Leadership Lens: Mary Ellen Stanek on focus, being intentional and making decisions with no regrets

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Baird’s Mary Ellen Stanek joins Marquette University president Michael Lovell and BizTimes Media managing editor Arthur Thomas on the latest episode of Leadership Lens. Stanek discusses how she tries to use laser-like focus while holding many titles and roles, how being intentional helps her find work-life balance, and how she tries to make decisions with an eye towards having no regrets.

How to wear many hats

Stanek holds a number of titles within Milwaukee-based Baird. She’s president of Baird Funds, co-chief investment officer of Baird Advisors, and a board member for Baird Financial Group, among other roles. She also has external responsibilities, including co-chairing a $700 million fundraising campaign at Marquette with her husband Scott, and serving on the boards of WEC Energy Group and Northwestern Mutual.

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All of those roles create a lot of demands on Stanek’s time, but she said she tries to approach each with a sense of focus.

“You can’t be everything to everybody, you can’t try to do everything yourself, but you can try to be laser-like focused on what matters most and what’s going to move the needle,” Stanek said, adding that she also increasingly finds herself looking for ways to give others opportunities to contribute.

Balancing work and life

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Having stepped into a top leadership role at 27, Stanek had to navigate raising a family with her career. On the podcast, she offered some advice for working parents finding their own way.

For starters, she credited her husband with helping make it possible and advised young people to consider how someone will support them as they look for their life partner.

On a more practical level, Stanek said she went to using one calendar early in her career. Given that Baird is in a highly-regulated sector, it meant compliance teams would know when soccer practices were cancelled, she joked, but it also gave her just one method of managing her time.

More generally, she said it was important to be very intentional about her time, taking off for birthdays, finding opportunities to volunteer and planning ahead to block off time. Stanek said her daughter would often have a hard time if she saw her overnight bag so she made it a point to make business trips in a single day, even if she was going to the West Coast.

Making decisions

Stanek said she tries to take a “no regrets” approach to decisions, something she credited her brother-in-law with sharing. The idea is to ask how you might feel about a decision the next day, next week, next year or in a decade.

It is an approach that can help provide clarity on the path forward on big decisions and on day-to-day choices. Stanek suggested the example of being tired at the end of a long day. A funeral for a friend’s family member may be across town and going would mean getting home late. While one option would be to just send a card, showing up will be more meaningful for the friend and leave without the regret of not being there.

Stanek also said she’s worked to not put off making decisions, something she had a tendency to do earlier in her career.

“Time usually doesn’t help,” she said.

Finally, Stanek said she works to have an open door and take in opinions from many people before making decisions.

“While I have an unequal vote in some circles, I rarely solely make a decision, in fact, almost never,” she said. “I do a lot of consultation and I try to listen very carefully to people.”

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