Q & A with Joanna Rotenberg, JD/MBA 2001, Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Strategy, BMO Financial Group

On technology, teamwork and career twists and turns

Joanna Rotenberg, JD/MBA 2001By Karen Gross / Photography by Jason Gordon

From the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Nexus

KG: What are some of the top deals you've worked on—and which makes you most proud?

JR: My work at McKinsey and Co. and BMO has been more project or long-term oriented and less transactions oriented. But my greatest point of pride came only six months into my time at BMO, when we purchased a large regional Midwestern bank called Marshall and Illsley, or M&I. I was a major part of the deal team leading the assessment of strategic fit. 

KG: How did that impact your career and the future of BMO?

JR: Our acquisition of M&I had a great impact on the bank—basically doubling BMO's footprint in the US. The deal instantly transformed us into a major contender in US banking, in a time when others were just beginning the long recovery from the financial crisis. It also taught me a lot about how our senior teams could rally together in times of critical decision making—and reaffirmed I'd made the right decision to join BMO. 

KG: What would you say is the toughest part of your job?

JR: As soon as you think you've solved one problem, something else will come up, whether it's problems with people or problems with initiatives—because things never go quite as planned. People don't tend to bring me problems that are easy to solve. It's about having that resilience and the agility to be able to tackle issues that are brought to me, not always having all the facts to tackle them but then feeling confident that we're managing them quickly and in a good functional way.

KG: Can you give me an example of a difficult issue that's come across your desk recently?

JR:  Every large corporation is dealing with scarce resources. As you know, these days businesses' competitive advantage comes from technology. It's really just technology and people. That's what businesses are. So this is the time of the year where we really tackle our technology allocations, and  there are a lot of good ideas out there. You have to decide where to allocate the funds. It's all about making the tradeoffs that you think are right for the bank, and right for the customer.

KG: How do you think banking strategy will change over the next few decades?

JR: While there are many forces at work in banking, undoubtedly the biggest one is that customers are now used to interacting digitally in many other spheres. The biggest change will occur as customers look to make more financial decisions and transactions online. We have to learn from other categories and be where our customer wants us to be—without losing the best parts of the experience we deliver as humans today. 

KG: What's a typical workday like for you?

JR:  It starts with my three children. They are basically my wakeup call. A morning in our household is quite a busy morning, getting the kids ready for school and, at the same time, seeing what's happened overnight in the world of the iPhone. The day tends to get pretty frenetic from there. An average day would be packed with meetings from 8 am until 6 pm. It would be everything from meeting my team to talking about new initiatives, to board sessions, to getting out and hearing what clients have to say. It's a busy day, but it's generally exciting and no two days are alike. The day is pretty much bookended with the children again. I always make sure I get home in time to put them to bed. I'm always prioritizing because in my role as a mom and as an executive of a bank, it's all about prioritizing.

KG: How old are the kids?

JR: I have a five-year-old boy, and twins that are two and a half.

KG: What is the most fulfilling aspect of your work?

JR: I feel so privileged to do what I do. Think about it: I'm dealing with marketing and strategy. I don't think there are two more interesting areas out there. The people I work with are top talent. The days aren't easy, but you come away feeling really excited about what we're tackling, and the difference it can make.

KG: You do a lot of work out in the Toronto community, in addition to your work at the bank. Why do you do it?

JR: I'm involved in the Mount Sinai resources committee for the board, and also am pretty involved with the U of T Rotman School of Business as well. I do it for a couple of reasons. I think it's just great to get out of the office, and be involved in how other organizations think. I had all three of my children at Mount Sinai, so I obviously deeply care about outcomes there. And Rotman was one of my alma maters. Organizations where I have an emotional connection, want to see them succeed, feel like I can give something back, get to network with people who are part of the broader community fabric, and have a chance to think differently about issues. It’s a great way to re-energize.

KG: How similar or different is your career from the way you imagined it would be when you were in school?

JR: I could not have predicted the twists and turns my career was going to take. When I was in school, I assumed that I would stay in the legal space and be at a Bay street firm. So it's significantly different from where I thought I was going to be.

KG: How do you think you ended up where you are?

JR: I think I was just open to different possibilities. I enjoyed law, but what I enjoyed most was teamwork. What I was most interested in were strategic elements of the work. And I found that there were other jobs that could let me do the things that I liked about working at a law firm, but let me focus on some of the more strategic aspects. And that would be the biggest piece of advice I would give to anybody, is just have that openness to think about different possibilities, and see where they take you.

KG: What are the most important lessons you learned in the JD/MBA program?

JR: When I think about what the law school taught me in particular, it was being able to craft an argument, have logical reasoning, and strengthen your written communication to make your point even stronger. So, the principles of advocacy, of a well-crafted argument, and how far that could take you in any role you play, whether it's my day to day job, or even as a mother. And also, the network was such a big part of it. Some people with whom I'm still very close today are people from law and business school.

KG: Is there really such a thing as a work/life balance?

JR: (laughing) No. You've got to choose, and it's just about day to day choices that you make. The concept of work/life balance is just about tradeoffs. For some people it's about making tradeoffs in their careers. For me, it's about making tradeoffs on a day-to-day and even hour-to-hour basis. And it's about not sweating the details. I'm not going to be the mother who's going to be there for every afternoon event for my children. But it's about making sure that they feel loved, making sure that I get quality time with them, and making sure they're well-covered in those moments when I'm not there. You need to recognize that life is just about tradeoffs. I've really come to just accept that.

KG: Do you ever have time to relax?

JR: Realistically at this stage, there's not as much time in the day as anybody would like. My husband (Andrew Armstrong, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault) and I cherish the final hour of our day, because that's our time to be with each other. I do get to relax on the weekends. We have a place up north and really as soon as we pass the threshold of the driveway, our shoulders relax. It's an amazing feeling. Even if something's happening and it's busy, it's our special place.

KG: You've already accomplished so much in your life. Do you think about what you'll do next?

JR: No, because if I think about the twists and turns that my career has taken, I couldn't have predicted any of the steps that I've taken. So I've just come to accept that if you do a good job and you continue to enjoy what you do, you can't predict the future, and you've got to be open to opportunities that come your way. I'll just leave it at that.