Adelaide “Alex” Sink, 67, has spent her life trailblazing a path through Florida’s history. As one of the first female executives in banking, Sink built a distinguished career for 26 years that culminated as president of Bank of America’s Florida operations. She was the first woman to serve as the state’s Chief Financial Officer and set her sights on a bigger political prize in 2010. Sink came within 60,000 votes of becoming Florida’s first female governor, losing to Rick Scott in one of the closest races in election history.
After stepping aside from the political stage following her loss of a special Congressional seat election, Sink still remains political gold for the Democratic Party. She is actively supporting and raising money for Hillary Clinton on her Presidential bid, and the staunch Democrat is visible on the local level, championing for the next generation of candidates and advocating for more women to run for political office. She is also active on the board with the Florida Next Foundation, an organization that inspires entrepreneurial and small business growth.
After the sudden loss of her husband of 26 years, Bill McBride, she mourned in public with the grace and dignity many of us could not imagine. Now, Sink is on a personal journey to define her next role in life, as the mother to two older children, Bert and Lexi, but also on how she would like to create her best life.
In her own words, Sink shares the sacrifices she made to climb the executive ladder, the values that she still steadfastly holds onto, and how she maintains as one of the most vocal proponents for Florida’s future.
You were a trailblazer in banking at a time when most women were not visible in those roles. What are some of the issues you faced and how have you overcome those?
When I first started working in banking during the 1970s, laws had just been passed so companies were grappling with all sorts of reporting and what does it mean to be sure that women are represented at many levels. I was recruited for a management-training role with less than five others. We had a lot of attention but there were stumbles along the way.
One of the first issues was equal pay for equal work. It’s always been about women proving themselves knowing they can do the job and then not being afraid to ask for what you’re worth. Part of the challenge was trying to figure out how to present your cause. I eventually was asked to take a transfer to New York City and open an office where I learned the importance of putting together a good team of people.
Did you have other women mentors that you helped you in your career?
There were no women within my company to mentor me, per se, so I had a number of male mentors who helped and advocated for me and gave me good advice about work situations.
I found my female mentors came from my involvement in politics. I was part of the Charlotte Women’s Political Caucus with about 200 members, ranging in age from 25 to 45. Charlotte had elected a couple of women to city council by that time. A couple of women had been elected to the legislature. That’s the place that I’ve found my women friends and got my feet wet in political activism.
How did you transition from banking executive into politics?
You’ve got to find an employer who is going to encourage and support that involvement. Some employers are better at it than others. Anything that’s a distraction outside of the workplace is viewed as kind of taking away from what you could be doing to advance the company’s goals. If you’re working for a big named law firm and you want to be a partner, you better not be seen as somebody who spends a lot of time advancing a political career.
Thirty years ago, I was able to marry my interest in public life and politics with my career. By this time I was in middle management in banking, for the most part where people are Republicans. It made me the acknowledged Democrat and I was never shy about the fact. I remember there was some issue that came up at the federal level and Lawton Chiles, at the time was a senator. It made me feel pretty good when some senior people in the company called and asked me if I thought I could talk to Senator Chiles about this issue we were interested in.
What was the biggest lesson that you learned in the public arena?
It’s really important to know what your values are. For me, I wanted to be sure that we were very customer-focused. When I served as the president of the Florida Group, we received many awards in the company for attention to customer service. We had this saying that if our employees are happy, then they’re going to provide the best service and make happy customers. Happy customers are going to make happy shareholders. The value that I try to follow is to really focus on what’s the right thing to do, whether to help that man in the street or the voter that may not have a voice.
How has the banking industry changed since you left?
It’s hard to believe that just 15 years ago I retired from what is now Bank of America. There’s so much more regulation. It’s been an evolution in terms of the technology. I think we see a lot more women in the industry, but what we’re not seeing much of are women in senior executive roles. They’re coming out of university very well educated and entering the workplace, but the young women of today are more concerned with work-life balance. Things that I did, like commute with two small babies between Miami and Tampa, live apart from my husband for many years, and accept transfers without complaint are not in the values of the young women I have come across today.
How were you able to balance being a working mom and executive?
I had an extremely supportive husband. I had a full-time nanny and a part-time housekeeper when the children were very young. My full-time nanny still works for me 20 years later, she is wonderful. We had a grandmother in town who would babysit the kids on the weekend. If you’re going to be on a professional track, I’ve asked the other women…why are you working? You’re working to write checks to other people to make your life easier. There’s nothing shameful about it. That’s the choice I made. I love my children and I’m really proud of them. I have a son, Bert, who is a practicing lawyer now and my daughter, Lexi, will be a medical doctor in a few months.
How important is the mission of the Florida Next Foundation and growing the next generation of entrepreneurs?
I think I was inspired, actually, by the depth and the length of the Great Recession. As a result we had many young people who got their undergraduate degrees but couldn’t find jobs. It created this opportunity for anybody who was entrepreneurial to say, “I’ll start my own business.” I just believe that we need to nurture entrepreneurship and support small businesses here in Florida. Let’s get back to growing our own, creating that entrepreneurial environment and raise capital. There’s a big disconnect between the matching of people with wealth and these creators, so that’s the focus for me the last four years.
How do you view your life and career today with all that you have accomplished?
When I came back to Tampa from Tallahassee and was sort of disappointed about that election (2010 gubernatorial race against Rick Scott), I had to step back. I was totally invested in my vision for what Florida could be, and I just had to accept the fact that, well, that didn’t work out. That doesn’t mean that I can’t, on some smaller scale, work on my vision.
I’ve been trying to use my voice to promote causes I think are important for Florida. I wake up every morning and figure my goal for the day to do a good deed to help somebody else be successful. Just making myself available to impart my knowledge and my experience, and hopefully inspire. I recently got involved in a young leadership-training program called The National New Leaders Council. It’s my responsibility to teach other people what I’ve learned and what I know about organizations and running political campaigns and how to manage a successful business career.
Would you ever step back onto the political stage?
I don’t have any plans. I never thought I was going to run for office. I was going to help other people run for office, because I was in the middle of building a successful business career. In some respects, I think I can spread my influence more at this point in my life by helping other people into those positions. Then I can sit back in the corner and just be proud of their success and accomplishments.
You mourned the sudden loss of your husband, Bill, on a very public stage. How are you honoring his life and legacy?
I think that Bill was just…he was special. He was one of a kind and packed more into those 67 years than most people can pack into 100, leaving a long-lasting legacy behind. That being said, for me, I need to step forward. I don’t like being in a rut. I haven’t exactly figured out how to build a new life for myself yet, but that will come. We also put together a fund in Bill’s memory at the University of Florida Law School called the Bill McBride Public Interest Scholarship. This fund is permanently endowed for two law school students to do summer internships in public policy or at a non-profit.
What does your best life look like today?
My balanced life would be spending time in the for-profit world, whether it’s Chamber of Commerce or serving on the board of a community bank to ensure that corporate policies are people-friendly and advancing causes that are important to me like the environment, education, and what we’re doing in Florida Next Foundation. The other piece of it, and I haven’t figured it out yet, is just my personal life. Continuing to be a good and supportive mother and just enjoy taking vacations and relaxing and enjoying my place in the Bahamas. My 91-year-old father is still alive and I think about taking care of my family for the future, but having fun too, you know?
By GRAVITAS Staff
This is a preview of one of the articles that will be in our upcoming edition for Winter 2016