Mary Jane Fortin - CFO, SunAmerica Financial Group
Calculating Your Risks
By Ruchika Tulshyan
Mary Jane Fortin has navigated AIG through the roughest waters in its history. The 47 year-old CFO of AIG’s SunAmerica Financial Group succeeded by taking calculated risks. She is in the insurance business, after all.
Fortin moved from Connecticut to Houston in 2006, to join American General Life, a division of AIG. Being a single parent with a nine-year-old daughter didn’t deter her from the move or from advancing in the finance industry; even during the Great Recession. Fortin credits her unfailing optimism for overcoming every obstacle.
Read how the CFO of one of the largest insurance organizations in the U.S., with 13,000 employees and $265 billion worth of assets under management, maintains work-life balance.
Little Pink Book: What is your success secret?
Mary Jane Fortin: Great mentors, working for good leaders who supported my growth, and taking calculated risks. I was willing to take risks by analyzing: “What is the worst that could happen, what would be my plan?” That then gave me the confidence to go forward.
LPB: What’s the biggest obstacle faced by women in the workplace?
MJF: Work-life balance. The courage and confidence to say, “I can’t be here for this meeting because I need to do X.” We can be successful, professionally, while managing work-life demands. I continue to go through this every day. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We have to let go of the guilt, and not be perfectionists on everything.
LPB: How did you become so wise about juggling personal and professional demands?
MJF: A gentleman who was close to retiring said to me, “to this day, me and my children can tell you the events that I missed, but I can’t tell you what the meeting was that caused me to miss that event.” Work is always going to be there. In what seems like a crisis, let your team step in for you.
LPB: When did you last put this into practice?
MJF: Last month, AIG did a 6 billion dollar stock offering. I was asked to be in New York on Friday night as we would be marketing the stock over the weekend, but it was my stepdaughter’s graduation on Saturday. So I flew to New York on Saturday night, [after attending her graduation]. It gets back to – what are the important moments in life, making sure you are there, and having the courage to communicate those needs.
LPB: Do you face the balance battle regularly?
MJF: Recently, my boss was trying to catch up with me, and I was literally running out the door to get to my daughter’s game. I said, “I am on my way to the lacrosse game, do you mind if we catch up after 7, or over the weekend?” He said, “Absolutely! That is more important than what we have to talk about..” Ten years ago, I never would have said that.
[Previously] I would have viewed that as being weak, and not showing commitment to him and to my role. We need to have the confidence in ourselves and our abilities. Our colleagues and our bosses understand all of those things, if we have the courage to communicate them.
LPB: What was your most challenging career decision?
MJF: It was to leave The Hartford and join AIG in January 2006, which required a move. I had spent my career in Connecticut, then moved to Texas as a single parent with a nine year-old. Joining a company [American General Life] as CFO that I was not sure I was going to fit in and be successful in, starting all over professionally, building those relationships [were significant challenges]. But it ended up being a tremendous growth opportunity for me.
LPB: How did networking contribute?
MJF: Throughout my career when I have made job changes, I was not actively looking to join another company. I had no resume. The changes I made were based on relationships — people that I had met along the way. The Hartford was my client when I was at Arthur Andersen [my previous company]. I had great relationships with them and they said, “we want you to be part of our team.”
Relationships, not just in the work place – in industries, in everyone that we interact with, building some relationship is key to being presented with opportunities.
LPB: What is your leadership style?
MJF: Collaborative; it is very relationship and team focused. I’m big on talking about our issues. We don’t have time to talk around issues! The business is moving quickly, so I am a pretty direct communicator.
Feedback is a gift. Sometimes it is hard to get feedback. We don’t always like what we hear. Perception is reality, and it’s important to understand how we are perceived by our peers and staff, and colleagues.
I’m also optimistic. I don’t like to give up. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned comes from my good friend, Dennis Perkins, in his book, Leading at the Edge. The lesson is summed up in this simple quote: “Don’t give up, there’s always another move.” That’s how I would describe my leadership.
LPB: What’s an example of your optimistic leadership?
MJF: When I took over as CEO of American General, I held an all-employee town hall meeting. I believe in visible leadership. At that time there was a lot of uncertainty about the future of American General.
I had just been in Italy, which is where my family is from, and was reintroduced to the history of Venice. People were vacated from their homes and cast off to the barren island of Venice. But they moved forward with vision, courage and resiliency. They went on to build what today is one of the most incredible wonders of our world. And my point was that we had a foundation to build from, unlike what they had in Venice. [I told my employees]: “We have the foundation, the people – we can rebuild this company together!”
LPB: What do you do to rejuvenate?
MJF: There’s not a lot of downtime, so it’s basically spending time with family. We like to travel. We like to ski, love the beach. We try and explore different places all the time. I also have a summer home in Connecticut on Long Island Sound that we enjoy.
LPB: What is the one personal goal that you haven’t achieved yet?
MJF: Figuring out how to build more exercise into my daily life! That’s the one piece that I still have not been able to figure out. But my biggest goal is to be the best mom possible to my daughter, Sabrina. I’ve got a teenager on my hands right now, so I could use some advice!