Charles Connolly: a true people’s person

Justin Runquist

Charles Connolly ’70 decided early on that the most important investments would be those he placed in other people.

The former President and CEO of First Union National Bank finds his main passion not in rising stocks or success metrics, but in his interpersonal relationships. Because of this passion, he designed his education, his career path and his lifestyle around his love for people.

“Half the fun of going to work everyday is getting to know others,” Connolly said.

Whether he is in board meetings, in banking or in the community, Connolly said being a good leader requires genuineness toward others and solid interpersonal skills.

“It is important to learn how to not just work by yourself, but also how to work with people,” Connolly said. “If you ever enter any kind of leadership position, you will be called upon to give a speech, lead a meeting or work in groups.”

While an economics major at Villanova, Connolly used classes as an opportunity to prepare for leadership positions. After 26 successful years in banking, Connolly believes his efforts in Villanova’s classrooms have paid off significantly.

“Students should treat their classes like executive meetings,” Connolly said. “Today is the time for students to practice, ask questions and voice their opinions. By maximizing their exposure in a classroom setting and getting involved on campus, students will have something more than a grade to take with them beyond graduation.”

He believes learning specific skills are important, but he said the rapidly changing business world forced him to adapt constantly. The foundations he developed at Villanova, such as learning how to interact and communicate with others, was most helpful to Connolly’s career. To put this in perspective, he said he eventually forgot nearly 80 percent of everything he learned while pursuing his MBA at the University of Chicago.

That’s right. He believes 80 percent of those business lessons are old news today. In fact, he said he learned more at Villanova than he did in graduate school.

“A lot of college is about ‘learning how to learn,'” Connolly said. “I bet most students will eventually forget half of the material they learn in college. They should study to build a foundation, like I did in areas like economics, public speaking and writing. These are things that people need their entire lives and it’s important to gain an understanding of these things in college.”

It is clear when speaking with Connolly that he possesses outstanding leadership skills. With his presence, it is no surprise that he leads several professional and not-for-profit boards today. He is the chair of Dean Monahan’s College of C&F Advisory Council. Connolly currently consults and leads corporate boards in industries ranging from industrial chemicals to children’s clothing. Heal also leads community organizations, such as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Regional Performing Arts Center.

Connolly said many positive outcomes have resulted from his involvement in various organizations. They’ve allowed him to develop networks. They have provided him opportunities to sound off ideas, expand his knowledge of various industries and have fun with friends.

During his tenure in banking, Connolly had the opportunity to work in over 10 different positions. He has managed the bank’s operations ranging from consumer to commercial banking and to accounts of private and the world’s largest Fortune 100 companies. As the leader of what was recently one of the world’s largest banks, Connolly maintained a philosophy that might surprise most people.

“Keep things simple,” he said. “I would often praise analysts for coming to me with one page memos. With nearly 20 other memos waiting for me each night, it was crucial that business was kept simple, whenever possible.”

Also, as a graduate from a prestigious graduate school, one would likely envision Connolly leading meetings with eloquent, scholarly diction. His approach is far different.

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “When I sit in board meetings, it’s amazing how many times people feel like they are asking a dumb question. They feel like they are not sophisticated enough. I have no problem asking people all the time, ‘Do you understand?'”

Connolly chooses to lead people because he enjoys interaction. Similarly, he leads organizations because they are genuinely interesting to him.

“People should not just lend their talents to give back to the community,” Connolly said. “People should participate in what is truly interesting to them.”

Connolly chose to lead 10 not-for-profit organizations while in banking because he gained great satisfaction from it. His enthusiasm for both church and leadership inspire him to serve the Finance Committee of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Connolly combines his love for the beach and entrepreneurship by selling real estate in Ocean City, N.J. His love for Villanova motivates him to advise the College of C&F and attend Villanova men’s basketball games.

“These are a great four years for students here,” Connolly said. “They should have fun, study hard and follow the basketball team. Villanova is truly a special place.”

If you have questions, comments or suggestions, e-mail Justin Knabb at [email protected].