and trust. Trust is sacrosanct. While the final legal points need to be written down, the substance of any agreement can be codified in a handshake - you should be able to capture the deal in a handshake. And you need to have confidence that the person whose hand you shake can deliver on those commitments. I've never failed to deliver on a commitment. I've never breached a handshake contract or failed to fulfill my word.
When I think of deals that have fallen apart, it's because trust has been lost. I recall one deal that didn't go forward because the advisors restructured history. After the advisors agreed early on to key points, in later discussions they changed what was on the table. Credibility was lost. Trust was compromised. The client didn't want to go through with the deal as a result. In any negotiation, if trust is broken, then the likelihood of a deal diminishes precipitously.
4. What do you see as your unique value proposition and how has your personal background prepared you to excel?
What distinguishes me is my ability to give the best advice amidst numerous competing agendas. I provide my clients with advice that's based on integrity, experience, and good judgment. From a leadership standpoint, I surround myself with extraordinary talent that's committed to winning so we can collectively offer reliable advice.
5. What is your proudest achievement?
My family. I have a mother who's 90, two brothers, nieces and nephews, beautiful children, and an amazing wife. What has allowed me to be in my position in banking is prayer, performance, and paranoia. Prayer is a walk of faith. Performance is meeting or exceeding all metrics - outlasting many and overcoming doubters and naysayers. And a healthy level of paranoia, so you're always prepared for competition. You have to exceed where many think you will fail. Most importantly, I'm blessed to be where I am today and most proud of my family.
As part of The Azara Group's monthly newsletter, we select a business leader to share insights about leadership, being an influencer, and career development. Our objective is to help support your ability to flourish as a leader and share what makes people thrive in business.
Fatimah Gilliam, Esq. is the Founder and CEO of The Azara Group, which is a leadership development and strategy consulting business. She started her career on Wall Street as a corporate attorney, worked for one of the top global financial services companies and the United Nations, and is a successful entrepreneur.
Since launching her company, she has counseled institutional and Fortune 500 clients on being strategic in negotiations to expand leverage and bargaining power, how to strategically position their businesses for growth and continued success, and how to improve diversity initiatives to better attract, retain, and promote diverse talent.
Fatimah has also helped private clients negotiate six-figure increases in compensation and severance packages, and has counseled business leaders on navigating their ascent up the corporate ladder through being more effective leaders and managers.
As an expert negotiator and career strategist, she has been interviewed and written articles on negotiating, leadership development, the sports industry, diversity, the technology industry, being an influence, career strategy, and the "art of persuasion." Fatimah is a frequent speaker and has spoken to groups of professionals, top executives, athletes, and students about how to position themselves for career success.
She is a graduate of Harvard University, Columbia Law School, and Wellesley College, and a member of the New York City Bar's Sport Law Committee.
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