From Intern to President: Charting Adena Friedman's Rise at Nasdaq

Adena Friedman is no stranger to Wall Street.

In fact, she’s really no stranger to the art of negotiation.

As a child, the now-president of Nasdaq OMX Group (NASDAQ:NDAQ), developed her best poker face as she faced off against her father in a range of card games from poker and gin rummy. They’re a fond memory of her childhood, and she still sits down to play a round or two with her dad when she has time, though she said his game these days is bridge -- a game that's now on her list to learn.

Whether she realized it at the time or not, the time she spent dueling with her dad helped her develop whip-smart critical thinking skills that have helped propel her to one of the top positions on Wall Street.

In her role, Friedman handles a wide swath of Nasdaq’s business, including the financial responsibility for the company’s listing and information services as well as its technology solutions. Last year, those divisions brought in revenues of $1.25 billion, according to a regulatory filing, which accounts for 60.6% of the firm’s sales (excluding transaction-based expenses).

Under those segments, Friedman’s portfolio includes helping private companies list their shares on the public market, giving firms access to market-information feeds, and managing platforms public companies utilize for investor and public relations.

In addition, Friedman is also very active in helping Nasdaq continue to evolve past its exchange roots.

In fact, she helped work on launching the Nasdaq Futures market, which seeks to rival Intercontinental Exchange (NYSE:ICE) and the CME Group (NYSE:CME) in energy futures trades.

“We launched that just a couple of weeks ago and we have 65 participants that have already joined us, and we have over 10,000 contracts trading a day in different instruments in energy in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s really gotten off to a great start.”

Nasdaq CEO Bob Greifeld told the Wall Street Journal back in March that the new market would offer pricing at as much as a 50% discount to its competitors’ prevailing rates, with the hope of delivering $50 million in profit for Nasdaq by snagging 10% of the energy futures market within the initiative's first two years.

Friedman, proud of the work she does at the company, said she’s also helping usher in a blockchain service (made popular by the crypto-currency Bitcoin) for post-trading and settlement of privately-held shares; and helping Nasdaq pull further into the $400 billion smart-beta ETF market.

Though Friedman works for a company that is known for being an all-electronic exchange, she sees the importance of the human touch in an industry that’s moved to integrate more and more technology into the way business is carried out day after day. More importantly, she said the human element on Wall Street is one that shouldn’t be completely dismissed.

“You need to have a lot of human judgment involved in the financial industry in terms of risk management, in terms of investment decisions, and things that really allow us to blend the best of technology and the human brain,” she said

“And I believe that’s a balance that we have but we need to continue to have. In terms of the actual transaction itself, that can flow into a machine and get done. In terms of all of the inputs that you use to make that decision, that needs to be done through a human,” Friedman continued.

Paving the Path to the C-Suite

Though she’s spent nearly two decades of her career at Nasdaq, working her way up the ranks from intern to president, Friedman has ventured outside the company's walls to figure out it’s exactly where she belongs.

In 2011, she left the firm, where she worked at chief financial officer, to join private-equity heavyweight Carlyle Group (NASDAQ:CG) in the same capacity. She said, the decision was two-fold. It allowed her to spend more time with her family -- based in Washington D.C. -- and gave her the opportunity to usher in a new era at Carlyle.

“They were going through a big change within their own organization by looking at going public and they were looking for a CFO to help them do that. So it was a wonderful opportunity for me to help navigate that process through and to help really grow and build out their finance and IT organizations to support being a public company. And it was a wonderful opportunity for me to develop skills,” she explained.

"I really believe that I’ve been a better parent from being a working mother. And so I wish I hadn’t been burdened with that amount of guilt for so long."

- Adena Friedman, Nasdaq OMX Group President

Skills she later took with her when she returned to Nasdaq in 2014.

Friedman explained that most of her career was spent on the business side of a company, and it was something she’d hoped to get back to at some point down the line.

“I have to say, after five years of being CFO, I really missed being on the client side of things, and I really missed the pressure and the excitement of having that P&L responsibility,” she said. “So, when Nasdaq called and asked if I could take over as president of a large part of that business, it was such a huge opportunity I couldn’t pass up, even though Carlyle was a great place to work.”

The move ignited a firestorm of speculation on Wall Street and in the media about whether Friedman’s return to Nasdaq meant a promotion to the CEO position was all but guaranteed.

Friedman has remained mum on the issue, but one thing is for sure: she would one day like to become the top executive at a large financial services firm.

“Regardless of what might or might not happen at Nasdaq, it’s more about what’s my long-term ambition. And my long-term ambition is to be a CEO,” she said. “But my view on that is that it can’t be the CEO of just any company. To be the best CEO you can be you have to be passionate about the business you’re running. And I have true passion for the financial markets and the financial industry.”

Friedman said it was her experience as CFO that’s greatly expanded her skillset, and opened her mind to the possibility of a CEO position.

“As a CFO we are the face of the company to the investing public and I had an opportunity to develop good relationships with the investors who invested in both Nasdaq and Carlyle to see the world from their point of view,” she explained.

The Balancing Act

When she’s not putting pen to paper at either Nasdaq's downtown New York or Times Square offices, she authors words of wisdom as a LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD) Influencer,  telling personal stories about the lessons she’s learned navigating Wall Street as a female, and a working mother -- two issues that are close to her heart.

“I’m hoping that other people can learn from me, both the mistakes I’ve made, or the opportunities I’ve had, or for the decisions I’ve made for instance not to go and take a lot of different jobs in a lot of different places, but to stay in one place for most of my career,” she said.

Perhaps her biggest piece of advice is to other working moms. And to them, she says though it’s hard, do not feel guilty about balancing career and family.

“I had children very young. You go through a period of immense guilt about being a working mother. And at the same  time, my children now are 19 and 17 and they’re wonderful, successful, happy, wonderful boys. You also see that I was able to spend a lot of time with them, and I made sure I carved out the time they needed me to be there,” she said.

She said both Nasdaq and Carlyle were “immensely helpful” in helping her make sure she took time away from the office to catch a baseball game, or travel to a chess tournament -- what mattered most to her is that she was there for some of those important moments in her sons’ lives.

“I really believe that I’ve been a better parent from being a working mother. And so I wish I hadn’t been burdened with that amount of guilt for so long. I wish someone had said, ‘It’s okay.’ It’s a matter of prioritizing your time so that outside of work you are there for the important things,” she said.