Bank executives seek allies in fight for gender equality

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No executive rises to the top on his or her own.

That was a consistent theme at American Banker’s 17th annual gala late Thursday recognizing the most powerful women in banking and finance.

Several speakers gave credit to the mentors who had helped them rise in executive ranks. They emphasized that goals like gender parity cannot be achieved unless they can embrace that role for others, assisting the next generation of women leaders while also enlisting additional allies.

“We’re all here tonight because at some point a man or a woman played a critical role in giving advice or giving us an opportunity or coaching us in a time of need or just encouraging us,” said Barbara Desoer, the former CEO of Citibank, who accepted an award for lifetime achievement. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to continue that.”

To be sure, serving as a mentor does not mean shading the truth. Cathy Bessant, who was the most powerful women in banking for the third consecutive year, gave credit to Desoer for being willing to offer direct guidance that had a significant impact on her career.

“Barbara had the courage and the grace to tell me things I did not want to hear,” Bessant said. “I'm not, by the way, going to tell you what they are.”

Bessant said everyone needs that kind of “village” which can foster growth.

“Everyone needs a village—men and women,” Bessant said. “And it's not as simple as a personal village. We've got to have personal and professional villages. The role of all of you in your professional villages has got to be to tell people that which they must hear.”

Bessant recalled being advised by a different mentor who talked to her when she’d reached a role she didn’t particularly enjoy. Bessant told her mentor she planned to meet with her boss to talk about doing something different. But her mentor challenged such a move.

“Maybe development isn’t supposed to be fun,” Bessant was told.

LeeAnne Linderman, a former top executive at Zions Bancorp. also recognized with a lifetime achievement award, acknowledged it took her time to realize the power she had within her institution and the industry.

When she was first honored as part of the most powerful women in banking list, she said she didn’t feel particularly powerful. She said she associated the word “power” with men and ego.

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But as she looked at executives she admired, including Zions CEO Harris Simmons, she redefined the term. To them, power could mean unquestioned ethics, kindness, generosity and humility. They had used their power, which they had earned through their success in the industry, to do good and charitable things in their communities, she said.

“That was the definition of power the spoke to me,” she said. “I want to do good things with the success that I’ve been granted.”

Most people gain power by enhancing the lives of others, Linderman said.

“It's actually conferred upon us,” said Linderman, who retired from her role as executive vice president of enterprise retail banking. “It's not something that we can grab."

She encouraged others in the industry to accept this definition of power and use it for the benefit of those coming up behind them.

“Don’t shy away from the power you have earned,” she said. “Use it to make a different in those things important in your life. And do it unabashedly.”

It was a point also raised by Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat, who said men need to use their power to help women by recognizing the unconscious ways they may be perpetuating bias in the industry.

“For too long, too many unexamined assumptions have determined what happens at work,” he said. “Who gets listened to at the meeting? Who gets interrupted during the meeting? Who gets invited to join the club, and to form the often invisible but critical networks that divide those who get marginalized from those who get ahead?”

During her speech, Bessant, the chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America, acknowledged that change can be frightening. She said she was terrified while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but the key thing was to face her fears and work through them.

“It’s not about not being afraid, it’s about being brave,” she said. “You can learn it. You’ve got to learn it. There’s no way to be resilient without learning it. And the moments when you think you don’t have those are the moments you have it the most.”

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