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STANDING IN THE COMPANY OF SUCCESS - It's "JANY Talk" with JA Alum, Sally Durdan

For nearly 90 years, Junior Achievement has been in the business of developing the potential of young achievers nationwide and globally. JA Alum Sally Durdan grew up in a small town called Middleport, located midway between Buffalo and Rochester in upstate New York. She attended high school in the nearby town of Lockport. It was in high school that Sally first became involved with Junior Achievement's flagship program - the JA Company Program.

Following graduation, Sally went on to develop an impressive career history. Currently, she serves as the CFO for the Retail Financial Services Business at JPMorgan Chase. Sally has an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Prior to her current position, she worked in corporate Finance for three years where she was responsible for Corporate Planning and Analysis, Corporate M&A and Finance for central infrastructure groups like Technology and Real Estate. Prior to this, she was at Citigroup for ten years in a variety of strategy planning and M&A roles in the corporate and investment bank and brokerage divisions.

Sally credits Junior Achievement with laying the foundation for her career and life accomplishments and for helping her to discover and prepare for a life of unlimited potential.

Q: WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF SUCCESS?
A: My definition of success is having a job I really enjoy - a job where I can have a real impact - but also being able to balance success at work with my family life.
Q: WHAT'S THE BEST ASPECT OF YOUR CURRENT JOB?
A: There are so many good things about it, but what I like most is that I work with people I really enjoy and respect and who respect and trust me. This is the most important thing in any career. The specific business I'm in is constantly growing and changing, so there's plenty of intellectual challenge. Because it's a large company, the more senior you become, the more opportunity there is to lead people, effect change in the company and impact people's way of thinking. I get a lot of pleasure out of this.
Q: WHAT IS THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECT OF YOUR JOB?
A: The most challenging aspect of my job is finding a way to balance career life with personal life. As you take on more senior roles it's always tempting to keep doing your old job and just add a new dimension. The challenge is to figure out how to be involved enough in the details to feel that I know what's going on, while still delegating enough to give my team a sense of ownership.
Q: AS A STUDENT, DID YOU EVER IMAGINE THAT YOU WOULD HAVE CARVED OUT A SUCCESSFUL CORPORATE BUSINESS CAREER?
A: As a young student, I read a lot of biographies of women and was very drawn to law and business. Back in 6th grade, I wanted to be a lawyer.
I remember when I was in the 8th or 9th grade I saw an ad on TV for Junior Achievement. It seemed so exciting. Connecting with JA really helped me to find my calling. It was through the JA experience that I became more interested in economics and business. By the time I graduated high school, I definitely wanted to go to business school to become a business professional.
Q: CAN YOU SHARE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR INTERNSHIP EXPERIENCES?
A: There were a range of things I learned from my internship experiences. There were simple things like learning how to dress appropriately for business, or how to book and get on a plane and travel somewhere by myself. Giving credit where credit is due - I have to say that the first time I did any of these things was with JA to participate in NAJAC (National JA Conference).
Another thing I learned was how to stand out in a crowd and how to make myself known. There was one occasion when all the interns at the company were invited to a meeting and reception with the Chairman and the President of the company. I made a decision to wear a red suit. There were very few female interns and nobody but me was wearing red. And guess what? I met the President, I met the Chairman and we had a great conversation. All because I seized the opportunity to make a memorable impression in my red suit! I quickly learned a lot about communication and interpersonal strategy - to my advantage.
Q: WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A JA STUDENT?
A: JA made a huge impression on me. I participated in the JA Company Program, which at the time was an afterschool initiative. My JA Company was sponsored by Marine Midland Bank. The local branch manager was our business mentor leader and she was a woman. It was incredibly interesting and inspiring to work with a successful business woman.
Back then, you were taught basic business, accounting and financial concepts. I liked the idea of understanding what a break-even is, or understanding the need to cover fixed costs and volume planning etc. It was like being a member of a secret society - we were doing and learning things that most kids our age knew nothing about. It was a very interesting educational experience.
Q: WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR JA PRODUCT?
A: They were always arts and crafty things. One year we made jars with sand - you could make pictures with the colored sand. In another year we made plaques out of cards. I'm pretty sure I still have one of those stored away somewhere. My father owned a furniture store and gift shop. So we had a wholesale arrangement. Having a consignment deal with my dad was very smart and very helpful. (Laughs). The other thing that was great about the JA Company program is that you actually appoint corporate officers for each of the company operational functions. So in my first year of the JA Company Program, I was the VP of Personnel. Within this role, I competed in the national VP of Personnel competition at NAJAC and I was the first runner up.
Q: WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AS THE VP OF PERSONNEL?
A: You take care of payroll. We actually paid employees and everything related to making sure people were assigned to jobs. When you participated in NAJAC you were expected to study and have a much broader awareness of personnel as a function than you would actually experience in the JA Company Program. You competed first on a local scale - for us this was within the Buffalo area - and if you won that, you would go to NAJAC and compete at the national level.
At the national competition, there were thousands of kids competing against each other in various business categories. It was a combination of written exams, interviews, presentations - the ultimate prize was to be named Company of the Year or Officer of the Year. The public speaking experience and the exposure to business people who were the judges was really amazing. Ultimately it required you to have knowledge about labor relations and personnel policies of various kinds that were above and beyond what you would do in the JA Company Program. It was a wonderful opportunity and a really intense experience. As a result, you became a very polished professional.
Q: HOW VALUABLE IS THE JA EXPERIENCE FOR STUDENTS?
A: For me it certainly sparked my interest in finance, economics and business in general. In terms of exploring a career and getting a real flavor of what business is all about, it was very helpful. The company program experience was different than the range of programs JA has today, but the fundamental lessons are the same. It's a great team-building experience. You have to know how to get along with the team. You learn how to influence others, how to get people to work together to accomplish an objective. And then there are experiences, competitions, public speaking opportunities - all wonderful preparation for any career track.
Q: WHAT DO VOLUNTEERS GET OUT OF THEIR ASSOCIATION WITH JA?
A: Volunteers get a real kick out of watching the students learn and accomplish things. I remember when I came home from NAJAC after I'd almost won the VP of Personnel award. My volunteer sponsor was at the airport with a dozen roses to greet me. It was a very big deal. The volunteers enjoy seeing students grow and they are incredibly supportive and inspirational.
Q: IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN CAREER CHALLENGES FACED BY YOU WHEN YOU WERE A GRADUATE & THE CAREER CHALLENGES FACED BY GRADUATES TODAY?
A: I think students today are dramatically more sophisticated in terms of their understanding of what the opportunities are. They do internships at much younger ages and they graduate college with a much broader experience than people typically did when I was in school. That's actually an advantage.
The flip side though was back in my day, we really didn't have the pressure of competition that students face today. I was willing to try anything and I didn't get nervous about taking risks. Today students have a keener awareness of just how competitive things are. It's a more stressful process for young people starting their careers.
It's so much harder to keep young people happy in their jobs today than it was when I was starting out. I was really thankful to have a job and worked incredibly hard to keep it, whereas young people today are less patient with the "pay your dues" system of doing things. There's much more of a sense of entitlement. They want to know what the company is going to do for them as opposed to what they are going to do for the company.
As a result, it's becoming harder to find people who are willing to do the grunt work. I often find myself counseling entry-level people that every experience is what you make it. Sometimes you can get the best experiences by taking on projects that nobody else wants. I remember when I was an analyst at McKinsey there was a big project being staffed. We needed a team of 10 people to do a big overhead cost-reduction study which wasn't considered as interesting as a strategy study. All the MBAs in the office ran the other way, wanting nothing to do with it. I raised my hand to volunteer, and I was able to take on a much broader role than I would typically have been able to as an analyst. The lesson here is if you get caught up worrying about what sounds sexy or what your friends think is "cool" - you can miss out on some incredible opportunities.
Q: WHAT ROLE HAVE WOMEN PLAYED IN INSPIRING & PREPARING YOU FOR SUCCESS?
A: Even in elementary school, I loved reading about successful women. At some point, I learned that the first woman to run for president in the U.S. was a woman named Belva Lockwood who grew up in Middleport, New York, where I lived. Belva, if I remember it correctly, became a lawyer and eventually had aspirations to political office. She couldn't vote for herself because it was before women had the right to vote. She had to overcome so many challenges in her life. Somehow I just really connected with her and developed an affinity for stories of women who have succeeded against the odds. It was from Belva Lockwood's story that I first got the idea of becoming a lawyer.
Other inspirational women in my life were my grandmother and my mother. My grandmother was a working woman - an antiques dealer. My grandmother had always worked and she served as a positive role model for me. Although my mother didn't work when I was young, when I entered the 6th or 7th grade she went back to work and eventually ran my parents' business. They both helped instill a strong work ethic in me.
Q: WHO ARE SOME OF THE WOMEN WHO HAVE MENTORED YOU?
A: Actually, most of the mentors and sponsors in my career have been men. Men can play a really important role in the development and success of women. But in terms of women who have mentored me in my career - I've had a few.
The counsel of other professional women has been very helpful at different transitions in my life. I remember when I was leaving McKinsey I was trying to decide what job to take. I was just getting married, and a Director at McKinsey with whom I had worked set up lunches for me with a series of very senior female executives he knew in different professions. They advised me about finding a balance between home life and work life and gave me tips about raising children while maintaining and developing a career. It became invaluable advice when I got to that stage in my own life.
Women mentors have also been very helpful on style points. For example a few years ago a woman I worked for told me to stop taking notes in meetings. She noticed that I was always taking notes and writing when the men who worked for me were not. It was just my style of processing information. However, from a leadership standpoint, it sent the message that I wasn't in charge, even though I was the more senior person.
Further on in my career, the same woman gave me another really invaluable piece of advice. She was giving me some performance feedback and it was not very good. We'd gone through a very challenging period right after the Citibank/Travelers merger. I thought I had done a great job with very limited resources managing one way or another to integrate the financial reporting of the two companies without adding to my staff. Her perspective on my performance was quite different. She told me that it was my job to figure out what resources, staff systems etc., were necessary to do the job properly, and then pound on the table until senior management gave me what was required.
Q: HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE LIKE YOURSELF TO BECOME ENGAGED IN THE EDUCATION OF YOUNG PEOPLE?
A: It's really important for business professionals to invest in the education of young people. I just think about people who had an influence on me when I was a young person. I didn't come from a privileged background. I grew up in a really small town. Nobody from my high school went to an Ivy League college. But because I had role models and mentors from Junior Achievement in my life to show me what the range of opportunities open to me could be, it became a logical choice to apply to top colleges. Now, I try to get involved in opportunities where I can pass the torch of inspiration to young people who need it. By sharing my story, by showing young people where I came from, I hope they will understand that no matter where they come from, opportunities are out there if one can commit oneself to trying really hard.


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