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How Do Waiting Tables, Teaching English, and Improving Education Lead To An MBA?

Be much bolder than you would in your comfort zone, so if you feel like you’re being bold, you’re probably not being bold enough. Push yourself even beyond what you think your limit is.

Elissa Sangster: Hello and welcome back to our three part series on careers at PNC. I’m Elissa Sangster, executive director of Forté Foundation. This is the second podcast in our series talking with the women of PNC, one of the nation’s largest diversified financial services organizations providing retail and business banking, residential mortgage banking, specialized services for corporations and government entities, including corporate banking, real estate finance and asset-based lending, wealth management and asset management.

PNC is one of the fastest growing banks in the country with more than 50,000 employees. We went behind the scenes at PNC’s headquarters in Pittsburgh to meet with women like Jen LeClair, CFO for the asset management business.

Jen LeClair: I’ve been the CFO for about three years now. My background is actually in consulting. I worked at McKinsey & Company for six years. I had great experience there.

I’ve got a lot of good professional development experience, and then prior to that, had an initial career in international development, so that’s basically who I am professionally.

Personally, I have three daughters — two, four and six — that keep me extremely busy. I don’t know what’s busier, work or home. Probably about the same, but I have a lot of fun with both.

Elissa: As you’ll hear, Jen’s career has taken some fascinating twists and turns. As a child, she thought she’d grow up to be an English professor.

Jen: My father is an English professor and with my passion for reading and the arts, I thought it would definitely be something in liberal arts, probably something in English and that I would get my PhD and be a professor. That belief kind of held through.

My undergrad, I was an English and Art History major, and absolutely loved what I did academically. Then I’ve decided to take a couple of years off after my undergraduate degree, was introduced to the real world, so you could either read about life or you can live it, and I went down the living life path.

I ended up actually, of all places, in Yellowstone National Park waiting tables, which was fabulous because I lived in a log cabin in the woods and I hiked all over the park, and I ended up making quite a bit of money, which funded my next adventure, which was in Eastern Europe.

I went over as part of Harvard Institute of International Development and I was an English teacher over there, so I followed the English path, a different form, but I became an English teacher in Poland. I did that for about a year and a half. Fell in love with what I saw happening in Poland from an economic standpoint, so I decided to go to school and learn Polish and study business development in Poland. Then decided from there international development was something that really excited me.

Then I moved back to the States because I needed good food. I was sick of pierogis. I couldn’t eat another one, so I moved back to the States and ended up in Boston, but still wanted to do something that was more adventurous than something you might have done on a more traditional career path, so I joined an organization called World Education and I managed economic development programs in the Middle East and West Africa.

I did that for several years. A lot of travel. I was a program officer, so I did a lot of travel between Boston and where my programs were in Guinea, West Africa. It was a teaching program. We were basically trying to develop a more robust education system in Guinea.

I also worked on a reproductive health project in West Africa, also in Guinea. That was in refugee camps. That was hugely challenging.

Then I spent a lot of time in the Middle East, in Egypt. There was a fabulous project working with women that were part of Bedouin tribes. This is one of the last nomadic tribal areas in the world, and we created a market link to Cairo in selling their handicrafts. I loved that project, but I also found that in non-profit there was something that didn’t quite match with my personality. There was a patience factor that I needed, that I didn’t have.

I also found that there was a bit of a leadership void not only in some of the non-profit organizations I was exposed to, but just in the political leadership landscape of the projects where I was implementing them.

I realized that that was probably the biggest thing that I wanted to develop personally because I could see how it hampered people who were really smart. They just didn’t have that leadership, so I decided from there to get my MBA. I was also, at the same time, getting older and more practical and thinking, “I’m not going to travel around the world forever.”

I got my MBA. My husband convinced me to go to Cleveland for my MBA, something I would never have done. I went to Case because I knew at that point I wanted to do something probably in consulting, so I went to business school.

I got a job at McKinsey. We stayed in Cleveland. I worked there for six years. In the course of the six years, I had two kids. I started out in a consulting career. I was on the road every single week going to various companies and working on different projects, which was just terrific experience.

After I had two kids, I decided I didn’t want to be on the road as much and then found myself in banking.

Being part of McKinsey, I had the great network that I could leverage and there were several McKinsey folks at National City where I went next, and they were recruited me in. Through that network, I ended up in strategy and then I got pulled into this finance role.

It was more because of my background and just what I liked to do, and they needed somebody who was going to be a go-getter, could move into the position. I didn’t have a particularly robust finance background. They just thought that was something I could learn on the job, so that’s what I’ve done over the last three years.

I came in with very little experience, in fact, either in the function or the industry that I’m in, and it’s been a huge learning curve for me the last three years, but it’s been fun.

Elissa: PNC acquired National City in 2008, doubling the size of the company and opening up new opportunities for Jen.

Jen: So far I’m very excited. I mean, the performance of the company, the management team, the focus areas for my business, I think we’ve got tremendous potential. In finances, we’re really focused on talent right now. That for me is exciting.

Elissa: What does Jen look for in a candidate?

Jen: For me, it’s a bit of the skill and the will, so you have to have some just baseline skill. You have to have a certain amount of problem solving acumen, a certain amount of technical skills, and communication skills are very important, and then it’s also around the will.

It’s “what is that drive?” Because that will be the factor that takes you from that average performer to that above average performer, and so I look for both of those.

I think in terms of the studies, it can be very diverse. Look at me. I was an English and Art History major, and here I am, CFO of a line of business. I think the focus should be on critical thinking skills, analytics, which you can get almost in any area that you study, and leadership.

I think if you can bring those three skills to any position, you’ll be … and the desire to achieve. If you bring those capabilities and personality traits into any job, you can be successful.

Elissa: We asked Jen to share her thoughts on pursuing a career in finance in light of the current economic climate.

Jen: Finance is kind of the bedrock for business. I would look for a bank that is performing well in spite of the economy. You want to be at a company that can weather the storm and then, you know, look at the capital positioning because that’s basically the reserve that you have against those future risks.

For me, throughout my career, it’s always come down to the people. Meet the people that you’re going to work with. Meet the management team. Do you feel like you have a connection with them? Do you feel like you could work with them?

Because at the end of the day, irrespective of the topic that you focus on, it’s all about working with people and influencing people and trying to move things forward.

I think there’s tremendous opportunities for women in business and I can just talk about what I’m seeing at PNC right now. We have a whole diversity initiative that is focused on bringing all types of ethnicities, as well as gender diversity into the workforce.

For women that’s so exciting because there’s a focus on bringing women in and making them successful that I haven’t seen in some of the other places that I have worked, and it’s real at PNC. I mean, I feel it when I talk to my managers. I feel it when I am procuring for somebody. Then I feel it when I’m talking to my team. That to me is just tremendously exciting.

There’s an absolute focus on bringing in women that will be coached and developed throughout their careers, which is great.

Elissa: Thanks again to Jennifer LeClair and all of the people at PNC who agreed to be interviewed. Stay tuned for the third and final podcast in this series when we’ll talk with two young women who were just at the beginning of their careers at PNC.

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