At Western Asset, Connie Fischer Succeeds by Listening

Connie Fischer hasn’t followed a traditional investment management career path. After high school, she briefly attended junior college to pursue pharmacy, but this pursuit failed to really capture her attention and imagination. It was only after someone recommended her to a receptionist job at an investment brokerage that she found her calling; her career took off and she finished an Economics degree. In previous positions at Guggenheim Partners and BlackRock – and now in her new role as Director of Portfolio Operations at Western Asset – Connie has demonstrated the tenacity to succeed in investment management while remaining authentic and humble. 

Current Role: Everything but the Investing

Your resume says that you “run the business side of the Investment Team globally” and are “the senior person responsible for managing counterparty relationships.” Can you share some examples of what you do?

I have not yet completed my third month here, so I am drinking from a firehose. Right now I am trying to understand the organization and culture, so I am on a “listening tour.” When you are new to an organization, one of the most important things to do is listen. I am spending a lot of time meeting people from different groups – for example, legal, accounting, back office operations, client-facing and Investment Management (IM) teams. 

At Western Asset, the investment part of the organization thinks about where the markets are going, manages risk on behalf of our clients, and invests our clients’ money. My job is to focus on other aspects of running the IM Team. Practically speaking, I am the interface to the entire rest of the organization, which allows our CIO and Deputy CIO to focus on managing our clients’ assets.

My own focus is on the budgets, and legal and operations issues. I oversee IT projects; I do a lot of the heavy lifting to keep the investment teams running. It’s a chief-of-staff or chief-operations-officer type of role. In my role, my key stakeholders are internal teams as opposed to external clients. 

I get involved with the daily running of the organization, and also manage all the relationships with large banks with whom we buy and sell assets. There may be strategic things we do with banks that benefit our clients, and with counterparties we identify areas where we can do more or better business.

What is your favorite part of your job? 

I never have the same routine on a given day, and even after 30 years, I am consistently learning every day. That never stops. Being around very smart people with rich and diverse perspectives on the world makes every day interesting and challenging.

I never have the same routine on a given day, and even after 30 years, I am consistently learning every day. That never stops.

What characteristics does someone need to be successful in a role like yours? 

You need the ability to think about the organization’s needs and not just a particular group or unit.  You need some gravitas and confidence to put out ideas and have them shot down, a willingness to go places when no one else is raising their hands, and an openness to whatever comes your way. Flexibility and agility are important because a lot of very different issues arise throughout any given day. Sometimes I feel like I am standing in the middle of a merry-go-round and looking in all directions

What is most challenging?

I am a problem-solver by nature. People can be the most rewarding and the most challenging aspect of this role. Everyone has different perspectives so getting people on board to solve problems and align in their thinking can be challenging.

…a lot of very different issues arise throughout any given day. Sometimes I feel like I am standing in the middle of a merry-go-round and looking in all directions.

Early Years: Small-Town Roots

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in small towns in Kansas, Arizona, and Nevada and went to high school in Florida. I spent my formative years in southeastern Arizona. I am a small-town girl at heart.

Is there anyone in your life (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, employers) who particularly influenced your educational or career path? 

There have been several people along the way, but when you move around a lot you don’t necessarily attach to a particular person. I have not had a traditional career path. I finished high school and attended junior college to become a pharmacist and ended up leaving college after one year. I went back to college off and on for a few years then took a job at a brokerage firm as a sales assistant. It lasted a month-and-a-half before they closed the office. But at this brokerage firm, a woman recommended that I become a receptionist at another office, telling them that I “had something” and urging them to take a chance on me. I will never forget that. Showing me that kindness set my career in a new direction. 

I remember a moment when I was working for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette [former investment bank] that impacted me. I was on a call with a client, and someone was asked about a recent economic agreement with Russia that someone else on the phone had drafted. For someone like me who didn’t grow up around sophistication, to be around someone who had done something like that inspired me to go back to school at night and finish my degree in Economics at the University of San Francisco. 

Did you ever dream about a different career?

My father’s goal for me was to be a lineman at the electric company. I had wanted to be a pharmacist and to own a pharmacy, but I fell in love with the work at the brokerage and I was good at it, so I switched course. 

 I will never forget that. Showing me that kindness set my career in a new direction.

 Career Path: Don’t Be Afraid of Things You Don’t Understand

Your resume mentions that prior to joining Western Asset this year, you were at Guggenheim Partners and BlackRock most recently. What prompted you to go to Western Asset?

A year ago, I left Guggenheim to work on personal projects and thought I would probably not come back to this business. At some point, I started driving everyone at home crazy. This opportunity at Western Asset came up, and I was attracted to its strong culture. It’s very collaborative, very collegial, and clients come first. People are genuinely nice here; they are smart, and they are thoughtful. It is exactly as they described it. This role is perfect for me – I am a “jack of all trades,” which is what this role requires. 

Looking back, has there been a pivotal moment or decision when you said “yes” that took your career in a new direction?

I took a role at Barclays Global Investors (BGI) in 1999, an extremely innovative firm, to run operations. I never actually did that job. On Day One, my boss walked in and asked me what I knew about IT and systems. I told him that I knew nothing about IT or project management, and he said, “Don’t worry, we will pair you up with a project manager.” I was scared to death, but the project manager was phenomenal and helped me find a new system for the firm. 

I asked her, “You always seem to have the answers, how do you do it?” She said, “I don’t have the answers, I wing it and hope I am going the right direction then take the feedback.” Clearly, she wasn’t just winging it, but she listened, and she wasn’t afraid of challenges or taking on things she didn’t understand. She had good instincts and had people around her with a common goal who were supportive. 

Supporting Women: Break Free of Tunnel Vision

Based on your career experiences, what advice do you have for a young woman new to business?

Find a mentor. I didn’t understand that concept until I was in my thirties. You don’t have to go through a formal program. Strike up a conversation with someone – through a network, in the office kitchen, or it can be someone outside your company. Find someone you feel comfortable with to bounce ideas off of in a safe space. I wish I would’ve had more guidance as I was going along. Everyone, no matter what level, needs trusted advisors.

What is about Forté’s mission (get more women leading) that makes you want to support our efforts? 

As women, we don’t always put ourselves first and advocate for ourselves. Having a community that gives women different perspectives and levels of experience is very important. Many networks are industry-based, but for me, it’s good to meet women with different backgrounds from different industries. You can easily become too focused within your own industry, without awareness of other experts in their own respective fields.  Breadth of experience is interesting and useful. 

I wish I would’ve had more guidance as I was going along. Everyone, no matter what level, needs trusted advisors.

Personal Passions: Hockey Mom and Dog Rescuer  

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working? I am a hockey mom and, literally seven days a week, I’m driving my son all over Southern California. I am into dirt bikes. I like off-roading, hiking, scuba diving, and water and snow skiing.  I love to travel. 

Is there anything on your “bucket list” you’d be willing to share? 

I tend to go with the flow and do things as the opportunity comes up, but I am into animal rescue, primarily large dogs. I prefer the ones that are harder to train, and the more complicated and challenging, the better. I would like to acquire a property where we can take older dogs and ones that are less likely to be adopted. The shelters are too full, and there is a huge need. 

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