Don’t tell Robin Elkowitz that she can’t do something. For so many years—while growing up, while attending college and law school, while working at a Wall Street law firm—she made decisions because “I was following the path that it seemed I was supposed to take,” Elkowitz says. Now an executive vice president, deputy general counsel, and secretary at Citizens Financial Group, Elkowitz chooses to follow only the path she sets for herself.
As a first-year associate at Wall Street law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, Elkowitz remembers hearing that only one or two people would be promoted to partner each year. “There were about thirty of us first-years at the time,” Elkowitz says, “and I just looked around and thought to myself, ‘What are the other twenty-eight people going to do?’”
Very quickly, though, Elkowitz realized that she didn’t want to spend the majority of her career at a Wall Street law firm. That decision came as a shock to her as well as those around her, who operated under an assumption that a Wall Street law firm was exactly where someone of Elkowitz’s background should be. Elkowitz had studied accounting and finance at the Wharton School as an undergraduate and obtained a CPA before going to law school.
“Everyone told me that I shouldn’t leave the firm until I’d been there for at least five years,” Elkowitz says. “‘You can’t do that, nobody’s going to want you,’ they told me.” Refusing to bow to conventional wisdom, Elkowitz determined to keep her mind open to any new opportunity that came her way. She accepted an in-house position at an investment bank, which perfectly combined her passion for analysis, problem-solving, and client-facing work, just two years after joining the firm.
Today, at Citizens Financial Group, Elkowitz continues to seize and enjoy learning opportunities. In the past five years, ever since the company launched its initial public offering, or IPO (the largest traditional bank IPO in US history), Elkowitz and her majority-women team have experienced a great deal of growth.
“I have a great team, both the men and the women,” Elkowitz says. “We have been together since the beginning of this journey. There was a time when we weren’t quite sure what was going to happen, and I pride myself on the fact that we have a community that works very well together and that there’s a lot of loyalty among us.”
Elkowitz strives to maintain an open line of communication with her team, encouraging them to come to her with any problem. And sometimes, those problems are much more pervasive than others. As Elkowitz notes, there is a widespread notion in America in general, and in financial services in particular, that workplaces have a male-dominated culture.
“I think that can be intimidating—that women tell themselves they’re not cut out for all the long hours required in those jobs,” Elkowitz says. “We need to place more emphasis on the substantive qualities required for success in those roles: problem-solving, negotiating, prioritizing, and connecting with people on a personal level. Those are all things that are going to improve the overall success of the business or company.”
Another key piece of the puzzle, Elkowitz says, is networking. “Men are more apt to reach out to people if they think that person can help them,” Elkowitz says. “I tell women, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? You’re just asking for feedback.’” As Elkowitz points out, networking can be done anywhere, anytime, even when you’re talking to another parent on the playground. You never know where the next opportunity may come from.
“When I was growing up, there was always this idea that women can do it all. But no one ever told me how to do that.”
Elkowitz is particularly motivated to give such advice because, as a working woman, she has felt certain pressures herself. “When I was growing up, there was always this idea that women can do it all. But no one ever told me how to do that,” Elkowitz says. “Trying to get into that mind-set and internalize the importance of finding a work/life balance is probably the most important life lesson I’ve learned.
“I always told myself that I was focusing on work and life, but I realized one day that I wasn’t actually doing that,” Elkowitz adds. “I pursued my career, but I kept my personal life largely on hold until I was forty years old.” Achieving your personal goals only happens if you make them a priority as well, explains Elkowitz. Unwilling to put her personal goals off any longer, Elkowitz became a mother when she was nearly forty-three.
“Making your personal life a priority doesn’t necessarily mean cutting your career short, but it’s true that there’s never going to be an ideal time and that it isn’t easy,” Elkowitz acknowledges. “I just didn’t want to wake up one day and regret that I hadn’t figured out a way to make it happen.”
And while the method that Elkowitz found works for her, she stresses that her personal best practices may not be right for everyone. “There’s always going to be people telling you that you’re not a good enough worker, not a good enough manager, not a good enough mother,” Elkowitz advises. “You can listen to them, or you can have a conversation with yourself and determine whether you’re doing what you need to do in a way that works for you.”
And at Citizens, the effort to help all employees find the work/life balance that works for them starts at the top, Elkowitz says. “Our CEO is committed to creating a culture where all are welcomed and all have the ability to succeed,” says the EVP. “Three of our twelve directors are women, there are several women in very senior executive positions, and we have publicly committed to building a diverse, inclusive, and high-performing culture.”
The company boasts a number of business resource groups—including ones for women, people of color, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and LGBTQ employees—as well as a “first-class” maternity policy, a paternity policy, an adoption assistance program, and more. “We want people to feel better able to manage all of their responsibilities to the best of their abilities,” Elkowitz says. “There’s this feeling here at Citizens that if you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.”
Locke Lord LLP:
“Robin Elkowitz is a trusted thought leader in the field of corporate governance and a determined advocate for women throughout the legal profession. We congratulate Robin for this momentous achievement and wish her continued success.”