Like the rhythmic pulsing from iPod ear buds, career pep talks and inspirational phrases follow college women everywhere. “Find your passion.” “Trust your heart.”
Trouble is, snagging a job you love is much easier said than done. Often, the advice is downright paralyzing.
Esta E. Stecher, executive vice president and general counsel for Goldman Sachs & Co., one of the world’s oldest and largest investment banking firms, knows your pain.
Following her junior year at the University of Minnesota in 1978, Stecher had no clear burning desire.
“My father suggested I either get myself into graduate school or start thinking about what kind of job I’d like to apply for,” Stecher says. “Getting a job didn’t appeal to me at all, and I didn’t really want to get a master’s degree in history, my undergraduate major.”
So, she rolled the virtual dice by taking both the LSAT and the GMAT, scored better on the LSAT and enrolled in Columbia Law School. Law school in general didn’t deliver a neat little career package tied with a bow, so Stecher spent her summers dabbling — first in litigation, then in basic corporate work, and finally in tax.
“I kept looking and trying different things until I found that I really enjoyed tax work,” Stecher says. “I got to be good at it simply because I enjoyed it, and I’ve been able to use my success at doing something I love as a platform for advancement.”
Tapping into her new-found tax interest, Stecher joined Sullivan & Cromwell as an associate in the tax practice in 1982, a year after the 1981 Reagan tax cuts and a time of profound change in the industry. “I found tax law to be extremely stimulating and intellectually challenging,” she says.
In 1990, Stecher became partner and head of the tax practice at Sullivan & Cromwell. Goldman Sachs, a partnership at the time, was one of her biggest clients for whom Stecher advised on all the intricacies of partnership tax law. In 1994, Goldman Sachs wooed Stecher to the corporate side of the aisle as a partner and head of the tax department.
Working in a corporation afforded Stecher the luxury of focusing on one client her employer Goldman Sachs. What’s more, she had a more direct and ongoing involvement in shaping the tax policies. As an external lawyer, Stecher was sought for advice, but rarely for the final decision. As an internal lawyer, she could “sort through the various options, weigh them against the implications for the company’s business strategy and then make a definitive call as to which option is best.”
Those tax calls earned Stecher the attention of Goldman Sachs management, who included her as a trusted legal advisor when the 129-year-old partnership decided to go public. In 1999, Goldman Sachs launched one of the largest financial services initial public offerings in U.S. history, raising $3.6 billion. “The IPO process brought my broader legal knowledge and skills to the attention of management,” Stecher explains.
In 2000, CEO Hank Paulson tapped Stecher to become general counsel and co-head of the legal department. Today, Stecher oversees issues that arise from regulatory inquiries, in connection with new financial products getting ready for market, or as a result of the firm doing business in 50 different locations. As a member of the management committee, Stecher and her colleagues focus on the firm’s business mix, its strategy for pursuing new opportunities and winning important business.
Energized by a job that challenges her intellectually, Stecher starts her days early and often ends them late to accommodate global time zones. “No one day is routine,” Stecher says.
Armed with the enthusiasm of excelling in a career she’s passionate about, Stecher is not shy about giving advice: “If you don’t love what you’re doing, don’t be passive look for something else. Doing what you love and adding value go hand-in-hand,” she says. “If you’re doing a job you don’t like, you will find it difficult to stay committed and engaged for very long.”