Cece Stewart did not always care much about helping other women advance in their careers.

"I think it has to do with the generation I came up in," says Stewart, a 35-year banking veteran.

Early on, she wanted her gender to fade into the background at work. She did not necessarily think about it in those terms then, but she says that's essentially how she acted when she was abranch manager in her early 20s.

"It was just an era when there weren't that many women," she says. "It was a culture that didn't encourage you to embrace being a woman. You even dressed like men."

You'd think finding the right clothes to fit in would be easy at least, but not so.

"The only way you could even get a women's suit back then—honest to goodness—was to go to Joseph Banks, which is a men's store," says Stewart, who is now president of U.S. consumer and commercial banking for Citigroup. "It started carrying women's suits back in the early 80s. It was basically a men's suit, but with a skirt for women. The shirts had little bow ties."

Stewart says she understands why she felt that success depended on not being too womanly.

"It was almost not accepted to talk a lot about women's networks," she says. "If during that time there was a women's group, I might have thought—I'm being really honest here—'I'm not sure I want to be associated with that. I don't know what the men are going to think.'

"And now I don't feel that way at all."

It was later in her career that a mentor pointed out how she was, as Stewart puts it, "not embracing being a woman" and suggested that she needed to change her thinking.

"It was an 'aha' shift," Stewart says. "Now I feel responsibility to identify the right women in the organization and make sure they're getting the time and attention they need to pursue their careers."

In just two years at Citi, she has filled 11 senior positions with women, including chief administrative officer, head of consumer lending, eastern regional president, a handful of her 13 market presidents and head of marketing. She works to be a mentor and role model for each of them.

She also hired 15 men for senior roles in that time and is equally happy to coach them.

In each case, Stewart thinks she found the best person for the task at hand. "You're only as good as the people you surround yourself with," she says. "I want to make sure I have a good balance—not only a diversity of gender, but a diversity of thinking and a diversity of styles—so when we come together, we're a better team."

Stewart says there is a natural inclination to choose people who are like you. She thinks it is important to counteract that tendency, in part because friction is often fruitful.

"I think it's incredibly important that you have a couple of members of your direct leadership team who you know are going to push back on you in the right kind of way and who are going to occasionally challenge the direction you are taking," she says."If everyone just does what you say without thinking or injecting their thoughts, it can be disastrous. So I am very purposeful about that."

Stewart says there is "probably nothing more rewarding as a leader" than to watch people she has mentored flourish in their careers. She also gets a charge from speaking to women's groups—an activity she might have carefully avoided years ago. "It's amazing, in terms of the power you gain by being in a room with that many fabulous women," Stewart says.

"I think we need one another."

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