Erin Montella says her life today is the antithesis of the life she led a bit more than a decade ago.
Then, she was known as Erin Callan. She was chief financial officer for Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in the months before the company’s September 2008 collapse.
Ms. Montella — as she prefers to be called since adopting her husband’s surname a few years ago — ascended to the CFO role at age 41 in December 2007, just as the financial crisis was gathering momentum.
Some considered the investment banker an unorthodox choice, because she had never worked as an accountant or in a finance department. She quickly became the public face of the firm, striving to make the case that the business was sound through the media and in conference calls and meetings with investors.
The highest-ranking woman on Wall Street at the time, Ms. Montella also became a lightning rod for anger from investors including hedge-fund manager David Einhorn, who had bet Lehman shares would decline. In June 2008, after Lehman posted a $2.8 billion second-quarter loss, Ms. Montella resigned. Three months later, the firm was gone, too, when Lehman filed for the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Following her resignation, the Harvard University graduate, who started her career as a corporate tax attorney, moved to Credit Suisse Group AG to work with hedge funds. But in early 2009, she left both Credit Suisse and Wall Street behind.
In her 2016 memoir “Full Circle: A Memoir of Leaning In Too Far and the Journey Back,” Ms. Montella chronicles her career and her efforts, following a suicide attempt in late 2008, to build a new life with Anthony Montella, a former New York City firefighter who she’d met in high school in Queens, N.Y. The two re-connected in 2007.
“I was depressed, sad and angry all bundled up in one little firecracker ready to explode,” Ms. Montella wrote in her memoir. “The way I looked at the world, what I did was the totality of who I was. And if I wasn’t doing it, then was I anybody, really? Was there any value to me without my job?”
Ms. Montella concluded she “had to change my life and my priorities dramatically so that I would never again make a decision” like that.
These days, Ms. Montella, 52, spends most of her time in Sanibel Island, Fla., where she and Mr. Montella live with their 3-year-old daughter.
“I have led a very low-profile life since I left Wall Street,” Ms. Montella said in an interview. “I spend my time at this point raising my daughter.”
In 2013, after the publication of “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg, Ms. Montella wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times in which she cautioned against giving too much to a job.
“When I left my job, it devastated me,” she wrote. “I couldn’t just rally and move on. I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did…Until recently, I thought my singular focus on my career was the most powerful ingredient in my success. But I am beginning to realize that I sold myself short. I was talented, intelligent and energetic. It didn’t have to be so extreme.”
The volume of response from readers, she said, prompted her to write the memoir.
Ms. Montella warns that small decisions—to spend an hour on Sundays catching up on email, for example—can quickly establish “a new norm” that results in work crowding out other parts of life.
Achieving balance between work and personal life, she said, is not simple. “It’s not, let’s lean in all the way and it’s going to work out. The struggle to have two top priorities isn’t easy. That doesn’t mean you don’t try, but you shouldn’t feel that if it’s not easy you are doing something wrong.”
The Montellas recently launched a charitable foundation called the Life Balance Foundation. They started raising money this year to support programs including grants to families who cannot afford to take maternity leave. The broader goal, Ms. Montella said, is to help people establish balance between work and family life.
Ms. Montella declined to comment on her final months at Lehman beyond what she wrote in her book. One highlight: a 2015 phone call from Lehman’s chief executive Richard Fuld Jr., who said: “…he felt he had left me on my own to handle things and shouldn’t have,” she wrote. “As much as I appreciated the call, and I genuinely did, I put it in its proper place. A final closing for that chapter of my life, leaving it with a better ending.”