Ellen Costello took a winding path to the top-through corporate banking, Treasury, securitization, credit investment management and merchant banking.

Eventually all those jobs added up to one big title for Costello: president and CEO of Harris Financial Corp., a unit of Toronto's BMO Financial Group.

Costello, who joined Harris in 1983, credits her diverse experience with helping her ascend to the helm of the Chicago banking company.

She eventook several international positions over the years. One of Costello's favorite parts in her banking career was getting to work in great cities: Hong Kong, New York, and Montreal.

"The thing that really drives me is learning," she says. "And this has been a great place for that. I'm in a big organization and I can play different roles."

Costello acknowledges that the four years since she took the reins at Harris have been a particularly tough time to be the boss. When she became CEO in August 2006,housing prices were at their peak in the market Harris serves. The 1.2 million consumers and businesses in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin who bank at Harris had rough going after the real estate market and the economy tanked, as did employees themselves.

"It's a lot more rewarding to be able to help someone buy a house" than to see if they can avoid foreclosure, she says.

When asked about the most distasteful part of being CEO, Costello has an immediate reply: "Too many meetings."

She is just as quick with her favorite part: "Working with a great team."

Her advice to anyone who wants to advance in banking is threefold: Perform above expectations and seek a lot of feedback to be sure that is the case. Collaborate unselfishly. And be willing to take risks.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.