Op-ed: How competitive chops can put you on the path to success in the world of finance

Stephanie Link
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

I was fortunate to grow up with parents that had two different qualities – my mother was a teacher and education was her highest priority.  But her kindness, unconditional love, and support enabled me to have confidence at a very young age. 

My father was – and still is – in the finance and had a strong work ethic both in business and in his personal life. He would work endless hours at his business, but he also prioritized his health and limited stress through exercise.  He ran every day, regardless of the weather – something I came to appreciate over the years.

My parents were my foundation. They told me I could do or be anything I wanted to, and I believed them. One key principle they emphasized was a focus on financial independence in whatever I chose to do. 

Another instrumental part of growing up was my involvement in sports. I grew up playing tennis, basketball, and softball. I also ran track. I think part of it was my parents didn't want me to get into trouble but whatever the motive, it worked. 

Because I was competitive at everything, I wanted to win every single time. Only later in life at my first Wall Street interview would I realize how important it is to be strong, to want to win, to want to succeed.

A competitive edge

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When I landed a job on Wall Street, it was after a strange interview with the manager of Dean Witter Reynolds. The first question he asked me was what activities I liked to do. I told him I enjoyed running. 

Well, that started a 30-minute conversation, as this was his passion as well. Aside from asking me what sneakers I wear, he wanted to know what motivated me to run daily.

I left the interview thinking I never got the job. He didn't even ask me about a stock pick!  What I realize now and not then, is he was trying to figure out what drove me. I told him I wanted to be successful without saying it outright. 

I wound up getting the job. To this day, whenever I begin an interview with prospects, the first question I ask is "what activities do you like to do?"

I was fortunate to have two mentors who took me under their wing. They showed me different options for a long career in the financial services industry. 

While I never would have imagined I would be where I am today as chief investment strategist, head of investment solutions and portfolio manager at Hightower Advisors, as well as a CNBC contributor, those mentors kept me focused on my goals.

A career in money management

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Once I left Dean Witter Reynolds, I joined Prudential Equity Group. There, I found a mentor who taught me how to invest, to pick stocks and how to bring additional value to my clients. I became the top institutional salesperson at the firm for many years and eventually was promoted to director of research. 

Following my time at Prudential Equity Group, I decided I wanted to get into money management. After all, I enjoyed picking stocks and talking markets. I met Jim Cramer for 30 minutes one day as he was looking for someone to co-run his charitable trust. We talked stocks non-stop. He hired me, and I learned a tremendous amount about how to run a portfolio.

Not only was Jim another mentor, but he also valued the fact that at the time I had an infant. He let me work from home a few days, which I will never forget.    

I then left to work at Nuveen, overseeing $4 billion in the US Large Cap Core strategy. From there, I joined the fast-paced registered investment advisor industry at Hightower Advisors. Having only been at the firm a short while, I will say that the people are not only hard-working and kind, but everyone wants to grow and win.

I am in my element and enjoying this time learning another part of the business. 

Defining motivation

People ask me what motivates me. When I was just starting out, I would say "money and success."

That is still true to this day, but enjoyment in what I do daily is also very important. I enjoy teaching others and in getting investments "right," but also continue to learn from my mistakes.   

My family is a very big part of my success as they are supportive and understanding. My husband has taught me so many things over the years and has inspired me to work even harder.

I hope that I inspire my daughter the way my parents did for me. The importance of independence, hard work, determination, and financial understanding are all so critical in life. I've enjoyed watching my daughter invest in her own portfolio. I learn from her ideas! But I hope I can also show her that enjoying what you do is equally as important.

My advice for the next-generation investor would be to work harder and smarter than others, to under promise and over deliver, and to stay focused. Always ask questions; there are no dumb ones.  Find out what it takes to get where you want to go, and remain humble in your process. Finally, find a mentor. I am so thankful to be where I am today. I had a lot of help along the way.