Business growth and success can sprout from decisions rooted in financial analysis – but a spreadsheet isn’t the only source for answers. For Ally Bank CFO and Weatherhead alumna Jennifer LaClair (MBA ’01), her eclectic career before Weatherhead and experience at the school built a set of skills critical to her success, developing a view well beyond the financial perspective.
“We’d like to believe that business problems can be solved with a simple formula, but it’s not like that,” said LaClair. “Decisions are made much more in a complex organizational context.”
Seeking to build leadership skills and a greater understanding of organizations, LaClair joined the Weatherhead MBA program in 2000. Here she found the organizational development and leadership courses that continue to influence her work today.
One of those courses focused on a revolutionary approach to strategic change and sustainable growth for organizations. This approach is known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and the course was led by one of AI’s architects, Weatherhead Professor David Cooperrider. In this course, LaClair made a strong connection to the fundamentals of personnel management. “A leader should focus on how you motivate people, how you use data and common sense to get things done,” she said. “David Cooperrider’s course was very inspirational and I appreciated his view that at the end of the day, everybody manages people.”
Before joining Ally Bank as a CFO in 2018, LaClair’s career began in Poland, teaching students English as a second language. The job was a logical next step after earning her a liberal arts undergraduate degree. But the location was based more on her interest in the changing world economy. “At the time, the Berlin Wall was coming down and there were enormous economic transformations in Eastern Europe; it was an interesting time to be in that part of the world.”
Back in the U.S. she worked for World Education where she supported programs influencing economic development among nomadic women across Egypt. While the work was gratifying, she recognized the need to build more leadership skills. “I was interested in economic development but wanted to become a better leader and learn how to navigate tough challenges more effectively.”
She chose Weatherhead’s MBA program for this next step. “It’s important that you pick a school because you feel you’ll thrive there,” LaClair said. “I felt like I could go to a school with a great culture, like Weatherhead’s, and get a quality education because Weatherhead faculty were graduates of top schools.”
At Weatherhead she did thrive. LaClair was a recipient of the Alumni Scholar Award, was active in student organizations including a student management consulting club, participated in internships, and started the first ever Alumni Moving Forward fundraising effort. Her scholarship also opened the door to a new perspective on board management as she was given a spot on the Oberlin College Board of Trustees, a position reserved specifically for an MBA student.
Within her MBA cohort and outside of that group, LaClair remembers connecting with students who brought a diverse skill set to teamwork. “Weatherhead attracts a down to earth, hardworking student. I found a lot of creativity in the students I worked with,” said LaClair.
Once she earned her MBA, LaClair landed a position at the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where she spent six years. There, she developed a passion for solving tough problems through financial analysis, change management and team leadership. LaClair eventually moved on to National City Bank and continued to work for the organization after its acquisition by PNC. There she rose to be CFO of PNC’s lines of business, and eventually ran a $1 B business unit.
After ten years at PNC, she was ready for a new challenge. Ally Bank’s unique digital approach to banking and its relatively new position in the marketplace attracted LaClair. “The role at Ally was bigger and higher impact than I’d had before. It was exciting to join Ally and have an opportunity to lead the build out of a relatively new company,” said LaClair.
From her early days experiencing emerging economies to her leadership experience at two national banking institutions, LaClair has woven into her career a strong thread of leadership – an original goal of her MBA studies.
For those seeking a graduate management program, she recommends, “Go where you feel comfortable, appreciate the culture of the school, which is what matters most. I had an amazing experience at Weatherhead.”