Money & Career

CLO of Bank of Montreal on balancing career and family

Career advice: She's the first woman to hold the position of CLO at one of Canada's top banks, and she shares with us how she climbed the corporate ladder

Michelle Nolan

Barbara Dirks

Occupation: Senior vice-president, head of Institute for Learning at Bank of Montreal
Age: 42
Hometown: Toronto and Chicago
Birthplace: Saskatoon
Education: Law degree and MBA Current project: Heading up the Institute for Learning, BMO’s corporate university

Q: What is a CLO, exactly?
A: The first chief learning officer was GE management guru Steve Kerr. According to him, when he was originally appointed, he suggested the title chief education officer, but his boss, the legendary Jack Welch, said there was only room for one CEO — and the spot was taken. Hence the title CLO was born.

Q: It’s a new role for you — what does it entail?
A: As head of BMO’s Institute for Learning, I’m trying to provide all of our employees and leaders with the tools, training and attitude to turn talent into performance. As Welch put it, “Before you are a leader, success is about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” I think this perfectly sums up what we’re trying to instill.

Q: What in life has equipped you for this job?
A: I think I have always been a learner. The amount of time I spent in education clearly shows I enjoy it! And a big part of that is listening. There’s so much you don’t know at work, and being a mom has taught me it’s important to listen to your kids. And that you can’t take yourself too seriously. We’re all people who have to put our pants on one leg at a time. 

Q: Worst advice you’ve ever been given?
A: Not to go to Africa. I had a position as a business manager for two years on a development project, which people thought was risky. Botswana was much tougher than I had ever dreamed: I lived in a dung hut and sat on a table at night watching the walls and floor move with all the insects; I faced challenges like crouching in a ditch by the side of the road with severe malaria. But I also had exhilarating, adventurous experiences like white-water rafting down the Zambezi River.

Q: Why was going to Africa so important?
A: Those years in Botswana were invaluable. It was a jarring immersion in a new environment packed with social, financial and cultural contrasts. I grew enormously as a person and began to understand myself — the degree to which I am determined, resourceful and curious. I also learned a lot about other people and how they respond to their environment . . . how choices don’t always connect to what seems rational.

Q: When did you start thinking seriously about going into the financial field?
A: During high school, I decided I wanted to be a tax lawyer. I worked incredibly hard to get into law school and then discovered it wasn’t for me. In my second year, I became a research assistant for a great professor. He helped me figure out a way of getting an MBA, which was more of a fit. You’re supposed to do it simultaneously with your degree, so I was already behind, and by the end of it I’d been in school for nine years — my family wondered if I was ever going to finish!

Q: What happened after you graduated?
A: I went straight into consulting — which is kind of an extension of school. A business is faced with a crisis or an opportunity, and you come in to help, then you leave. You test out hypotheses and solve problems. It’s a form of learning because of the huge range of situations you experience.

Q: Where did you start in banking?
A: I began in finance — it’s a great feeder, because it’s linked to all the other sections of the business, and it gave me a bird’s-eye view of the organization. I went from capital management to financial strategy and execution, and progressed from there.

Q: Do you reward yourself for reaching a milestone?
A: When I get my bonus, a new bag usually does it for me. The first one I bought was a tan leather Lambertson shoulder bag. I loved it. I still do, but I don’t use it much anymore, as it doesn’t look right overflowing with wet wipes, snacks and Uno cards.

Q: Is there anyone you look up to as a leader?
A: Margaret Thatcher. She was a unique character of her time who successfully merged a conservative Methodist background with her futuristic political perspective.

Q: Thatcher reputedly slept only four hours a night — what’s your day like?
A: I think sleep is important, but I’m not very good at it. My day starts at 4:30 a.m., either working out or going to the airport and getting on a plane. I get to the office around 7 a.m., Starbucks coffee and yogourt parfait in hand (I have one every morning!), then it’s back-to-back appointments, committees and team meetings. By mid-morning, my assistant has brought my second coffee. I leave the office around 5 p.m., with every minute booked. On my way home, I make calls. I’m in the airport this afternoon, and I’ll be on a conference call for the entire hour and a half that I’m in the departures lounge.

Q: Sounds high-powered and exciting.
A: It is, but business travel isn’t so great. You’re in and out of planes, you’ve got your coat over your arm, one minute you’re too hot and the next you’re too cold. It’s hard to find decent food on the go. You barely get to experience the places you visit.

Q: Meanwhile the inbox overflows. How do you manage it?
A: The most important thing is that you only look at things once. I sit down to do email, and either respond to, file or delete it immediately. I don’t like wasting time going back, so I try to write the response or deal with it at the time.

Q: This type of career is a real commitment. How do you approach finding the right “partner,” so to speak?
A: Once you’ve found the right company, it is all about maintaining your happiness and resolving bumps in the road. If you’re not satisfied or happy with your career choice, your employer will not be happy with you. Find a company that lets you be yourself, and the creativity that results is unlimited. It is also important that, as in a marriage, you grow together. Things are always changing, and how many times have you heard, “He is not the man I married”? Companies are like that too. They are always evolving, and you need to evolve with them.

Q: What did you think you’d be when you were young?
A: I always pretended to be a teacher. I see my three-year-old daughter doing it now. Sometimes she asks me to join the class—but she’s not a very nice teacher. She’s very bossy and strict!

Q: How many people do you teach per year?
A: Over 9,000! We provide training for the 38,000 employees across the bank and have developed a world-class leadership program for executives and senior leaders, in partnership with the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. The Institute for Learning is a unique corporate “university.” And it’s gone global—we’ve just had a group of 26 executives from the Agricultural Bank of China come for a year as part of a program with the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

Q: How do you maintain a work-life balance?
A: I’ve always thought that balance is a pipe dream. I like to think of a house of cards that can fall apart with the smallest change, like a child being sick or extended work commitments. Contingency plans are critical. I am lucky to have a great community of friends  and a supportive husband. Running his own business has allowed him to be flexible. As with many career couples, we’ve worked out who attends parent teacher conferences or doctor’s visits, and that’s what lets me do what I love.