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Far from her New Jersey upbringing, Karen James has climbed the corporate ladder across the world, finding new opportunities and career success.

For a self-confessed ‘Jersey Girl’ whose family members have never strayed far from home, Karen James’ career and life has been an eventful ride.

She has not been afraid to travel to pursue her passions, unlike some 80 aunts, uncles and cousins who have stayed in or near New Jersey, the north-eastern US state made famous in the songs of celebrities such as Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen.

From Manhattan and London to oil rigs in Norway and the charms of Melbourne and now Sydney, James has enjoyed a stellar career as an engineer-cum-manager.

Now general manager, direct service and sales of local business banking at the Commonwealth Bank, the flamboyant businesswoman manages a team of 150. She can reflect on her determination at age 15 to explore new horizons and draw satisfaction from her late mother’s pride in her career.

“No one leaves [New Jersey]. I was the first person [from the family] to leave the state and the country and for her that was just amazing,” Ms James says. “My mother was a force and nobody would ever forget her. She would be so excited that I’m working here.”

Defying the stereotypes

A former IT engineer who has made the move into the executive management ranks, Ms James has enjoyed the evolution of her career.

“It’s been really good for me because I know that I’m not stuck in IT.”

Ms James runs the bank’s sales and enquiries team in local business banking, with dedicated phone support teams providing around-the-clock advice.

In charge of mostly women aged 30 or under, the position suits Ms James, who is eager to advance the career ambitions of young women, in particular. She has a crucial coaching and mentoring role.

“Last year 34 per cent of everyone I hired was promoted within the bank, which I think is an amazing statistic.”

For one who has successfully climbed the corporate ladder in three continents, Ms James admits her career did not start promisingly in the US.

Intent on studying acoustical engineering, she soon recognised the vocation was doomed to failure because “I couldn’t read music or play an instrument”.

Instead, she opted to study electrical engineering, not realising at the time that it was very much a male-dominated profession. As one of six women out of 420 in the course, Ms James says the blatant sexism she experienced came as a shock because she had grown up with strong female mentors: a working mother, an aunt who was the first female lifeguard in the US and another aunt who was a bank manager.

Ms James recalls that in engineering school the female students typically “were not very feminine”. With her long hair and sense of fashion, she was the odd woman out. One day at college, the male students ejected her from the lab, prompting one lecturer to ask Karen whether she was going to “stand outside the circle or inside the circle”.

“And I pushed my way into the circle and stood in the middle of them and said, ‘guys, you are including me in the lab, that’s it’. I remember the moment – I was 18 and that was a big turning point.”

From little things …

With little money, a battered old car and the “world’s ugliest grey suit”, Karen hit the job interview trail in New Jersey, eventually landing a job in the fledgling IT sector working on early multiplex systems. A high-paying job on Wall Street – which is “Jersey-girl heaven” – and a loft apartment in Manhattan soon followed before Ms James was asked to work in England, from where she was flown to Norway to help install a link to an oil platform.

“The big boss came in and he was screaming because he had these people on the platform which cost a fortune to get there, and the whole network for this oil company was down.”

Helping to solve the dilemma endeared Ms James to management and led to a rewarding career of work and travel from her English base. One of those destinations was Melbourne, where she worked for the Bureau of Meteorology.

What was supposed to be a one-year assignment in Australia has since turned into a life-changing event: she fell in love, got married, had children, divorced and now lives contentedly in Sydney.

Life in the Emerald City has led to changes on many fronts for Ms James, including an epiphany that “I didn’t really want to be in IT”.

After completing a Masters in Environmental Engineering at the University of Sydney, a string of IT and managerial positions followed for Ms James with companies such as Wealth Link, Synoptics, Nortel and, finally, Com Tech, which was later sold and re-branded as Dimension Data, where she spent years leading the business’ managed services sector.

Ms James has had her fair share of mentors along the way, including Scottish consultant Norman Drummond, the author of The Spirit of Success: How to Connect the Heart to the Head in Work and in Life. She has adopted the philosophy of the book.

“When you have been brought up in a rough environment you learn to have a lot of empathy and I think that is why I have always been in the services business. I’m able to be very empathetic, but very firm at the same time.”

 A caring environment

In her current role, Ms James tries to create a flexible and supportive workplace, but one that still has boundaries. Clear communication is also vital, and in this regard she still draws on her engineering experience.

“[In engineering] you learn to diagnose things and not let go of what is the real issue, so when we have a complaint that comes into local business banking, what everybody wants to do is solve the problem, please the customer and close it.”

She and her team have proven adept at doing just that.

As a mother of two, Ms James is conscious of the challenges that continue to confront women in life and business.

“I think there is a lot more work to be done and, for me, it’s the subtle things – it’s the flexibility, women having courage.”

For Ms James, an ongoing commitment is to help single women “because I think [they] rely on government money and are in a very bad spot”. She also believes encouraging children is important and backs the Aunties & Uncles program, an Australian initiative that involves mentoring children who are socially or emotionally at risk.

Ms James is also passionate about making a difference through the Commonwealth Bank and “looking after the little guy” through her local business banking department.

Whatever the future brings, one thing is for certain: this Jersey Girl won’t be resting on her laurels or rejecting new life opportunities.

“I think you can sleep when you’re dead. You only live once – and that doesn’t mean I don’t have lazy days. [But] I like to have fun. I like to experience life.”

Published on: Sunday, June 28, 2009

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