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Former Lehman CFO Erin Callan: ‘Don’t do it like me’

When young women ask Erin Callan, formerly chief financial officer at Lehman Brothers, for advice, she says she tells them: “Don’t do it like me.”

Callan, 47, was appointed CFO just nine months before the firm filed for bankruptcy in Sept. 2008. She said her life gradually became entirely focused on her work, edging out friends’ birthday parties and time with her husband – and having children.

These were small choices that ballooned into one major life decision, she said, a realization she wrote about for The New York Times’ Op-Ed page on Sunday. Callan sat down for an interview with Ann Curry for Rock Center, explaining why she views herself as a cautionary tale for young, ambitious women.

Since resigning from Lehman Brothers in 2008, she all but vanished from the spotlight – and says for legal reasons she still can’t discuss the collapse of the financial giant. But she says she felt compelled to weigh in on the growing national discussion about women and their work-life balance. Recently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced employees could no longer work from home, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg released a new book, “Lean In,” which encourages women to stay on the career path.

“I did achieve great success in my career – I’m just trying to provide a bit of what I’ll call a warning label that, hey, there’s something else to think about as you’re ‘leaning in,’ so to speak,” Callan said.

Callan grew up in Queens, N.Y., the daughter of a police officer and a homemaker. She was driven – a competitive gymnast who practiced so hard her hands bled, and a serious student who secured a spot at Harvard University and later New York University School of Law. After law school, Callan headed to one of the city’s most elite law firms, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, where she worked with Wall Street firms, including Lehman Brothers.

By her late 20s, she was working at the global investment banking firm, launching initiatives and working her way up. At 41, she was tapped as CFO.

“I still had things in some kind of reasonable harmony, even in my early 30s,” Callan said. “But little by little, it’s the Blackberry the second you wake up in the morning. It’s checking the Asian markets right before you got to bed at night. It’s making yourself completely available for anything that comes up. I’ve got to fly to Europe tonight … OK, I’ll go tonight.”

As Callan explains, the decisions, seemingly inconsequential at the time, added up to a life focused completely on work. As a result she says she neglected her personal relationships – and didn’t have children.