Banking and Brontes

“I majored in English and Theater. That means I know how to communicate.”

That’s what I told one of the vice presidents of the bank when I applied for their innovative, fast-track management training program. Picture me: twenty-two years old, recently graduated from college and surrounded by two hundred other hopefuls vying for one of the eighteen slots that would guarantee us a supervisory position at one of the largest and fastest growing banking chains in the Washington D. C. area. As I looked around me at the other applicants, I felt fairly sure that I was the lone English major there among those who had chosen to specialize in practical subjects like business and economics. Casual conversation with those sitting next to me seemed to confirm my worst fears. I felt like slinking out of the room.

Banking hadn’t been my first choice of careers. I’d started out wanting to act, with English as a more sensible back-up plan. By the time I graduated from college, however, I’d been captivated by the Brontë sisters. My dream was to go to graduate school, write a dissertation on Charlotte, Anne and Emily, and teach Victorian literature for the rest of my life.

But that dream takes money. So, two weeks after graduating, I took a position as a bank teller. Although it meant working Saturdays, it gave me a day off during the week to look for what I considered to be a more suitable job for an English major. I thought I’d go into copy-editing or technical writing until I’d earned enough for grad school. I never imagined that I would like banking enough to want to make it my career.

The short time I spent as a teller revealed to me that the bank could really use people who knew how to communicate effectively. There’s a world of difference between writing, “Here’s why we won’t loan you money,” and “Here’s what you need to do to qualify for a loan.” And saying, “Your work station is disorganized,” is not the same thing as saying, “You need to better organize your work station.” Technically, they mean the same thing. But, in each case, the second one adds the message, “And I know that you’re a human being.” I decided that I wanted to go into management.

The interview itself was the banking version of Survivor. We were divided into teams, shown into conference rooms, and given management tasks to accomplish. After each assignment was completed, we were asked a series of questions, such as “In your group, who would you most like to work for?” Then we were given the opportunity to vote other applicants “off the island.”

By the end of the day, a handful of us had “survived.” But now came the moment I was dreading: the interview with a senior officer of the bank. This, I felt, was where my lack of business experience would hurt me. When the vice president asked me what I thought I had to offer the bank, I blurted out my line about communication.

To my surprise, my English major turned out to be a big plus in his book. In this service-oriented economy, businesses need people who can talk and write to their clients and mediate effectively between employees and administrators. Creativity is a bonus too, he told me. In fact, one of the other vice presidents of the company had been a dance major.

After several years with the bank, I’d saved enough to pursue my dream career. But it’s nice to know that there are lots of options out there for English majors. It wasn’t where I ended up, but maybe, in your future, someone will tell an applicant for a management position, “In fact, one of the other vice presidents of our company majored in English.”