Rosilyn Houston couldn't have known it at the time, but the year she spent caring for her toddler son while he underwent treatment for leukemia would have a profound impact on the trajectory of her career.

Houston has spent most of her career in banking, having started out as a teller. But her family crisis hit a few years after she had left the former Compass Bank for a stint at a nonprofit.

She was serving as general manager of a Christian organization in Dallas when her then-23-month-old son, Christian, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004. It was a big job in which she oversaw 200 employees, managed television broadcasting contracts for the international ministry and traveled frequently. She ended up taking an extended leave while her son went through chemotherapy.

It was a heart-wrenching year, but watching her little boy be so courageous throughout his battle with leukemia was also inspiring to Houston. It reminded her "that nothing is impossible," she said. "We can get through anything if we just have the courage to believe."

Today, Christian is 13 and "doing great," Houston said. Besides being busy with school and other activities, he has become a passionate advocate for patient care through his involvement with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

So is Houston doing well, rising to the highest levels of management at what is now BBVA Compass. She returned to banking following her son's illness mostly so she could spend more time with her family, but also because she wanted a new challenge. She rejoined Compass as a senior vice president with responsibility for 19 offices in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She continued to accept — and excel at — one challenging assignment after another, and last year was tapped to head up human resources at the $88 billion-asset bank.

Reporting directly to Chairman and Chief Executive Manolo Sanchez, Houston has been tasked with not just overseeing typical HR functions — like payroll and benefits — but also fundamentally transforming the bank's culture. Recognizing that more engaged employees make for satisfied customers, Houston has revamped the hiring and recruitment process to focus less on specific skills and more on attitude, adaptability and the ability to think critically. She is also responsible for evaluating senior leaders to make sure they are on board with the transformation underway and can execute on the vision.

"This is a journey," Houston said. "We started a real intense focus on cultural transformation at the end of last year and we know it's going to take three to five years to get to where we are comfortable."

One of the key qualities Houston brings to the job is empathy. Having suffered "a number of life blows" — she battled cancer herself and lost her mother to cancer — "that could have knocked me off course," Houston is keenly aware that many employees come to work every day with their own personal struggles. Creating a workplace that is viewed as compassionate is one of her top priorities.

"Part of being an effective leader is being sensitive to what individuals go through day in and day out, not only in the job, but in life," she said.

It's also important that employees feel valued. "Employees want the same things," Houston said. "They want to be welcomed into the environment, they want to be respected, they want to be heard, they want people to take notice of their hard work and dedication to the organization and they want opportunity."

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