Nicole Straub, VP, Marketing and Product Management
Discover Student Loans
Can you tell me a little bit about your personal trajectory? You have experienced significant upward mobility at Discover over the last 11 years. What was your path to get to be VP, Marketing and Product Management for Discover Student Loans?
I came straight out of Mendoza College of Business and was selected to be part of the Strategic Leadership Program at Discover and have been here for 11 years. The program is a rotational leadership program where we are given the opportunity to understand the company from different perspectives by filling roles in different functional areas of the company. While in the program, I landed in strategy then into acquisition and eventually moved into marketing.
I see you have your MBA from Notre Dame, Mendoza, with a focus on strategy and finance. What has getting your MBA done for your career?
I had a great career in accounting at a great firm and I went back to get my MBA. The MBA broadened the set of opportunities that I had going forward and opened doors that have led me to where I am today in strategy, marketing, and product management. Before my MBA, I could have had the ability to lead based on the numbers and the P&L. After my MBA, I acquired a foundation that allowed me to lead in a broader sense via innovation, collaboration and large teams of people. Your MBA will allow you to build a foundation that is much broader than just your own personal experience. I came into Discover for a post MBA strategy leadership program that they had at that time. I chose that program because of the flexibility it gave me to try roles in different functional areas and business units. So, it’s ok if even at the end of your MBA you are still interested in building diverse professional experiences. These can help build skill, expertise and serve as a springboard for career opportunities.
We’ve heard a lot about “glass ceilings." Do you have any personal tips/lessons that you’ve learned in your career that would be helpful to other professional women as they are navigating their career growth and maximizing upward mobility?
Upward mobility is sometimes a function of an organization’s growth trajectory. Be aware of the organization that you choose to work in and the opportunities that it can provide for advancement. I have been able to build my career with Discover because they are a growing organization that is invested in meeting their customers’ changing needs. The year that I started with them is the year that they became a standalone public company and they have been growing ever since. It’s important to initially make that foundational choice to find an organization that matches your goals.
Moving beyond that, growth for me is determined by a few specific traits:
1. Maintain humility. When you come out of business school and are doing a job for the first time it is almost certain that you are not going to be an expert. It is important to recognize that your ability to succeed be a function of your resourcefulness, comfort with ambiguity and ability to learn quickly.
2. Figure out how to add value. People who advance are people who add value to an organization. Figure out how you add incremental value to the equation. Have you nailed what you are responsible for? It’s basic, but first things first – do a great job! That often means long hours, but people will notice when you really nail your responsibilities.
3. Build a network, organizational support and mentors within your company. Even if you’re doing an outstanding job, you need to be mindful that someone does see you and that your work is recognized. When you do good work, you want to have enough of a network so that people think of you when opportunities arise. Look for mentors among leadership who can help guide your career path within your company.
What are the key traits that get your attention among young professionals?
I like to see employees digging in and understanding the work that they’re responsible for in detail. Don’t forget to do the core responsibilities of your job really well. Don’t sacrifice excellence in those core responsibilities. During your first couple of months, you’ll have to work extra hard in adding value in the next step forward. Secondly, nothing can replace someone who has committed to developing effective communication skills and an executive presence. As an employer, you’re always looking for the person who gives you that sense.
You’re on the steep side of the learning curve early on in your career and are learning a lot in a short period of time, your ability to handle ambiguity will be critically important in many of the career opportunities ahead.
What are the pitfalls that you often see among employees?
A major pitfall is stakeholder management. Always ask what the cultural expectations of managing your stakeholders are. What does your boss want to know and when? I tend to coach my team about how to give people and their colleagues enough space so that failure is possible. Failure is a really powerful teacher, and in my experience, I’ve learned a lot from when things haven’t gone quite right. Things that you learn from, or things not going as expected, has great power. As a manager, it’s important to note someone who responds to that moment well by learning from it. That possibility of failure is also what makes success possible. As managers, we don’t have to have a monopoly on thought leadership. When you create space for failure, it also creates the possibility for truly outstanding work.
Discover has been awarded “top 25 companies for culture and values,” and “Best Training and Development Award." I’m sure that benefits specifically geared towards women such as a mother’s room, adoption assistance and even pet insurance contribute to the great work environment that Discover has created. Can you speak personally to why Discover has been a great career choice and workplace for you? What has made them stand out from their competitors as an ideal workplace?
Going back to what we discussed before, Discover has been a great place for me because it’s a company that fits me. I’m a challenge-seeker and Discover looks for engaged challenge-seekers. That’s what gets me excited to come to work every day and has been extremely rewarding and developmental in my own growth. During my 11 years here, I have had three children. Discover has been a place that made it possible for me to do that and continue to do work that is challenging and pushes me to grow. I have taken three maternity leaves and have been able to return (to meaningful work where I felt I was valued and contributing) and be successful. That has been made possible through the amazing formal benefits that Discover has committed to in order to deliver their employees' fulfilling professional and personal lives. The other aspect that is important is that the people that I work with are equally committed and ambitious as I am. Working on teams and having mentors who I enjoy has given me incredible joy and satisfaction. There is incredible value in seeking and working with people who inspire you.