One Brisk evening in March, Bank of America's top technology executive walked onto a stage in Charlotte, N.C., under highly unusual circumstances.
Rather than her typical business attire, Cathy Bessant wore jeans and a blue sweatshirt. Kenny Loggins' 1980s hit "Footloose" jangled from the loudspeakers. As the spotlight shone down on her before an audience of over 900, Bessant tapped her toes, swung her arms above her head, and began to dance.
The occasion for Bessant's rousing performance was a local "Dancing with the Stars" fundraising gala. She brought in more than $255,000 for the Charlotte Ballet and her charity of choice, the Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center. For Bessant, a breast cancer survivor, it was also a refresher in confronting her fears.
"I felt not just fear but abject terror," Bessant says of her dancing adventure. "But there's an incredible sense of empowerment and quiet confidence when you take something that scares you more than anything else and just do it."
That attitude certainly seems to be paying off for Bessant, who ranks as No. 6 on our 2015 Most Powerful Women in Banking list.
She recently received a C-suite title — chief operations and technology officer — in recognition of her responsibility for a division with more than 110,000 employees and a $17 billion annual budget.
She's equally self-assured whether discussing her approach to simplifying the Charlotte, N.C., company's sprawling technological infrastructure or holding forth on how her work relates to big-picture issues like gender equality.
At the heart of Bessant's approach to her job is the principle that "simpler really is better," she says. Under a plan she put in motion in 2010, B of A has retired more than 18,000 software applications. This year alone, her team is consolidating five Merrill Lynch financial adviser platforms, eight teller systems and 22 collateral management systems into just one of each.
Meanwhile, Bessant is also working to bolster cybersecurity. "My boss is fond of saying that I'm completely unconstrained by dollars and people in cyberdefense," she says, referring to B of A's Chairman and Chief Executive Brian Moynihan. "That's code for, 'your butt is on the line.'"
But while Bessant may champion technological decluttering, her personal calendar tends to be maxed out. Her extracurricular activities include serving as the lead independent director at health insurer Florida Blue and as a member of the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. And at the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Bessant and her colleague Anne Finucane, B of A's global chief strategy and marketing officer, led a discussion on the challenges faced by women in business.
The persistent problem of the banking industry's gender gap is evident in its dearth of female chief executives, according to Bessant. She suggests that part of the issue may lie in the overwhelming demands of the CEO role.
"This whole notion of being the CEO 24/7 and not being entitled to a single personal misstep or misstatement is very hard to sell to anyone," she says. "It may be that the role was crafted incorrectly."
Nonetheless, Bessant is a staunch defender of banking, which she calls a noble but misunderstood profession. "We exist to make businesses grow, to make payroll, to employ people, to help capital to expand."