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From Consulting to Investing: Digital Is Key

Leveraging her consulting experience with BCG, Charles Schwab executive Kathie Chao is transforming retail investing through digital.

What strategic initiatives have you led to enhance the digital retail experience for clients, and how do they align with the broader goals of Schwab?

As we all know, digital is now hugely embedded in every part of the client experience, so pretty much all of our work on the digital team is to help clients achieve their goals. In my role now, I’m doing everything from improving our app based on client feedback, to thinking through how to best engage clients to get them what they need. We’ve digitized experiences that used to be heavily paper-based and cumbersome, for example, in managed investing and also in the lending space.

It’s important to remember that, while digital is increasingly important and even the primary channel for many, we’re in an industry that still requires people and relationships, so we think about how digital can interact with the “human” side of what we do. And in some cases, digital can enhance what our client-facing teams can do, whether it’s freeing up their time to focus on the more personal interactions or supplementing those interactions either live or with follow-up actions.

The digital retail experience is dynamic and constantly evolving. How does Charles Schwab stay ahead of industry trends and emerging technologies to continually enhance its digital offerings for clients, particularly with the rise of GenAI?

We know we’re being compared daily, not just with other financial services companies but also other digital experiences in general. There’s opportunity to enhance and learn from patterns others are using, as well as pushing innovation. We’re always looking at new technologies such as GenAI. In financial services, we’re highly regulated and therefore need to moderate our adoption of some of these technologies based on risk and regulation. Similar to other players in our space, we have a lot of opportunities as we think about how to drive efficiencies and insights for our employees and field representatives.

Blending insights from your foundational roles at BCG and in investment banking, how have these experiences intertwined to elevate your leadership profile in the digital finance realm, particularly during your transformative decade at Charles Schwab? What are some pivotal learnings that have guided your journey?

I feel lucky to have had the training I received in both investment banking and consulting. The skillset I gained through those roles on fundamental financial analysis, structured thinking, and storytelling has continued to help me through my career. It’s been really fun to learn new areas in digital and be able to apply those foundational skills. So much of getting work done comes down to clarity in thought and storytelling, and that is true in any functional area.

One additional learning from consulting has been the ability to tackle any problem, whether familiar or unfamiliar. Today, I may not be the subject matter expert on everything, but I’m confident about my ability to jump in and seek out the experts to get to the right answer. That’s an intangible skill that has been very helpful over time.

My most interesting, pivotal learnings have actually included times I’ve had to unlearn a skill in a new role. A good example is from consulting: I had been conditioned in banking to go for speed, even at the sacrifice of a little bit of polish. But in consulting, I got the advice to slow down and get something more polished before submitting for review.

A different learning that I continue to use regularly is advice I got from a BCG principal I was working with to “say no by saying yes.” I had just told a partner “no” on all their feedback on a deck, and my leader encouraged me to find the intention behind the comment and offer something to the effect of, “We can’t do exactly what you’re asking for, but we CAN do this.” That problem-solving and positioning help me still to this day.

Lastly, I had profound learnings leaving consulting and strategy and moving into the business doing product development. It was hard to realize that I had gone from being confident in my strategy skills to not nailing it in a new job, and that being a “high performer” isn’t cut and dry in all places. I had to learn how NOT to get to answers right away and to see the challenge as not just getting to the right intellectual answer (more what I experienced in consulting), but rather more figuring out who was needed for a piece of work to succeed and how to “stage” the right engagements to drive much more complex and deep changes within an organization.

Do you have a favorite BCG memory? A case team experience, tale from the road, breakthrough with a client, or story from the office?

I was so lucky to work in BCG Greater China—it was such an amazing experience and I loved working with my BCG Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing colleagues. As an American-Born Chinese, I was grateful to have been welcomed by colleagues whose Mandarin was far better than mine and who helped me navigate living in a new region.

One memorable moment was during a project helping a household appliance maker research how to better market to Tier 5–6 cities (less-urban areas). We needed to take a train to one of the locations, and all the first-class tickets were sold out. Unfazed, I told the associate I was working with, “Well, we have to get there, get the regular tickets!” My colleague looked horrified, and soon later, I understood why. We had planned to work on the train, but our car was packed and we had live animals and even someone boiling a giant pot of stew next to us! Suffice it to say that we did not get any work done on that train.

What is a memorable piece of advice you’ve received that you'd like to share with current BCGers and alumni?

An important piece of advice that I had to internalize coming out of BCG is that in many environments, there isn’t a structured promotion cadence the way there is in, say, banking or consulting. That means linking yourself to a very rigid promotion timeline in your mind may lead to disappointment. For me personally, there were moments when I was frustrated to see someone less tenured than me move up faster through promotion. But in hindsight, especially in more operational roles, there’s a specific benefit to working at a more junior level so you fully internalize that type of work and are then able to lead people more effectively down the line. Related to this less-structured promotion environment, I found it helpful to schedule development conversations with people I admired to ask them how they thought I was doing and what opportunities they thought I had before considering an expanded role. In some cases, those conversations surprised me as those leaders shared I was further along in my development than I had realized, and having those conversations made me top of mind when some of those opportunities did come up.

Lastly, there’s a ton I’ve learned about managing my own reactions to growth and change over the years. For those interested in hearing more on some of those learnings, a recent podcast I recorded with the Clarifier podcast shares several lessons I’ve learned over time.