Graham School News

An Interview with Pam Schilling

Pam Schilling

Photo of Pam Schilling

Can you share with us your professional journey as a business leader?

My career started in traditional business roles in industry, working in technology and strategy consulting. I worked for several large, global organizations (Sprint, Strategy&), boutique consulting firms (Diamond and Huron Consulting Group), and a Chicago-based tech company that IPOed while I was on the finance team (NAVTEQ, now HERE). My work primarily focused on figuring out how to advance my firms and clients, in terms of growth—new markets and products—or to be more efficient—better processes and decision-making tools. I worked closely with executives in a variety of complex settings. I always felt my job was to ask the right questions, make sure we were thinking holistically, and to use the right evidence, even in highly ambiguous situations.

At a point in my career, I challenged what I was doing and impacting. After a great deal of reflection, I decided to take my strategy and analytic skills to focus my work on career coaching and teaching. I cared about the impact individuals make and wanted to find ways to help what I considered a hidden talent shine more and advance in their careers. I joined the career services team at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where I received my MBA. After a few years, I decided to spread my wings and started my firm, Arch Career Partners. At that time, I also started teaching and thoroughly enjoyed finding new approaches to the classroom experience to cover what I knew were really important skills in the business environment from my professional experience.

You are teaching several courses in the Financial Management and Decision-Making certificate at the Graham School: Financial Accounting, Corporate Finance, and Managerial Analysis. Why did you want to teach these courses?

These subjects are crucial for so many professionals to understand. They are also helpful in our personal endeavors. I think these subjects can be very intimidating for those educated in other areas, particularly non-business or non-quantitative backgrounds. I believe that regardless of your job, you are impacted by decisions made to achieve certain financial results, must make decisions yourself, and work and live in an environment where so much is driven by the financial markets. I love teaching these subjects because they are really practical. And, if done right, they can be mind-blowing once you get the core concepts. It can really change how you think, plan, and make decisions in any kind of career.

As a former hiring manager for finance roles, what positions do you think are a good fit with our students, and what specific qualities are organizations looking for today?

In finance roles, organizations seek individuals who have strong financial acumen. By this, I mean that an individual can demonstrate an understanding of the financial drivers that impact profitability and the operations of the firm. This also means you have to know what information is needed to assess a particular question, where to get it, and how to analyze it. These days, understanding tools like Microsoft Excel (or other spreadsheets) is a must. Increasingly, individuals who know some of the more advanced data analytics tools are highly valued—these are tools like Microsoft Power BI, SAS, STATA, and Tableau. I would not underestimate soft skills either—being able to influence and communicate, particularly financial information and analysis, is not a common skill set.

In terms of roles, there are many. Financial analyst, business analyst, procurement analyst, human resources analyst, consultant (economic consulting, transaction advisory, management consulting, etc.), actuarial sciences, investment research, and other similar roles which need financial acumen. Finance is a high demand area for many organizations, so I am optimistic about career opportunities here.

What aspect(s) of your professional experience is/are the most valuable to our students?

I have worked in a variety of organizations and industries—large and small. I have worked in a company that has gone public and with organizations at various phases of their lifecycle—start-up, high growth, mature, and unfortunately, those struggling to survive. What this means is that in the classroom, I work to bring theory to life by sharing very personal experiences where I have applied theory or built an analysis using the concepts we are discussing in class. I think this context creates more meaning and relevance for students.

What should people interested in a career in finance know about this field prior to considering our certificate?

I think if your intention is to move into a finance-focused role, the certificate gives you the theory and practical skills to have strong financial acumen, which you can speak to in an interview. I also think if you are considering a formal degree program in the future, such as an MBA or an MS in finance, the certificate is an excellent way to get a jump-start on the finance subjects in those programs where you will go much deeper. You will begin any further education with a more confident position. Finally, even if you do not have a career focused in a finance role, you will benefit from having a strong base in financial acumen; you can be a part of conversations and understand a foreign language that others in your organization know. This may help you in tangible and intangible ways in your career.

It seems that specialization tracks in finance are numerous. Do you have any specific recommendations for students who are looking to gain additional skills and training after the completion of our program?

The key is determining if you want to work for a company, in professional services, or in investments or capital markets. These tend to be the three areas of emphasis in the way I think about career tracks in finance. For each of these areas, there are deeper skills you can continue to build. Some professionals really develop strong financial modeling skills. There are also particular skills valuable for areas like M&A and valuation. There are methods and strategies for analyzing financial markets. Some refined areas include private equity, venture capital, and impact investing, which have unique ways of evaluating investments. Across the University of Chicago, there are a variety of seminars and programs that dive into these subjects for those who are interested.

What about important peripheral skills?

I mentioned above a few areas. For certain, influence and communication skills are crucial. Talking about financial information is actually hard. There is a balance of the big picture and details. In addition, I think collaboration and teamwork are key—you often need the engagement and support of a variety of others to do what you need to do. Finally, I think political skills are critical, knowing motivations and where roadblocks and advocacy exist is beneficial to get ideas advanced and decisions made. Often, in the finance role, you have the position of objectivity and cross-siloed-ness. Finally, in general, I think relationship building is important—creating trust and confidence goes a long way to easing a discussion about a tough decision.

Can you share a piece of advice that has proven to be helpful in your career?

My mom and dad always encouraged me, “to be whatever I wanted to be.” I have thought about that a lot lately as my career path has been less typical than many with my educational background. It is also easy to follow a path that others think is great for you or “sounds cool.” Along with this, we can be lured by prestige, title, and money. The lessons of my parents carry with me in my work today, where I focus on making an impact in the careers of others. In doing so, my best reward is seeing others thrive professionally.

What new industry-specific trends do you believe are worth paying attention to at this time and why?

The first area is data analytics and technology. I think organizations are moving to or have invested in a variety of technologies to capture incredible amounts of information. We are moving to a world of AI and machine learning, but we still need analytically minded, problem-solving individuals to help figure out how to harness the information now at our disposal. I think this is really hard, and hard challenges create interesting professional opportunities.

The second area I’m fascinated by is behavioral finance. The University of Chicago is definitely at the forefront of it. I also might be caught up in Richard Thaler/Noble fever! I have been reading and teaching on topics of behavioral finance for years. I think it is very relevant in so many ways. When we combine financial analysis and the psychology of decision-making, that is powerful.

Click here to read Pam Schilling's Bio.