Carnegie Mellon University
March 07, 2016

The W.L. Mellon Speaker Series: Karen Larrimer believed she could, so she did

Karen Larrimer has always been at her best when she steps away from her comfort zone.

As she worked her way up the corporate ladder at PNC, she made a point of deliberately pursuing jobs where she had to adapt quickly, acquiring skill sets and finding new footing in unfamiliar territory. It was there, she says, that she found her greatest motivation: when walking a tightrope without a net.

“I get bored very easily, so my inspiration, my motivation, comes from always looking for that next thing to do,” she said. “That inspiration of getting that pit in my stomach every time I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, or what I’m doing, is hugely motivating to me. I think that what pushed me to not just take baby steps, but made me leapfrog, is putting myself in the most uncomfortable situations I possibly could.”

The success of Larrimer’s strategy is evident in her many accolades. Currently the executive vice president and chief customer officer at the PNC Financial Services Group, she also recently was named head of retail banking, a role she will assume July 1. She formerly was the bank’s chief marketing officer. She was named one of the most powerful women in banking in 2015 by American Banker magazine.

Larrimer shared her career path, advice and experiences with Tepper School of Business students Feb. 9 as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series, which allows Carnegie Mellon University students to interact with global leaders, CEOs and management experts in forums that encourage insightful dialogue.

As someone who built a career in a large corporation — PNC serves roughly 8 million retail customers in 19 states and serves corporate and institutional clients nationally — Larrimer knows the challenges of standing out, particularly as a woman who works in a traditionally male-dominated industry such as banking.

“In big companies, it’s easy to get lost,” she said. “Push yourself, every single day. ... It could be pushing yourself in the job that you’re in, to raise your hand and take on an assignment that you otherwise would not have gotten involved with. Or it could be, when you’re looking for that next career opportunity, to think outside the box, and not just take the next natural path in career progression.”

She advised students to learn to ask for what they want. In pursuing her job as PNC’s chief marketing officer, Larrimer recalled making a phone call to express her interest to the hiring manager. To her surprise, the manager said even though he knew she could do the job, he had assumed she preferred to stay in her current role.

“That was a big eye-opener,” Larrimer said. She had been tapped on the back so often in the early stages of her career that she realized she had stopped asking. By comparison, men at PNC seemed to freely inquire any time an internal job interested them. When Larrimer actually reached out, she got the job.

She urged students to take ownership of their careers, and not to count on luck — rather, to create their own.

“Bottom line: Do a great job at the job you have. I tell people that all the time. If you want to get ahead, excel at what you’ve been asked to do. Raise your hand for the other opportunities, but don’t fail on the piece that you’ve been given, or you won’t ever get that next opportunity.”

“I’ve never seen a lazy person get ahead,” she added.

Part of taking ownership, particularly within a large corporation, involves networking, she said. She urged students to seek both mentors and sponsors. Mentors act as coaches, offering advice — a task she prefers to handle informally, instead of through structured programs. Sponsors, by comparison, serve as advocates at tables where their protègès do not yet have a seat.

Larrimer described her own leadership style as open, creating two-way relationships that allow her to learn from the people around her while she creates opportunities for them to rise through the ranks.

“I surround myself with the best people I possibly can,” she said. “I don’t bring to the table every skill set that I need to run big groups. I don’t know half of what the people that work for me know. And I really depend on having the very best talent around me.”

She also believes in setting the bar high.

“I’m very quick, if the talent is not what I need to have around me, to make sure that we deal with that, either bringing the person up to speed or making them see that probably another opportunity is better for them,” she said. “You can help someone enhance their skill set; you typically can’t help them change their attitude.”

Describing PNC as having a strong culture of teamwork and collaboration — one established by then-CEO James Rohr, now chairman of Carnegie Mellon’s Board of Trustees — she noted that certain personalities would struggle to fit in.

As a leader, Larrimer takes a keen interest in employee development. She set the example by completing the Carnegie Mellon Center for Executive Education Leadership Program. She said she likes to play to people’s strengths and seek alignment, as opposed to agreement: getting a team to follow and believe in a common purpose even if they don’t fully agree with it.

“When I talk to people about coming to join PNC, I will say, ‘If you’re the kind of person who has to be the smartest person in the room, whose ideas always have to be the ones heard and executed, you won’t like it here,’ ” she said. “You want the team to arrive at this point of alignment, so that everybody’s in it, moving forward together. There are no individual heroes at PNC. Everything that gets done gets done because you were part of a team that caused it to happen.”

She urged the audience members to “be true to who you are,” seeking balance and establishing boundaries according to their life situation. Larrimer said at many times in her career, she had to think about changing paths, such as taking a job that required less travel when she had children. By defining for herself what her boundaries were, she was happier in her role and subsequently able to reach for new heights.

“There’s this saying which came out of a book, and it’s now my favorite saying, which is: ‘She believed she could, so she did,’ ” Larrimer said. “Broadening your experiences and your learning has to be your number one priority. I learn every single day, and I actively seek learning.”

View more photos from Karen's visit