Kathleen Murphy ’84, Leading the Way for Fidelity

Kathleen Murphy ’84, Leading the Way for Fidelity

First impressions provide a window into what makes a person tick, two signs in Kathleen Murphy’s office offer a good starting place. They read: “Attitude is everything” and “Thou shalt not whine.”

Currently president of Personal Investments at Fidelity Investments, Murphy oversees a host of Fidelity financial products and services — everything from life insurance and annuities to workplace savings accounts and more than 17 million customer accounts with more than $1.9 trillion in client assets. She also oversees all of the firm’s brand and advertising programs, its online strategies through Fidelity.com and Fidelity’s mobile device applications and other areas of operation and asset management.

Prior to coming to Fidelity, Murphy was CEO of ING U.S. Wealth Management. Before that, she spent 15 years at Aetna, working in a variety of positions, including general counsel and chief compliance officer at Aetna Financial Services.

Not surprisingly, Murphy is a regular on “top” business lists, including Fortune magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business,” joining the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Oprah Winfrey. She has also been named one of the “Wall Street Top 50” and “Business 100” by Irish America magazine and one of the “25 Most Powerful Women in Finance” by US Banker, to name just a few.

While clearly proud of the accolades, Murphy tells a story that puts them — and her leadership style — into perspective. She first made Fortune’s list in 2007. Her husband, George Hornyak, mentioned the list to their son, Jack, who was four at the time.

“My son looks at me and says, ‘What number were you?’” Murphy recalled. “‘Forty,’ I said. ‘Well that’s not very impressive. You’re not even in the top 10. You still have a long way to go.’”

Murphy laughed, before adding, “Obviously it’s an honor, but you don’t run your business or your life to get awards. You get on that list because of what a gigantic team has accomplished and you happened to be the leader of that team.”

Murphy traces much of what drives her today back to her education at Fairfield. A Wallingford, Conn. native, Murphy completed her undergraduate degree in three years, graduating summa cum laude with a double major in economics and political science.

Fairfield’s smaller size and its Catholic foundation are part of what lured her. “I had a fleeting thought of becoming a nun, believe it or not,” she said. “But the priests get to do everything, so I didn’t,” she laughed. “At Fairfield I went  to church every day. It was a great way to start the day.”
She later graduated from University of Connecticut Law School in 1987 with highest honors.

Thirty-plus years into her career, Murphy can still quickly recall favorite professors, such as political science legend Dr. Carmen Donnarumma, who helped shape her major and how she has led her life since graduation. Murphy says she still uses a response he typically gave when asked how he was doing “fabulous and improving,” she recalled him saying. “It’s such a great way to respond to that standard question.”

But the classroom experiences were just the beginning. “I would start with the Jesuit perspective on making sure that you view things as a holistic person,” she said of Fairfield’s continuing influence. “It’s important to not just succeed. It’s important to be a truly good person. You need to make a difference in the world but make a difference in ways that matter to humanity.”

In addition to guiding how Murphy leads at work, those teachings have influenced her active volunteer work, much of which has been focused on helping children. “They’re the most vulnerable part of our population and deserve every chance of a promising future. Too many don’t have that.” Among other boards, Murphy has been chair of the Children’s Trust Fund in Connecticut and is on the board of America’s Promise Alliance as well as the National Football Foundation.

Murphy is also passionate about empowering women, particularly in financial matters. “Ninety percent of women will be the sole decision maker on their financial matters due to longevity or divorce,” she said. “Women are not nearly as confident as men in managing their finances. I speak all across the country on this issue.”

Her introduction to asset management at Aetna prepared her for Fidelity, however Murphy believes her success is more about being a good leader than a wizard. “No matter what kind of business you lead, it’s more about your leadership character than about your knowledge of a specific subject area. You have to have a bigger purpose than yourself. You have to enjoy leading, inspiring and driving people to achieve excellence.” ●F