NICKLAUS SUINO

A Deep Appreciation of Structure and Process

I’m absolutely over the top about interviewing someone who comes from the same humble roots as I do, and who has risen to the top of her profession … not with luck, but with extraordinary talent and hard work. Lise Suino (my big sister) is CFO of the Houston Grand Opera. She’s had equally high-profile gigs as Deputy Director of Administration and CFO of the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and, perhaps most notably, at the Apollo Theater Foundation in Harlem, first as CFO, then as COO. She started the New York portion of her career as Senior Vice President of Special Projects at The New 42ndStreet, Inc., where she was a key part of the team that helped transform Time Square to the vibrant, prosperous business center it is today. In this interview you’ll see some of what makes Lise so inspirational to be around. Putting all family bias aside, I can say she truly rocks!

CFO of Houston Grand Opera - Lise Suino

The Questions

Lise, we’ve known each other, well it seems like forever! We come from the same mix of challenging and inspiring circumstances. We’ve grappled with a lot of similar memories and influences, both good and bad. We attended many of the same schools. One of my greatest joys in life has been to watch your trajectory – how you’ve leveraged your intellect and incredible hard work to land high profile jobs and totally crush your work every place you’ve been.     

 We just spent the Thanksgiving holiday together and I was once again struck by how you’re still so much yourself in every circumstance … engaged, thoughtful, humble, and warm. 

 My perspective on your life is probably inaccurate from your point of view, but thinking back on our time growing up together, and then as you went to high school, college and grad school, it seems that you were ready to rise from pretty early on. I’m sure you struggle with self-doubt and setbacks like everybody, but from the outside your career looks like a fairly steady rise toward high profile work. 

 Can you set the stage for our readers? Would you mind sharing a bit about where you come from and how it impacted your world view? What were the circumstances growing up that you think formed your view of what was important and what was possible in life? 

 Growing up the child of an artist meant there were no limits – everything was fodder for consideration – to be played with, to see how it fit, to find out how it makes you feel. Being the child of a teacher provided endless opportunity for discussion, analysis, conversation.  The line was drawn at emotional needs - these parents were caught up in their own emotional lockdown – there was little to spare for a child’s endless wanting. 

At some point I imagine that things started to change; that you found yourself believing in opportunity more than limitations. Was there a particular event or experience (or set of them) that led to that kind of change? In retrospect, did you just wake up one day believing in yourself, or was it a gradual process? Do you attribute the changes to some particular intervening event or person?

It gradually dawned on me that I could count on myself.  I had always had a rich internal life and found that inner life could sustain and move forward and evolve more readily if I kept it to myself.  As much as I knew my father liked me, we didn’t agree about professional aspiration, so we didn’t talk about it. There were teachers in elementary through high school who acknowledged me – even a little went a long way with me.  Once I started working, I had found my place.  People who hired me were satisfied with my performance and were able to tell me so.  I found it very encouraging.

Is there a way to distill your approach to work to a few key points? What were (and are) the actions and outlooks that have actually made the difference for you? 

I have always loved to work – this is how I engage with the world. Whether in a corporate or nonprofit setting, I’m interested in strategy – if I were the owner, how would I sustain or grow the business.  Working backward from these overall goals, I start to craft the initiatives it would take to move the institution toward these objectives, making the most of existing resources and seeing where real changes may need to be made.  All of this influences every decision made organizationally and operationally, from staffing to software. The longer you work, the more interesting this becomes, due to experience, success, failure, wider field of vision.

I believe you worked for a while after you graduated from the University of Michigan. What made you decide to apply to Columbia (and what made you believe that you might be accepted?)

This may be the easiest of your questions to answer. I left UofM considering the possibility of continuing on to grad school to combine my art history studies with either my philosophy studies – go to Munich to study aesthetics – or find a way to work in the art world in a business capacity.  I believed the latter choice would help me to support the work of artists if I learned to create friendly infrastructures for the creative process. I didn’t feel ready for New York at the time, so moved to Colorado, where mom was living, to work in an art gallery that was the entrepreneurial brainchild of a family photography studio that did much of the corporate photography in downtown Denver.  I took classes at night to help me figure out what might be next for me, first German, then economics and statistics.  As I met the professional folk who came in for their headshots, I began to believe that I was as intelligent as they were – why couldn’t I work in the corporate world and make a decent living (as it was, if I bought a pizza on Friday night after getting paid, I couldn’t afford groceries for the rest of the week!) I began applying to MBA programs at schools that had strong art history programs.  My preference at the time was the University of Denver, but I found that it was financially out of reach.  When I found I was accepted at Columbia, I called my boyfriend and asked him if he wanted to move to New York.  He said yes and the rest is history.

You and I have talked a lot about the challenges created by our parents’ unique personalities. Do you mind sharing a few of those challenges from your point of view? 

 What “inside stuff” do you think you’ve struggled with because of those challenges? By “inside stuff” I mean internal assessments, self-doubts, thinking habits … the things that go on inside your head that are maybe less than helpful to your happiness and achievement?

The primary challenge has been the classic impact on a child of narcissistic parenting – that I will never be good enough.  I fight with this every day.  Also, this idea that I have to do everything myself has become a limitation.  Learning that others can provide resources has been a tough lesson – it requires vulnerability and trust of others – something that felt particularly dangerous in our family.

Do you have any regular practices to help you keep your inside stuff under control? Do you just function on cruise control, or do you find that you still have to actively work to maintain an opportunity mindset? 

I know that the only thing that works for me is to keep moving forward.  There are always new projects to be tackled, at home, at work or in exploring the world.  I know I can’t grind to a halt or I’ll deteriorate into sadness and depression. I now understand intellectually that these emotions are, in some ways, a choice. There is no reason they need to be embraced, but they will always be there. I prefer to keep them a small quiet voice next to the more interesting possibilities around me.

 As someone who done a lot of stuff right along the way, do you ever struggle with taking advice from others about thing in your profession? If so, why do you think that is? If not, what’s made it possible for you set aside pride or ego to be able to take advice from others?

Not at all – I love what I do, but don’t see it as something outside myself.  Lifelong learning is very real for me – I’m hoping to keep tweaking what I do until I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  The practice of management is always in motion – best laid plans go awry in an instant and you’re left regrouping on a changed playing field.

I don’t know if it’s because we’re siblings, but for someone who’s played in a few pretty large sandboxes, you seem pretty grounded. I can’t recall a time even when we fought as kids when you’ve acted arrogant or callous. Any secrets to staying humble?

Perhaps the realization that there are always more answers out there.  I may have a few, but I’m pretty sure you do too!

This may be the important question of the day for people who are struggling with giving themselves permission to thrive .... Do you work from passion, from discipline, or a mix of the two? Do you have any advice for other people who want to rise beyond their circumstances, on either or both of those sources of accomplishment? 

Definitely both – my passion drives me, but years of discipline have given me a deep appreciation of structure and process.  I think that studying violin when I was young laid the groundwork for the beauty and purpose of iteration.  Today I am thinking about the team I’ve been working with for about a year – their strengths are coming into focus.  I come into work in the morning with a problem to be solved, assemble the group and chew it through with all of them and then I know at least the next step I’m going to take. I am as thrilled with the process as I am with putting the solutions into place.

As far as advice goes, discipline can be learned – passion can’t be helped!

Based on our recent conversations, it’s clear you’re still, happily, learning. I think it’s fair to say you believe that continuous learning is a critical part of a rich, successful life. What are some resources you go to habitually to stay informed, inspired, coached, or guided?

I have always had bosses who were able to guide me – some more kindly than others.  I have sought managers with experience to move me forward wherever I was professionally.  These have been terrific resources.  I have also had years of therapy, helping me to clarify the impact of both parties in a relationship, and giving me enough tools to be comfortable participating in nearly any setting.

How about some words of caution? What are some mistakes you see people making, whether in their thinking, in their approach to life, or professionally, that might not be serving them well?

Generally, people get in their own way.  There’s such a drive to hold on to our defenses that we can’t see what a choice that is.  

One more question for today. What does the world need more of in the spheres you inhabit? In other words, for people who want to thrive in business, in mindset, in life ... what should they be looking for from your point of view as far as ways to serve the world with distinction and compassion?

The jobs we inhabit are incredibly demanding – it takes everything we have to keep them on a trajectory.  Working in a cultural nonprofit is multi-dimensional, always in motion, with loads of moving parts. Maybe every job is like this.  There’s a lot at stake, so it’s important to maximize the use of whatever resources you have.  Respect the people you work with, that you work for, and assume everyone you meet is facing a similar challenge.

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