When Apple Computer launched its “Think Different” campaign six years ago, most executives got tripped up by the grammatically incorrect slogan.

They missed the point.

This should come as no surprise. For decades—what feels like eons to some—corporate America was defined by convention, and banking was no exception. Those executives who played outside the box—think Steve Jobs—typically were viewed somewhat skeptically. This includes men and women alike, though female pioneers in corporate America will tell you that for far too long it only applied to men. They were the ones, by and large, occupying offices in the executive suite.

In the past 25 years, corporate America—banking included—has witnessed major change. Among the female pioneers and pace-setters are Katharine Graham, whose disciplined stewardship of The Washington Post established it as a rock-solid newspaper of record; Oprah Winfrey’s ascension to self-made billionaire-entrepreneur; Meg Whitman’s astute command of eBay; and Sallie Krawcheck’s rise to CEO of Smith Barney.

What do they have in common? An unflappable commitment to excellence, and an absolute acknowledgement that life “outside the box” is more rewarding—personally and professionally—than choosing to live by convention.

In this issue, U.S. Banker debuts its first annual ranking of the “25 Most Powerful Women in Banking.” The ranking profiles each individual’s rise to power and examines the factors that contribute to her influence over the business at hand, the team she manages and, in some cases, the industry as a whole (see cover story p. 22 for methodology involved in ranking). Also included is a ranking of “Women to Watch,” 25 rising stars whose performances are notable and worth following in coming years.

Beyond standout performances that drive group revenues and profits and/or contribute to overall bank performance, what’s striking about each female executive in the ranking is how comfortable she is with who she’s evolved into during her rise to power. Coming from all walks of life and with differing education and family situations, each woman is testament to the fact that power and influence are derived by combining business acumen with those intangible leadership qualities that affect both institution and community.

Even more, they clearly exhibit the ability to think different—not differently—about what they do and how they do it.

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