Lessons Learned From the Military to Wharton to the C-Suite
- by Richard Rys
As a guest of the Wharton Veterans Club, SoFi CEO Anthony Noto WG99 spoke to students about how the Army and a focus on “optionality” led him to success at Twitter, the NFL, and beyond.
“For me,” said SoFi CEO Anthony Noto WG99, “it’s always been about optionality.” That might sound like a buzzword to some, but for the former CFO/COO of Twitter and the National Football league, the notion of flexibility and a willingness to pursue unexpected opportunities has defined his career. This theme framed a wide-ranging conversation in Huntsman Hall last month, as Noto visited campus for a keynote session sponsored by the Wharton Veterans Club in honor of Veterans Week. In a packed lecture room, Noto chatted with MBA program deputy vice dean Maryellen Reilly about his time as a telecommunications officer in the U.S. Army, the many twists and turns in his professional life, and some valuable lessons he’s learned in and outside of the boardroom.
Beginning with his military service, Noto said that ranger school was an education in how to lead people through the toughest circumstances—sleep deprived, stressed, and at times low on motivation. His civilian career began when he decided to leave the Army and asked a recruiter to suggest a field that only five percent of applicants could get into. The idea that stuck was brand management, and Noto ended up at Kraft Foods, where his role gave him an invaluable view of the entire organization.
Noto earned an MBA from Wharton in his late 20s and followed many of his classmates to Wall Street, as a research analyst for Lehman Brothers, which he says was a good match of his skills and the demanding nature of the job. That eventually led him to Goldman Sachs, where Noto rose from analyst to partner in just a few years. His backgrounds in tech, retail, and internet made him an ideal fit for the CFO role with the NFL in 2007, but the “safe space” he anticipated in pro sports turned out to be a literal nightmare as the 2008 financial crisis unfolded. “I went to bed every night thinking I was going to be the CFO who bankrupted the NFL,” he said, adding he’d literally get sick from stress during those days. “But what I learned is that I thrive in those situations.”
After rebuilding the economic foundation of the league, Noto looked for new challenges—first in a return to Goldman in banking, where he realized that deal-making was his strength. “Deals are about algebra,” he said. “How do I find the only solution with these equations and sets of unknowns?” In that role, he helped take Twitter public in 2013; a year later, he joined the social media company as its CFO, and later its COO. Now, after joining SoFi in February, Noto’s goal is typically ambitious—to make his company the Amazon of fintech. In summing up his philosophy on thinking big, Noto recalled his time playing football at West Point and the team’s motto one season: “Who dares wins,” a phrase borrowed from the British Air Special Services.
Noto wrapped up by fielding questions from students and offering some career (and life) advice:
- He’d already been practicing much of what he learned in class at Wharton during his career, but, he said, “I got a lot better after I came here and learned the academic theory.”
- The same instincts Noto honed in ranger school have carried him through the toughest times in business: He refuses to let down the people who count on him, and when an impossible challenge presents itself, he breaks each “mission” into parts and tackles one at a time.
- For students who aren’t sure what career they want, preserving optionality is key. Find something that will help you create more potential paths.
- Three tips for professional success: Run after problems. Get to the truth. Make your footprint bigger than your foot.
- Three tips for personal success: Work as hard as you can. Do the right thing, and if you’re not sure what that is, do the hard thing. Take care of other people.
- The most valuable aspect of his Wharton experience was the people he met: “The relationships you build last a lifetime. And more important than building them—don’t let them deteriorate.”