Five Minutes with Karen Parkhill
Image by Matthew Gilson
What has been your greatest accomplishment?
Managing career and family — at least as best I can! A large part of that was my decision to switch career paths. After 16 years as an investment banker, it took courage to acknowledge that I wanted to find a career with a little more balance. At the time, I had young children and used to travel three to four days a week to a different city every day. I took a year-long sabbatical to spend more time with my kids and figure out what I wanted to do next. I am grateful the firm allowed me to take that time and then to come back in a very different role with less travel involved — where I am now.
What would you say has been your most humbling experience?
Not getting promoted when I thought I should have been. When I was in the investment bank, they used to do lockstep promotions from associate to vice president. The year my class was to become VPs, they decided not to make it lockstep and, for various reasons, I did not get the promotion. I was devastated. Instead of sulking, I decided that I was going to prove them wrong, so I just put my head down and worked really hard. The way I handled that situation earned me a lot of kudos, and I’d say that it was humbling but also a good learning experience.
What do you wish you had known at the start of your career?
That your happiness — or lack thereof — can very much drive your overall performance. It’s really important to put yourself in a position where you’re working with people you enjoy spending a lot of time with, people you look up to and respect. If you like and admire your boss and you are happy with the challenges you’re facing every day, you’re motivated and energized. If you put yourself in a position where you’re not in that situation, your performance can suffer.
What GSB course — or faculty member — still affects the way you do business?
I would have to say [adjunct professor of strategic management] Howard Haas with his leadership class. I was in the first section he taught. On the last day of class, he gave each of us a scrimshaw paperweight with a picture of an Alaskan sled pulled by many dogs and an inscription that reads, “If you are not the lead dog, the view never changes.” The paperweight remains on my desk at work, and I read it every day.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Buckling down to learn and understand things that don’t necessarily excite me. For example, I am not a technologist or accountant by choice or by training; therefore, understanding our systems or complex accounting standards is not what I would normally choose to dig into. Still, they are part of what I need to know in my current role.
What’s the best part of your job?
Having a bird’s-eye view of the issues in the financial industry over the last 12 months. This has been a tumultuous year in our sector — no doubt one that will go down in history. It has been great to live it and learn from it. Mostly, I consider myself incredibly lucky to be the understudy of the best and brightest leaders in the industry — the same individuals who also happen to be leading JPMorgan Chase during this downturn.
If you had to choose another line of work, what would it be?
Go work for Oprah — if she would have me. She is a woman of heart and substance who helps so many people. I admire her accomplishments and dedication to making the world a better place.—P.H.