An Enriching Diversion

Capital One’s Polly Klane, who took five years off to live with her family in South Korea, explains the values of taking the career road less traveled

Polly Klane

Several years ago, Polly Klane got on a plane to South Korea with a one-year-old and no clear plans of continuing her professional career. The current senior vice president and chief counsel of governance, commercial bank, and enterprise services for Capital One was, at the time, preparing to join her husband in Asia—leaving the city where she had spent the past decade, as well as the bulk of her professional life.

It was an extraordinary risk, and one that perfectly encapsulates Klane’s nontraditional career path. In taking the chance and approaching the new challenge head-on, as she had done with other challenges before, Klane was able to use the move to find new opportunities to keep her legal skills sharp, and it also renewed her appreciation for Capital One’s embrace of diverse experience, which helped lead to her eventual return to the company.

A Leap of Faith

South Korea may have been unfamiliar to Klane when she decided to make the move, but challenging circumstances were not. Prior to her move to South Korea, she had undertaken a demanding roll at Fannie Mae during the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. “The experience helped me develop my ability to problem solve in some high stakes and difficult circumstances,” Klane says. “A lot of confidence building can come from an experience like that.”

But, when her husband received an exciting job offer in South Korea, she and her family made the decision to move. Klane, who was a new mother at the time, had to embrace a change that would be all-encompassing. “I was uprooting my entire life,” she says, “and taking it to a far-away place that I’d never set foot in until I got on a plane to go move there.”

Lessons in a New Language

Klane gave birth to her second child shortly after arriving in South Korea. “Raising a young family far away from home, in an unfamiliar environment with an unfamiliar culture and language, really requires connecting with people quickly and really embracing and learning from the diverse perspectives and traditions of the people around you,” she says.

Klane is, by nature, something of an introvert. Networking had always been something she tended to avoid, but the sheer necessity of personal interaction helped her hone the skill in a way she might never have under more ordinary circumstances. Her connections eventually provided her with opportunities to both teach and consult during her time in South Korea.

Also, Klane says, the unfamiliar culture taught her the value of remaining open to new possibilities. She spent a lot of time watching parents carry their young children on their backs, for instance, which she had rarely seen in Western culture; she decided to try it and discovered it was better. That there might be more than one right way to look at or approach something, and that a different approach can lead to an even better place, are concepts she has since carried into her professional life. “It helps me to identify ideas and talent that might be amazing but not obvious, because its coming at you from a slightly different angle than you would have expected,” she says.

The Nonlinear Path

Klane admits that when one is reentering the job market, many prospective employers may not immediately understand the benefits of the nonlinear path, but she says job seekers should still wear their broad experiences proudly. “Don’t hide the diversity of experience you’ve had; lean into it,” she says. “That isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but you don’t need a hundred jobs; you need one.”  And the employer who gives you that one, she says, will truly value what you have to offer.

Klane was excited to return to her former employer for many reasons. “My story is really mostly about how Capital One views talent,” Klane says. “I was really fortunate to find not only an employer willing to give me a chance to succeed after the time I spent in Korea raising my children, but also colleagues and bosses who were open to—and even welcomed—my unique background.”

Klane believes Capital One’s focus on diversity fosters a unique corporate environment where myriad perspectives are valued, not merely tolerated. Klane sees it as essential not only to her company’s culture but to its success and the service it provides to its customers. “What that focus comes back to,” she says, “is a real in-the-DNA desire to look outward and really try to meet the world where it’s going instead of asking the world to come to you.”

Helen V. Cantwell, of Capital One partner Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, agrees with this assessment and can see how Capital One would value Klane’s road-less-traveled approach. “No matter the path, career success ultimately depends on strong strategic thinking and legal judgment,” she says. “The Capital One culture embraces this.”

Paying It Forward

As a veteran of the nontraditional path, Klane says, she often winds up mentoring those who eschew convention. Her advice is typically threefold: First, she says, “if you decide or need to spend time away from a traditional professional environment, don’t forget to nurture your existing professional community.” Second, find some way to maintain your skill set and stay professionally active—through volunteer work, for example. Third, returning to work will probably be much harder than when you first entered the job market out of college, so don’t go back unmotivated. ‘I think sometimes people aren’t truly ready and are a little ambivalent,” Klane says. “That’s not a process to start with ambivalence. Be completely ready.”

The benefits of returning to work continue to mount for Klane, whose career overall makes a strong case for anyone considering the road less traveled. “I’ve been very fortunate here at Capital One,” she says. “I’ve had the opportunity to have a role that plays to my strengths and includes diverse and interesting responsibilities.”


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