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The Future of Leadership

Strong leadership traits. Several stand the test of time: drive, confidence, integrity, vision.

But every era requires its own set of skills to match the moment. Neutron Jack, Chainsaw Al — these personas wouldn't fly today. Would the men who own them, Jack Welch of General Electric fame and Al Dunlap of Scott Paper (and later at Sunbeam, where he was celebrated for his ruthlessness before he was taken down in an accounting scandal) been able to reach the same the same heights in their careers if they had come around a generation later than they actually did?

Across banking, there is a sense that the profile of leaders is in flux. The leadership characteristics we value today are not the same as what we valued 10 years ago.

And 10 years from now? It's safe to say that financial institutions will be looking for leaders with swift response times, an appreciation for the impact of new technology, an ability to manage an ever-widening circle of stakeholders, and a knack for collaboration, be it across business silos or with outside partners.

Boris Groysberg, a Harvard Business School professor who co-chairs an HBS Executive Education program called Leadership in Financial Organizations, says tomorrow's leaders will need a different mix of technical skills and what he calls "soft skills," such as communication, relationship building and cross-cultural intelligence.

It's not so much that the soft skills are supplanting the hard skills, he says; rather, both sets of skills are increasing in importance. Experience at the executive level will need to be deeper and broader.

"Being an executive is going to be much harder than it was 10 years ago," Groysberg says.

Of course no one gender has a lock on any of the skills that will be in demand. But if bank boards are serious about keeping the capabilities of their management teams aligned with firms' needs, then some argue that women have a unique opportunity in the coming years to put forth their candidacy for leadership roles.

"Generally speaking, most women possess excellent bootstrapping skills. They can be skilled at managing costs and doing more with less," says Maria Coyne, executive vice president for consumer and small business banking at KeyCorp. And women, she adds, "often are good collaborators, a critical skill for the required retooling in the industry."

In banking, male and female leaders alike are calling on their firms to bust up the silos that have kept customer relationships segmented by product, with checking account customers for instance viewed through one lens and mortgage customers seen through another, without the client relationship ever being addressed in its totality.

The challenge is that at many banks, the entire infrastructure-including technology systems, compensation incentives and the internal pathways to power-has been built up around these vertical patterns.

In a "vertical, hierarchical system-because people behave as they are measured-you have to demonstrate, 'I did that,' because that's how you're going to get compensated and that's how you're doing to get recognized,'' says Deborah Hopkins, chief innovation officer at Citigroup and chairman of the firm's venture capital initiatives.

But women, she says, "are not so driven by that type of recognition."

Studies show that men are more inclined than women to trumpet their own accomplishments, perhaps giving them an edge in promotions. But this advantage would mean less if vertical power structures were dismantled, and collaboration skills were in higher demand.

The collaboration trend also has spilled into the regulatory sphere, where banking agencies were forced to coordinate more, initially because of the financial crisis and later, after the Dodd-Frank Act passed, as a result of Congressional mandate.

Mary Miller, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for domestic finance, says her team is working on projects "that need a great deal of collaboration, where we're bringing regulatory agencies in from all over town," while also seeking the cooperation of the private sector. She says that's easier to accomplish "to the extent that you can check egos at the door a little bit and try to get to the heart of the matter."

And that's where executives like Citi's Hopkins see women having the edge.

"We see more need to think in a broader way and across the organization, and out [to other] organizations, so what that often means is forming teams. And where I think women do particularly well is in that ability to collaborate ... to be able to get a team working together quickly."

Today's leaders talk a lot about the importance of being authentic. Authenticity can be a particularly poignant ideal for women, who for so long were forced to play male versions of themselves to get ahead in their careers. To Katia Bouazza, a debt capital markets executive with HSBC, authenticity is a natural extension of the trustworthiness we look for in leaders.

"In today's society, you want more transparency ... and you want to relate to the people around you, as opposed to big leaders 10 years ago, who were on a pedestal, untouchable."


(4) Comments



Comments (4)
Looking into the future is difficult, but fun. Who saw that the Beatles or Google would be that big or that WW2 would go on till 1945 and end with the A bomb? Digital talk will not take over from eyeball communication because digital is blunt and fails the body language test and integrity. I like the one I was told that sportsman who have a titter account are like being given and ak47.
Posted by neil ridley | Monday, October 22 2012 at 4:56AM ET
Great article about the "soft side" of finance no longer being a nice thing to have but a necessity. I would love to see the research on the
women outscoring men in many of the leadership categories by Zenger Folkman. Any way to get access to it?
Posted by Kathleen Burns Kingsbury | Tuesday, October 16 2012 at 5:32PM ET

I learned firsthand how impressive one of these women is.
Claire Tucker, CEO CapStar Bank.

Check out the link above.
They really do 'listen'...
Posted by jkbaer | Tuesday, October 16 2012 at 12:47PM ET
This is a great article of prudent information that all businesses in and of the future will need to incorporate in their senior and mid- level management teams. This type of leveraging is way over due. I am so glad that I finally see it in writing where it can be, and should be used to be most valuable from a publishing like the American Banker. Thank you so much, I really enjoyed reading this article and hope to see more like it.
Posted by Netta | Tuesday, October 02 2012 at 12:48PM ET
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