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Citi’s top cop: The art of boxing in high heels

I know lots of executives in the banking industry, but I had never heard of Cindy Armine. Until, that is, a couple of months ago when I had lunch with Armine, who is the chief compliance officer at Citigroup . Several things blew me away: her humble beginnings (she didn’t go to college), her amazing trajectory (from clerk to top cop), her candor about her flaws as a manager–and her eagerness to fix them. Armine, 48, agreed to share her story in this Postcards Guest Post. “The Art of Boxing in High Heels” has something to do with shoes. But it’s really about raising your game–wise advice to any manager, male or female.

by Cindy Armine, Chief Compliance Officer, Citigroup

Photo courtesy of Citigroup

Three years ago, I decided to reinvent myself–I guess because I hadn’t put a lot of thought into inventing myself at the get-go. I’m not your typical C-suite executive. I grew up in a Sicilian-American working-class family. My dad was a New York City detective and my mom was a waitress. So as you can imagine, college was not in the cards. I was expected to get married right out of school. My career “plan” was to be the next George Martin or Sam Phillips–a famous record producer.

I was 18, in 1980, when the dream burst. My engineering job at a New York City recording studio was leading nowhere. So I interviewed to be a clerk in Smith Barney’s compliance department–because my mother worked as a waitress in a coffee shop in Smith Barney’s building downtown.

I got the job and threw myself into my work. Compliance–which basically ensures that a business follows all laws and regulations–requires a mix of discipline, ability to adapt quickly, and willingness to wear lots of hats: trusted advisor, problem solver, diplomat. I dutifully multitasked and I thrived. Over the years, I moved up to Chief Compliance Officer at Smith Barney, and then at parent Citigroup’s U.S. Corporate & Investment Bank and Global Wealth Management unit.

In 2005, I was nearing my annual performance review and thinking what kind of leader I wanted to be–vs. what kind of leader I was. I had the brawn and the brains. But I realized that as a senior leader who was now (gulp) a role model, I should focus not just on results but on the people who help me get them. I decided I needed to be a kinder, gentler me. So I hired a coach.

As I thought about my reinvention, I was inspired by my mother: She had changed course after a fractured wrist ended her career as a waitress. She became a bookkeeper–a lucky break, so to speak. When my new executive coach finished interviewing a range of colleagues, he said to me, “You’ve got a great knockout punch. Let’s see if you can box.” OK, I thought, I can change course too.

Over the next year, we worked on my “boxing” skills–learning to pause, count to 10, and harness my take-charge style. I learned when to step in–and when to hold back. And when to let others take the lead. Really, I learned a lot about empowering others and reinforcing the value of their work.

And I became a better manager–and a new person in other ways. I realized I needed an outlet for the energy that I used to channel into my knockout punches, so I started exercising. I lost 45 pounds.

You have to understand, I’m five-foot-two. And while the weight loss made me feel terrific, I was concerned, in a strange way, about losing my presence. And so, as I found myself preparing to interview for the top position in Compliance at Citi, I did something totally out of character. I wore high heels.

I had not worn high heels in more than 20 years. Their impact was revelatory. These shoes did the same thing for me, psychologically, as the weight loss. That moment I put on my Ferragamos, I was confident. I was totally comfortable with the “new” me.

I got the job. And I’ve been on a shoe spree ever since.

So now, I confess, I have more than 30 pairs of high-heeled shoes. Recently, I gave a beautiful pair of vintage Hermes heels to my mentee. I told her about that fateful day when I threw on my pair of heels and that I wanted her to have the shoes as a reminder: No matter where you are in your life or career, you can learn to box–and all the better in high heels.