Debunking the Myth of the ‘Right First Step’

Respecting Your Imperfect and Winding Path

Mara McNeill, wife, mother, President and CEO Toyota Financial Savings Bank, and 4word Board member, talks about how she has had to take many steps on her path and suggests that we free ourselves from the pressure of finding the perfect but elusive “Right First Step.”

Don’t have time to read this blog? Listen to it below!

All of us hear stories of people who have had the “big breakthrough” that transformed their lives from low impact to high meaning. We tend to glorify the expectation that if we pray hard enough, God will place the perfect vision for our next step in our lap.   

Building your Bank of Wisdom During Good Times

My husband, Mike, and I have been church goers since I became a Christian my sophomore year at the U.S. Air Force Academy. One of the best messages we heard was from a couple who were guest speakers at our church in Maryland. They said that extraordinary lives come from doing your best each day on things in your path now instead of “holding out” to save your energies for a “passion project” that has not arisen.  

Shortly after hearing that message, we were in a particularly comfortable position where we obtained “balance” in our family by having Mike be a stay-at-home dad with our eight year old son, Caleb, and five year old daughter, Micah, so I could have more flexibility to invest time into my career.  

Life Happens

Then “life” or 2008 happened. My steady stream of work dried up and my law firm shared with me that in early January 2009, positions like mine would be cut (e.g., the type where the firm loved your billing rate during good times but couldn’t afford to keep you on when client matters were lean).  

As the primary bread winner in the family, the prospect of being income-less during the start of the Great Recession was a particularly disorienting feeling. You remember those images of Wall Street workers carrying their boxes of belongings out of their offices and cubicles and heading home knowing that “no one in the financial services” sector was in the business of hiring at the moment. Mike and I were both on our knees praying for guidance and expressing our feelings of betrayal and a lack of protection in Psalm-like terms.  

Finding the Next Step; or Rather the Many Next Steps

While I couldn’t find a single job opening online, I did have a small network. I made appointments with eight people in the next week and took the age-old advice that when you are looking for a job “don’t ask people to meet so they can give you a job; rather, ask people for advice.” That way those people could share names of eight or 16 more people for me to talk to the next week. I drew out a fish-bone diagram, adding on each person I spoke with and each “lead” or idea that they shared for follow-on discussions. After a month, I had so many prongs on that diagram that I could have taken it as a terrible indictment of my miserable situation and a bunch of rejections. 

However, I did not stop my journey and kept taking one more step and making one more call. By reaching out and talking to all of those people (50+ by now), I had a better network of people who could get to know me and make a connection for me.    

Break Through

Our first breakthrough came for Mike. After taking a five year pause in his career to do what worked best for our family (at a time where many employers thought that was completely odd for the husband to do), his prior government contracting company rehired him.    

Then, I got an interview with the new General Counsel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program at the U.S. Department of Treasury. That was no small feat since there were thousands of lawyers applying for the position who were unemployed or underemployed at the time. It turned out that one of my more recent connections had a connection to someone three persons removed from the acting head of TARP, and that chain was activated to suggest my name be added to the list of candidates receiving a call-back.  

Highly motivated to land the only real interview I had, despite all those calls I mentioned earlier, I explained to the TARP General Counsel with zeal why I would be the best hire to restructure banks and perhaps figure out how to do divestitures of bad bank assets to help make good banks. Interestingly, it was not my law firm work in the financial services sector that made me stand out. It was the experience I had with government contracts while I was in the Air Force that the new General Counsel wanted to make sure was represented on this team (along with the ability to do the other work).  

Respecting Your Winding Path

As it happens, the work I did at the U.S. Treasury, especially with the dozen people who made up the Auto Team, has been the most meaningful work I have ever had the privilege to do. We came from many financial services companies to work for the government for low pay and long hours. For me the low pay was clearly a bump up from no pay but frankly, I would have taken this position in a heart beat even if I had my old job. The understanding that we were helping to right the financial services ship (including the part of it that financed vehicles) so we didn’t have a lasting depression was highly motivating. 

I never would have asked for my job to be eliminated so I could look for a better opportunity. I could have been more comfortable if I didn’t have to make over 50 calls to relative strangers to ask for suggestions on next steps to take. I also would never have told someone who wanted to do become an executive in the financial services sector to go into the Air Force to have a differentiating background to land a position sought by 2,000 corporate attorneys. However, all of that was meant to be for me to have the story I have today.  

Lessons for your Journey

  1. Ditch the idea that there is one “Next Step” that will land in your lap before you put “Many Steps” in.    
  2. Ask for advice from many people including those who can’t give you what you are looking for.
  3. Respect your Winding Path. You are the sum of all your experiences, including the ones that don’t quite fit the narrative.

Special Note: Diane Paddison gave all 4word board members a book as we conducted our annual retreat in early November. It was the book of another 4word favorite leader making a huge impact in the world— founder and CEO of Sseko Designs, Liz Forkin Bohannon.  Please read her book, Beginner’s Pluck, if you want more motivation to hang up the misled ideas that:

Mara McNeill is president and chief executive officer of Toyota Financial Savings Bank (TFSB), which provides banking services to Toyota, Lexus, and private label dealers and consumers.  Her leadership focuses on building high performance teams who serve by delivering responsible lending products and positive consumer experiences.  Prior to her current position, McNeill served as TFS vice president, general counsel and secretary, overseeing the company’s legal and enterprise compliance departments.

McNeill joined Toyota from JPMorgan Chase Bank, where she served as general counsel for Chase Auto Finance, which included a portfolio of retail auto loans and leases, as well as dealer commercial financing. She also served as member of the executive management committee advising on strategy, risk, governance, and operations. 

From 2009 to 2011, McNeill was senior counsel for the Automotive Investment Financing Program for the Department of the Treasury, where she was responsible for the department’s $80 billon financing of General Motors, Chrysler, Ally Financial, and Chrysler Financial during the recession. She worked as part of a team of elite advisors to structure transactions to sustain the U.S. Auto industry and to optimize the return of government funds. 

Earlier in her career, McNeill served as an officer in the United States Air Force. During her assignment at the Pentagon, she was an analyst responsible for developing modernization and budget plans. 

McNeill received her Juris Doctor degree from the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Operations Research from the United States Air Force Academy.

Mara and her husband have a son and daughter.  Mara also serves on the Board of Directors at Communities in Schools, Nevada, a nonprofit in schools to help kids stay in school.