Had she not received some good advice early in her career, Catherine Smith might not be the head of ING U.S. Retirement Services.

The advice, from a woman a couple of steps above her on the career ladder, had to do with advocating for herself-and, as a woman in the male-dominated world of finance, doing it diplomatically.

"It's sometimes hard for an organization to find the talent if they don't raise their hand," says Smith. "She taught me a soft-shoe approach."

Two years ago, the Dutch financial giant ING Group decided Smith was enough of a talent to lead one of its most important and successful businesses. Within the defined contribution industry, its U.S. Retirement Services unit has the most plan sponsors, the second-most participants and the third-most assets under management, according to the trade publication Pensions & Investments.

Smith credits her leadership style to her father. A general partner at a law firm in Chicago, he loved to network and led with authority and compassion."He was very clear and forthright," Smith says. "But he had this amazingly nice management style, which I still try to emulate myself."

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