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the ladder

Dina Vardouniotis, vice-president and general manager of the Toronto branch of JPMorgan ChaseFred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Dina Vardouniotis is vice-president and general manager of the Toronto branch of JPMorgan Chase.

In the morning, I zip out the door. I'd like to say that I sit around the table and have breakfast with my husband and two boys, but I just want to get to work.

My days are not what you think: Like most senior people at the bank, my days are filled with tons of meetings and conference calls. There is a misconception that we sit around all day strategizing and planning but a lot of the job is just managing relationships. When I interview people, I always hear that they want to "do more strategy" but for the most part, you need to apply that strategic thinking to everything you do.

The toughest part about all the meetings is switching gears. I can be booked every half an hour or hour on different topics, and even if those topics aren't intellectually challenging, they still require my focus and attention.

Growing up, what I really wanted to do was go into fashion design. I would never have imagined going into financial services. My parents owned a restaurant in the Beaches [neighbourhood of Toronto], so I grew up helping every day after school, waiting tables, washing dishes. I started helping out when I was nine. Years later, while I was working at CIBC as director of retail and small business lending, my mom would still call me to help out if she was short-staffed on a Sunday. It instilled in me an incredible work ethic.

My big break: My first career was working in advertising. I got my big break at Cossette, where the hiring manager said to me, "If you can work in a restaurant, you can totally work at an ad agency." He used to be a chef.

My big fall: Two weeks before my own "big, fat, Greek wedding," I was laid off [by Cossette]. It was 1991, when the unemployment rate was over 10 per cent in Canada, so there were literally tens of people in multiple waves being laid off at the company because clients stopped spending.

I became self-employed for two years, but then everything dried up. I call that experience my career displacement. I was uprooted from what I thought I knew. It wasn't only my work, but my social life in that environment that I never wanted to leave. I literally had three sticks of furniture in an apartment and when I came back from my honeymoon, I had to start my life from scratch.

My comeback: I called 20 people I knew and one contact – the person who laid me off – told me about an opportunity at CIBC [Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce]. It made me realize that relationships are everything. I discovered that I was highly analytical and had a passion for data I never knew about. I never had a master plan to work at a bank. I just loved the work.

My next career hiccup: I chose to leave CIBC for family reasons, and it was the hardest decision because I thought my career was over. I thought. "My God, I'll never work again." It was more frightening than being laid off. Eventually, a referral got me into Citi [Citigroup], working in the credit card industry. You can choose to walk away and come back. It doesn't have to be forever.

The best advice I ever received was don't worry about whether it's the right job for you until you get it. A woman I worked for once said that if you can get excited about 75 per cent of your job, that's great. There is always 25 per cent of the job that's mundane and administrative. That's the truth that people don't talk about. The worst part of my job is administrative stuff, approving invoices, doing training that doesn't seem to apply. Those things are my Achilles heel.

The good news is that I didn't start my career thinking that I would get the 30-year anniversary gold watch from a company. Never get too comfortable.

As told to Leah Eichler

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