Career Path: Financial Women's Assn President and MD, J.P. Morgan

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I have had an extraordinarily lucky and rewarding career at J.P. Morgan. I am 39, younger than most in my line of business and executives at my level, and I think it's fair to say that I am probably of the generation that is benefiting from a lot of the efforts and focus and removal of barriers by women ahead of me. I'm in that generation where I can see where that has happened. When I first started at J.P. Morgan, I knew the first female VP of the firm.

Now, I know there are women around me who are more senior in this organization who absolutely made the path clearer for me. I am in the generation where I can honestly say I have both male and female mentors and bosses and I don't think there has been any instance where I didn't feel properly compensated or rewarded. I'm in this in-between generation that has a great respect for the women who came before me. I feel a sense of obligation to them.

I became involved in the Financial Women's Association and have served on its board since 1994. The FWA has influenced me far, far beyond just this one year that I am serving as its president. With FWA, I have the chance to network with people not only within my own organization, but also outside of it-- and to really network in the general professional sense, not simply because of business or a responsibility to a common organization.

The FWA has really sensitized me to professional development and the need to continually grow. You come out of business school and the last thing you want to do is study or take coursework. What's nice about the FWA is that, from a different perspective, it gives access to leaders in the field. Developing your own leadership skills is something you need to constantly do. You change, so it's reasonable that you need to keep emphasizing skills or developing new ones with people- different disciplines, different perspectives and so forth.

You also need to build your network and your web of personal connections to get what you need, and to discuss issues with people, too. You will have more sound judgment and if nothing else, you'll be able to reinforce a point more fully if you've examined it from someone else's point of view.

Also, as FWA president, I truly appreciate the importance of making a social investment. There is something that can be said when women invest in themselves and support themselves with a network and do actually become leaders via their influence and access.

In my own career, networking has been very important to my success.

Building a People Web

I got my BS degree in management from Binghamton University and graduated with an MBA from NYU in May 1990. I really enjoyed going to school and getting the theoretical learning, and at the time I went to NYU, it still had a campus downtown. I attended NYU from late 1987 until right after the crash, and it's safe to say that if you wanted to be in the investment banking or capital markets arena, having an MBA was still the price of admission. It didn't necessarily secure your fame and fortune but it was core to any background or portfolio if you wanted to have more successful positions in that field. I started working for Goldman Sachs upon my graduation from Binghamton in 1987 and it was convenient, as the NYU business school campus back then was still located downtown.

At Goldman during that time, I was a junior trading assistant in the money markets division. I liked it a lot. I liked the pace, the ability to focus on different markets and work in different market conditions in the course of any day. I like variety in what I do. As my career has gone on, I've worked as a product and marketing generalist rather than a specialist. I haven't stayed in the same silo of disciplines. From very early on, I have liked the variety and learning about the markets.

I left Goldman in January 1990; I had already accepted a job offer to come into the capital markets training program at what was Chase at the time. Opportunities at Goldman were fantastic but this was a couple of years after the crash and it's safe to say that markets were not rocking and rolling back then. I was stock-broking at Goldman but it's not what I wanted to do, and Chase's trading floor development program seemed a perfect fit. I'd rotate around different desks on the trading floor and gain practical knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge. It just fit.

For the first five years at Chase, from 1990 to 1995, I worked in the capital markets division of the firm. I did currencies and commodities and fund-to-funds work, the precursor to what are hedge funds now. The work was about structuring and marketing investment and hedging products for the global client base of institutional and private investors, and that was wonderful. And what was really great was that at that age, my mid-20s, I was getting to travel around the U.S. and around the world and learning from the masters in the field how to structure products. This helped me build my network around the globe. We were marketing to institutional customers, so I also got to travel to London, all over Asia, to Australia, to all the market centers around the world.

I had the chance to learn about different economies, lifestyles, and cultures. It rounded out my experience in a way that's been invaluable and reinforced something deeply meaningful to me. Emerging from that first role, I understood the concept of networking.

Global Networking

This time, professionally, helped me to build up many contacts within the organization, and it made me realize the importance of networking and the power of having your own web of people that you can call on to help you make your own decisions. I was told once, by someone very wise, that you don't need to know everything. You just need to know where to go to get it. And it's true.

In 1995, the second third of my career began. We moved capital markets into the custody division and I started a team called the Investment Products Group, which I was able to build up, manage, and use to bring capital markets to institutional customers. There, I was responsible, globally, for cash management, investment management, foreign exchange, futures clearing and trade execution products for the global institutional client base. During this time, I would travel again but this time more as a manager of a business, so my travel during those five years was an opportunity to build a network but at a different level.

I also learned during this time how to manage non-product and marketing program components of budgets and the like. It was during that second five years, as I was beginning to manage a business myself, that I developed the strongest professional network of connections that I have: peers of mine who also were managing businesses in their own right. Professionally, my work then was about the discipline of being a business manager and growing a business. That's a generic conversation. You're relying on someone's wisdom and expertise, not as a competitor in a specific part of your company but more as one business manager to another. So, as we have all moved to different positions within the firm, this conversation among us can still happen. This is one of biggest things I gained.

I also gained the knowledge of how to build and manage a team, how to get into the mentality of team, team theory, and what it means to be part of a team. I learned how to distinguish strong individual contributors and yet understand the importance of connections among members of a well-structured team. You have to allow individuals to shine and yet build upon the individual strengths of all. And while I am so very proud of the people who work for me, when I got to my next role, which has been my career for the last five years, I put the best team together that I have ever seen professionally, the men and women working with me now. It sounds corny but at the end of the day, I'm in the broker and investment business. It's an objective business, all about putting numbers on the board. But having a network and having a team will enable you to do that more efficiently and more effectively, and candidly, to also have a little bit of fun along the way.

You grow up in your career as you grow up in your life. There are some people now that work within my organization that I am probably lucky to consider as friends.

In the last five years of my career so far, I began coming into my professional maturity. I am substantially more senior now than I was in the earlier stages of my career. I am the senior business executive for business at J.P. Morgan Invest Inc., a retail asset management business. We run three lines of business: an online brokerage business focused on serving active, self-directed investors; the retirement planning services business, located in Kansas City, dealing with 401Ks and retirement planning for customers; and one that we're building, which is also brokerage and retirement but for people less affluent, those who are like many of the rest of us in the universe, people who are not in it because management of their own money is fun, but rather because they must do so to live.

A Career Regret

I think the one regret I have, or the one career mistake I made, the one thing I didn't pursue as aggressively as I should have or didn't feel comfortable enough doing, was taking an overseas assignment. As I emerged later in life, I compensated for that, but not without considerable effort. People who mentored me and who I admire here seem to have taken that chance early in life, so while it's not costing me now, I do regret not having pursued that opportunity.

At the age of 24, that would have been easier to do than now. I mean, I'm so thankful I got my MBA over with when I did, but I wish I would have been a little bit more aggressive pursing the opportunity. I don't know that anything would have come faster with regard to my career or regarding my professional perspective, but I do think I would have had more first-hand knowledge and would have been more comfortable around having an even better understanding of different cultures and points of view. It took a lot of time and additional effort on my part to do all that from afar; it took more work than would have otherwise been the case.

What I love about my job right now are two things. First, we are building something that has incredible amounts of risk associated with it but it is supported within the organization, and we will be successful on our own merits. I personally find that more challenging and invigorating than anything else.

If you examine my career, being able to really go for something and knowing it might not work out is invigorating. Knowing that win or lose, either is caused by factors you had control over, and that is exciting.

The second thing I love about my job is the people I work with. I am surrounded by some of the most professional and accomplished people I've ever worked with in my career, and they're also pleasant and nice people. I am in an environment that is supportive, challenging and invigorating in all the positive ways and I'm doing it with people I genuinely like and can learn from, regardless of the results of the business goals. It doesn't get better than that, and I feel incredibly lucky.

mstepanek@efinancialcareers.com

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