Fiona Cuddy

Honours Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish (1999)

fiona_cuddy.jpg"Ultimately, your life and your career are what you make of it, so put your head down, do a really good job, and people will take notice of you.”

By Francesca DeNoble, third year student in SASAH, English and Writing Studies, Italian Studies

After graduating from Western University in 1999 with a combined Honours B.A. in French and Spanish, Fiona Cuddy walked into a London call centre in search of a new job. The brand-new location was hosting a job fair, and after waiting in line for several hours, providing a detailed resume and application, and devoting her afternoon to learning about the company’s “culture”, she was promptly turned away due to a failed math quiz. “I studied languages,” Fiona explained. “I’m terrible at math in my head.” Unimpressed with her results, Fiona returned to the call centre the following day. “I skipped the line, went straight to the people that were managing the entry…and sat down in the interviewing section like I was supposed to be there. I waited until [an interviewer] was free, and then I walked up to him and said: ‘Do you have a minute?’” Not only did Fiona land herself an interview, but she also got the job – and kickstarted the theme of her career in the process: “I’m not taking no for an answer. In a polite and respectful way, of course.”

“If you consider what’s great about a degree in languages, it’s that a lot of it is essay writing and proving a point… That basic structure helped me in writing communications, in influencing outcomes, in organizing my thoughts. That’s how I got into that entrepreneurial environment, and then I was able to parlay that experience into the consulting role when I started at London Life.” One instance that Fiona found particularly valuable was preparing her fourth-year thesis under her favourite French professor and advisor, Minette Gaudet. Aside from having the opportunity to work closely with “an amazing and talented woman”, writing, preparing, and orally defending her thesis to a panel of professors showed her that commitment to preparation is key. Now, Fiona uses her education in the financial workplace every day, stating that, “[My] languages degree taught me how to organize my thoughts…so that I could present them in a way that made it easy for decision makers to buy-in and support me. And then [I] back it up with [my] passion and facts.”

Regardless of her enjoyable undergraduate career, Fiona left Western without any real desire to complete a master’s degree, but rather, to begin shaping her profession. After working part-time for London Hydro throughout her undergrad, she was able to promote as a call center representative before moving into a handful of special projects. While she frequently took hold of new work opportunities that presented themselves, she always made sure to learn everything she possibly could have before moving on to somewhere new. “I was constantly being engaged in different ways… so I never thought ‘I’ve hit a ceiling; this MBA will push me up over the next level.’ I just kept working hard and being great at my role, and people took notice and kept wanting to give me opportunities.” In terms of the pressure modern students may feel to get their MBA, as a hiring manager, Fiona admitted that, “I think what makes someone successful in business isn’t only education – that’s a huge part of it. But I believe that coupled with what I call ‘street smarts’ is also what creates success for people… I would rather have someone who’s done an undergrad and has worked for a few years as a teenager rather than someone who has an MBA and hasn’t worked at all.” If they brought the same characteristics and those were the only two differentiators, Fiona says she’s more likely to lean towards the person with real work experience, so don’t assume that having more degrees is equal to more success. “Nothing trains you better than in-person customer service,” she offered, thinking back to her days of working in retail and getting a pair of slippers thrown at her head. “[That work] is so different than sitting behind a desk and emailing – it builds character.”

Aside from the drive and determination that helped bring her to where she is today, Fiona expressed that it was also a combination of knowing your worth and asking for what you want. She recalled a significant turning point in her career in which, living in London and having transitioned to working in Insurance at Canada Life, Fiona approached her boss one day and said, “I really love the job that I’m in and I am very grateful, but I don’t want it anymore.” So Fiona went and laid out what she did want: to relocate to Toronto and work with financial security advisors once more. And while her boss warned her that there may not be a job available, Fiona didn’t hesitate. “I was so nervous…but if I hadn’t have done that, I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat today.” She was grateful for everything that she had been given, but she also believed that within a company, there should be a certain amount of give and take – and Fiona had been doing a lot of giving.  “As women, we don’t always use our voice. We’re very accepting of what’s given to us, we don’t negotiate, and we don’t ask for what we want… And accepting was very good for me because it got me a lot of great opportunities, but then I realized that it was never specifically on my terms.”

A life packed with exciting memories and a career filled with unique opportunities, Fiona looked back on her time at Western with pride and gratitude as she raved about the distinct relevance of a humanities degree.  “So much of it,” she explained, “has to do with what you choose to do with what you’ve learned.” Fiona was able to turn a love of languages into the skills she needed to be the president of a financial company because “it’s about behaviours first, technical capabilities second.” Teaching technical skill, she offered, is a lot easier than teaching behaviour. “It’s hard to teach people to be passionate, or to have a high sense of urgency, or be committed or proactive or to take initiative. All of those things are important in business. So if you can bring those behaviours to the table… you’re already well on your way.” Be persistent, she advises, and learn how to handle rejection, because it’s going to happen. Ultimately, your life and your career are what you make of it, so “put your head down, do a really good job, and people will take notice of you.”