BNY Mellon's Karen Peetz: The Most Powerful Woman in Banking

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President, BNY Mellon

Karen Peetz has myriad responsibilities as president of the world's largest custody bank, not the least of which is managing relationships with Bank of New York Mellon's 500 largest clients. It's a hugely diverse group, ranging from Fortune 500 corporations to government agencies to sovereign wealth funds. Peetz frequently surveys and meets with these clients to gauge how well BNY Mellon is doing in meeting their needs.

Some of the feedback she has received lately is that clients love the bank's people, but they sometimes sense a lack of coordination between the many departments that touch their businesses. Many also do not view BNY Mellon as being particularly innovative, despite its history as an innovator — it was the first institution to use the Internet to process transactions, for example — and the fact that it has set up six innovation labs across its footprint.

Peetz is now leading the effort to change these perceptions and improve the way the bank interacts with these blue-chip clients. The initiative has many moving parts, but a key component is fostering greater collaboration across multiple business lines, primarily through intense training and coaching of the most senior executives. Another component is educating client-facing employees about the bank's innovation efforts so that they can keep clients up to date on the various initiatives.

This "cultural transformation," as Peetz calls it, is still a work in progress, but early results are encouraging. Internal surveys have shown that clients have a more positive perception of the bank's ability to innovate and, anecdotally, Peetz said clients are reporting higher levels of engagement from BNY Mellon employees.

"The biggest reaction we are getting from clients is, 'Why weren't you doing this earlier?' Peetz said. "We were doing it in pockets ... but now we are doing it across the company. It's a cultural change."

This ability to identify problems and lay out substantive solutions is among the reasons why Peetz — the Most Powerful Woman in Banking for the second time — is viewed as such an effective leader. Whether it is taking the lead on improving the bank's risk culture or spearheading an effort to improve career advancement opportunities for women, Peetz has inspired a generation of colleagues with a relentless focus on actionable plans and bottom-line results.

"Having a strong sense of accountability and a commitment to follow through is big part of leadership," Peetz said. "People see through [leaders] who don't step up and say 'That was my thing to do.' "

Perhaps the best example of Peetz stepping up came outside of the bank, when she was serving on the board of Penn State University, her alma mater. It was early 2012, and the school was embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal involving longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Peetz had joined the board two years earlier and when the chairman opted not to run for re-election, she took the initiative to chair it during the most tumultuous time in the school's history. True to form, she ushered in a series of changes designed to make the board more transparent, including opening the meetings to the public and creating committees that included students, alumni and faculty. She stepped down from the post after she was promoted to president of BNY Mellon in 2013.

Apart from overseeing relationships with BNY Mellon's most important clients, Peetz is responsible for the bulk of the bank's activities abroad, helps set regulatory policy and heads its corporate social responsibility efforts.

Before being named president, Peetz ran the bank's treasury services business, where one of her top managers was Susan Skerritt, now a high-ranking executive at Deutsche Bank. Skerritt said that before she joined BNY Mellon, she had tried to come across as a leader who was tough, even though it didn't feel natural. Then she saw Peetz in action and admired how effective she was by being authentic — and listening more than she talked.

"I saw her naturally being herself, and I realized that it was possible to do that," Skerritt said. "When you are talking to Karen you feel as though you are the only person in the world."

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