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Former Lehman CFO Erin Callan: 'Don't do it like me'

By Ann Curry, Meghan Frank and Isolde Raftery

NBC News

When young women ask Erin Callan, formerly chief financial officer at Lehman Brothers, for advice, she says she tells them: “Don’t do it like me.”

Callan, 47, was appointed CFO just nine months before the firm filed for bankruptcy in Sept. 2008. She said her life gradually became entirely focused on her work, edging out friends’ birthday parties and time with her husband – and having children.

These were small choices that ballooned into one major life decision, she said, a realization she wrote about for The New York Times’ Op-Ed page on Sunday. Callan sat down for an interview with Ann Curry for Rock Center, explaining why she views herself as a cautionary tale for young, ambitious women.

Since resigning from Lehman Brothers in 2008, she all but vanished from the spotlight – and says for legal reasons she still can’t discuss the collapse of the financial giant. But she says she felt compelled to weigh in on the growing national discussion about women and their work-life balance. Recently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced employees could no longer work from home, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg released a new book, “Lean In,” which encourages women to stay on the career path.

“I did achieve great success in my career – I’m just trying to provide a bit of what I’ll call a warning label that, hey, there’s something else to think about as you’re ‘leaning in,’ so to speak,” Callan said.  

Callan grew up in Queens, N.Y., the daughter of a police officer and a homemaker. She was driven – a competitive gymnast who practiced so hard her hands bled, and a serious student who secured a spot at Harvard University and later New York University School of Law. After law school, Callan headed to one of the city’s most elite law firms, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, where she worked with Wall Street firms, including Lehman Brothers.

By her late 20s, she was working at the global investment banking firm, launching initiatives and working her way up. At 41, she was tapped as CFO.

“I still had things in some kind of reasonable harmony, even in my early 30s,” Callan said. “But little by little, it’s the Blackberry the second you wake up in the morning. It’s checking the Asian markets right before you got to bed at night. It’s making yourself completely available for anything that comes up. I’ve got to fly to Europe tonight … OK, I’ll go tonight.”

As Callan explains, the decisions, seemingly inconsequential at the time, added up to a life focused completely on work. As a result she says she neglected her personal relationships – and didn’t have children.

“You don’t wake up one day and make a conscious decision that you’re going to be OK with that, or you want to live that way,” Callan said. “It just sort of happens over time as you move through your career.”

Not that Callan advises women to go home at 4 p.m. every day. “But I do think there could have been some modifications that were reasonable that would have allowed me to have a better, more fulfilling personal life.”

In other words: Consider which emails can be read later and which phone calls can be made in the morning. Go to the birthday parties.  

“You can have an amazing career with great success, even in a male-dominated field that I did,” she said. “But be careful what you wish for and the choices that you make. And I do believe now – only now, I didn’t at the time – that I may have gotten to the same place with some changes, some tweaks.”

When Curry asked whether she aligns herself with current feminist thought, Callan replied: “I think it’s incredibly feminist what I’m saying because I’m saying it’s up to you. It’s your choice. Don’t let someone else tell you whatt to do. Don’t let someone else make you feel bad.”  

Editor's Note: Ann Curry's full profile of former Lehman CFO Erin Callan airs Friday, March 15 at 10pm/9CDT on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.