Bank of America's Cathy Bessant: Paying It Forward

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    To say Cathy Bessant has a big job would be an understatement. She leads a business unit comparable in size and budget to some of the largest corporations in the country, and her responsibilities grew further in April when the unit absorbed Bank of America's consumer and mortgage-servicing operations.
    September 22

Cathy Bessant knows firsthand how a charitable legacy can change lives. She left her hometown of Jackson, Mich., with the help of one. A wealthy local philanthropist left money to fund college scholarships for young people from the city. One such scholarship helped Bessant attend the University of Michigan.

"It was a real difference-maker for me," she says.

Leaving her hometown broadened Bessant's horizons — it "made me hungry to take part" in life, she says — and many years later that stranger's gift helped motivate Bessant to start a scholarship program of her own to aid young women.

Bessant believes that bankers have a responsibility to help change lives and encourages her co-workers to volunteer for civic and community groups — and, moreover, to see that work as an opportunity, not an obligation. "Nothing makes me crazier than when I hear somebody on my team refer to their bank and nonbank activities as their 'day job' and their 'night job,'" she says. "Because done well, both help the other."

She tries to bring the skills honed in her volunteer work to her job at Bank of America. That's largely thanks to a mentor at the company who gave her some coaching that stuck with her.

"One of my bosses told me, 'I've seen you outside the bank, and people outside the bank love working with you. Not everybody at Bank of America loves working with you. You're going to have to figure out the difference,'" Bessant says.

The advice came as a surprise for Bessant, given her success within B of A. She has led nearly every major business line and is now the head of global technology and operations, overseeing its largest division by number of employees.

So what was missing? Bessant realized it came down to simple personal skills, the naturalness, authenticity and mutual respect with which people treat one another in volunteer work. She's worked to bring the same qualities to bear at B of A — a change, she feels, that has made her a far better banker.

"People who have success in civic and charitable work are always better at what they do, because they have a developed set of skills that make them more effective," she says. "You have to learn to influence without the power of hierarchy. You have to learn to solicit opinions versus dictate opinions."

In her role, Bessant oversees more than 120,000 employees across 34 countries, so she hears a lot of differing opinions. She's been tasked with streamlining a vast technology infrastructure, a project that has involved some of the biggest tech conversions any banking company has undertaken. She's led the centralization of B of A's IT platforms, which were a patchwork of different systems brought on in the acquisitions of Merrill Lynch, Countrywide and others. She's worked to simplify the sprawling network of applications that the bank uses worldwide, and led what the bank calls the largest upgrade of the Microsoft Windows operating system ever undertaken.

Her volunteer work is wide ranging, from support for LGBT groups to a recently concluded four-year term chairing the Foundation for the Carolinas, a community-development fund. And she's doing for other women what a philanthropist from her hometown did for her. For years, Bessant had thought about establishing a scholarship to help young women attend college. Her timeline accelerated when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. She is now in remission.

"My urgency changed because I got sick," she says. "The days of waiting to set it up had tobe over."

So she founded the Catherine Pombier Bessant Scholarship Fund for the business school at the University of Michigan. It provides scholarships to young women from rural areas in Michigan, women with backgrounds just like Bessant's.

She's met some of the women who have gone to school with her help; others she hasn't spoken with. That doesn't bother her. She never met the person whose gift helped her go to school either.

"I've always wanted to create the same kind of legacy, even knowing that the recipients might not know who I am," she says.

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