We learned last week how Christa Steele rose to such professional acclaim at a young age. Now we learn how this meteoric rise affected her work/life balance to the detriment of her family.
4word: As your professional journey rocketed forward, did your personal life and relationships receive the attention they needed?
Christa: My climb to the top professionally was at my lowest point personally. The market conditions were pretty daunting in my profession beginning in 2006 and continued to get worse for the next several years. During this time, I had taken on a lot of additional work responsibility that had me working late nights and attending a lot of work-related functions. My husband had agreed, at my request, to change up his work schedule after many years of shift work.
Up until this point, he worked most every weekend and virtually all holidays. By all accounts, I was a single parent for the first twelve or so years of our marriage and our girls’ lives. The stress of this independence was never discussed as we were both great parents and made it work. We had always managed to find quality time together and make it count, yet I had grown increasingly independent.
It was when my career ambition took over that I began to distance and throw myself into my work life. I started spending more time with people I worked with than I did at home. I thrived off of the attention, the repeated accolades, being the superstar, and the ever-increasing mental challenge as I got more involved in the macro view of the bank. The roles at home quickly reversed, and my husband became the one feeling like he was raising our girls on his own.
Then, in 2010, I moved out, and my husband and I divorced. I had no idea how this decision would ultimately impact me or my family. I took what was the perfect looking family from the outside, and through the eyes of my children, and wiped it out. All for what I thought was something better, but it wasn’t.
Quite honestly, I didn’t even know what I was chasing. I turned into an introvert riddled with guilt. I spent the next couple of years working 80-hour weeks, closing myself off from my family and my friends, and being miserable. Though I was physically present in my kids’ lives, I was mentally checked out and constantly distracted. My ex-husband and I each moved on, but all the while, we were both struggling on the inside.
4word: You and your husband ended up getting back together years later. What was that journey like?
Christa: Brutal. I remember listening to a song called “Sometimes I feel like Elvis” by Wynona Judd while driving home from work one night. I had to pull over to the side of the road. It really hit me hard as I listened to the lyrics that say, “What I am I supposed to do with this house, these cars, all this so called success the good Lord has given me… I’d gladly give it all away right now… here I am with everything and nothing at all, sometimes I feel so helpless, I don’t know who I am…” This was me. This was my life.
Around this same time, my ex-husband and I started receiving nasty grams from our kids’ Christian schools informing us that we were violating school policy with poor church attendance. We started taking our kids to church with more frequency and eventually began attending together. This reunification of sorts for the kids eventually paved the way for us to rekindle our friendship. Before long, we started spending time again as a family unit.
I had also sought out a therapist to try to figure out why I felt the need to sabotage my personal life with my poor choices. I wish I could say I found clarity and the “why” behind my decisions. To this day, I still haven’t found the answers. Instead, I have found forgiveness.
My ex-husband and I struggled with coming back together after living separate lives for several years. Later, after I went on to lead Mechanics as the CEO, we also struggled. I was working 100-hour work weeks, had plenty of outside commitments, and was living between two places at my corporate apartment and my home. We almost didn’t make it. My stress level, both professionally and personally, hit an all-time high. I remember going to church and not being able to get through the singing without tearing up. I was so vulnerable and yet didn’t have time to be vulnerable in my work life.
This was when I started to pray. I had a hard time praying, and I know, at the time, I wasn’t listening or looking for a response. I used it more as a time to plead with God to help me find my way through this time in my life and to heal my family. My pleas were heard, and slowly we began to heal. I now have my faith, my best friend back, and my family back together.
4word: When did you realize that your work/life balance was almost non-existent? What did you decide to do about it?
Christa: Quite honestly, it wasn’t until after I made the decision to leave Mechanics that the epiphany finally set in. I had rented a spectacular beach house in Maui to celebrate the sale of the bank and my departure, and invited family and friends to come stay with us for the month. I fell asleep on the couch each day. In fact, I pretty much slept away the entire vacation, as my body needed to recoup out of sheer exhaustion from the months prior.
One day, my mom leaned down and shook me awake. “Christa, I need to ask you a serious question…” I said, “Sure, anything, what?” She got all choked up and said, “Are you terminally ill? When are you going to tell us why we are here, why you are sleeping so much?”
Of course I started to laugh, and she started to cry. It was at this moment that I realized how fast my life had been passing me by. I had stopped watching TV (except for Bloomberg and Fox News), I hardly spoken to my family (outside of my immediate family), and I had stopped spending time with my friends. My days consisted of long work hours, catching up on daily immediate family activities (if I was home), hitting the gym, and getting a few broken hours of sleep each night.
In the fall of last year, I started doing all of the things you do when you have time on your hands. I cleaned closets and carpets, repainted kid’s rooms, sanded and repainted all of my kid’s furniture (will never do this again), became a complete gym rat and hot yoga nut, and squared away all of my estate planning. I was very fortunate that my legacy Board of Directors took very good care of me during my time at Mechanics and through the sale of the bank, which in turn, afforded me the ability to contribute in a significant way financially to the non-profit community.
I reached out to my pastor, who happened to be the Chairman of one of my kids’ private schools, to gain his perspective on where the needs of the community resided. I had always given, but not to this magnitude. He put me in touch with a trusted confidant who had achieved similar financial success and sought to use his success to meaningfully impact the community. It took me a while, but I finally made the phone call with the thought that we would strategize about various non-profits, yet instead, it became an hour long spiritual session about God’s calling and life’s lessons. I did everything I could not to let this great man, who I will refer to as ‘Yoda,’ hear my sniffling on the other end of the phone. Along the way he encouraged me to read a book called “Halftime.” Upon concluding our conversation, I downloaded and read the book, became a Halftime Institute member, and this last year, Jeff and I attended a couple’s retreat at the Halftime Institute in Dallas, Texas.
When I think of the word Halftime, I immediately think of a basketball game. The clock starts over, and it’s a new game when you start the third quarter. Most people liken halftime to their personal life when they are near or at retirement. They reflect back on their life lessons and reflect about their regrets. This is when they decide they are going to travel the world or spend more time with their kids or grandkids. They may be happy with how their lives played out to date or they may wish they would have lived their lives differently. For the career driven employees, the biggest regret is always the time spent away from family for work.
This spiritual journey has allowed me time to reflect both personally and professionally. I have the benefit of being too young to retire at 42 years old. I am young enough to alter my path forward while my family is still young. For this I am eternally grateful.
4word: Looking back, what would you do differently in your career to preserve and give adequate time to your personal and spiritual life?
Christa: Looking back in order to look forward, I would simply prioritize my life better. I realize the cliché-ness of such a phrase, but it truly is the lesson of my journey. I’m not sure I can stand behind the term work/life balance, because I know I will always be a workaholic. It’s my nature to be very driven, and I don’t sit still well. However, I’ve come to appreciate the small distractions that allow work to fade away. I’ve learned to listen – not just hear – my children, my spouse, my family, and friends. There is a realization that work will always be there, and I have to set boundaries and expectations on what truly needs to be accomplished now.
4word: What advice would you give to those in danger of letting their career consume their entire life?
Christa: We all wear multiple hats – a spouse, a parent, an employee, a friend, a son or daughter – and are tasked daily with prioritizing those roles. Only one of these hats doesn’t carry on for a lifetime. I encourage you to read the poem, “The Dash” by Linda Ellis and remember our life is made up of two dates and a dash. Make the most of your dash!
Has your work/life balance looked like Christa’s did? Do you feel like you’re giving your career more time than it deserves? Take the time to really think through your day-to-day routines and schedules and see if there is room for improvement. Your family and friends will thank you!
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In the Fall of 2013, Christa Steele was named President and Chief Executive Officer of Mechanics Bank (MCHB), an institution with $3.4 Billion in assets and a market capitalization in excess of $500 million.To put this in perspective, there are more than 6,000 financial institutions in the United States. California has over 230 banks, but only 38 with a market cap in excess of $100 million. She is believed to be the youngest female CEO in the United States to lead a bank the size of MCHB.
In 2014, Christa led the bank to core earnings improvement of 43% and reduced the efficiency ratio from 77.33% in 2013 to 65.94%. Simultaneously, she led the company through the evaluation of three separate M&A transactions. Under Christa’s leadership, the stock price more than doubled. Advisors commented that Christa addressed an unusually wide variety of banking issues that required understanding of the role of every thread in the industry fabric. They noted that long tenured executive officers are rarely even exposed to the array of issues Christa quickly navigated to success. Christa left Mechanics Bank via change in control shortly after private equity obtained majority ownership in 2015.
Christa is a well-known public commentator on industry issues, often speaks about her journey to the role of a CEO and mentoring aspiring leaders. She is an advisor to industry leaders, has lobbied Congress on banking issues and maintains a great working relationship with bank auditors and regulators.
Christa is a graduate of California State University Sacramento, CBA Commercial Lending School and Pacific Coast Banking School. Christa currently serves on the Board of Directors of Pacific Coast Banking School. She enjoys spending time with her family, Hot Yoga, CrossFit, Swimming, mentoring youth and supporting various local non-profit organizations.