How will the next generation of women lead?
They’re millennials, though they swear they’re not. They build bridges between their younger millennial counterparts and senior colleagues, and between cultures. They believe in overexplaining, flexibility and a soft touch.
A Deloitte study of millennials in the workforce found that as of 2015 more than half of them were already managers with decision-making authority and direct reports — putting them on a faster career trajectory than previous generations.
How will the workplace evolve as these older millennials, now in their late 30s, make their way to the C-suite? Talk to some of the next generation of female leaders in the financial services industry — the honorees from American Banker’s Most Powerful Women in Banking: Next list — and you start to see clues about the way they will steer their organizations.
They’ve already tackled some significant business challenges and developed their own leadership style in the process.
Bridging differences in company culture
During the financial crisis, Wilmington Trust struggled with underperforming commercial loans and capital issues. By 2011, it became clear the best option was to be acquired.
M&T, a banking company in upstate New York with a history of acquiring banks in trouble, made an offer. An acquisition was announced within 30 days.
Abigail Mrozinski, who worked at Wilmington Trust prior to the deal, helped with integrating its operations into the new parent company. She was director of corporate analysis at the time.
She was later recruited for the role of chief financial officer in the wealth and institutional services division, which is now the third largest business within M&T.
One challenge Mrozinski faced throughout the merger (and since) was the clash of two cultures. While both companies were conservative and deeply rooted in their own history, the 100-year-old Wilmington had a trust company vibe, M&T a community bank sensibility.
“The whole way a trust company goes about business is completely different than how a community bank may go about business, so there were growing pains,” she said. “There were a lot of emotions. A lot of people had worked at Wilmington their entire careers” — including Mrozinski’s mother — “and had their future invested in the company.”
Even eight years later, Mrozinski still feels like she’s a bridge between the cultures of M&T and Wilmington Trust. For example, the global capital markets business within Wilmington is entrepreneurial – constantly reacting to the market and interest rate changes and creating new products. This can seem foreign to those who are from a risk-averse retail banking culture.
“We’re still helping to create the story, find the right comparison point, the right analogies we can present to the business in a way that gets everybody on board and allows the business to grow,” she said.
Mrozinski’s bridge-building takes the forms of communicating and being patient. “The guys in capital markets often call it ‘getting to yes,’ ” Mrozinski said. “How do we get to yes?”
Becoming the international go-between
Lian Duan, deputy head of legal and compliance at China Merchants Bank Co.’s New York branch, also sees herself as a bridge – between her parent company in China and her U.S. colleagues, between U.S. regulators and her bank, and between older leaders in the company and the young millennials the bank attracts with its popular mobile banking app.
To grow internationally, China Merchants Bank set up a branch in the U.S. in 2008. But there were more regulatory headwinds to this than the parent company, China Merchants Group, realized at first.
Duan, who started working for the bank in New York in 2012, served as a point person with the Federal Reserve to get the formal regulatory approval needed for China Merchants Group to do business in the states. (Without this, the U.S. branch would not be able to expand.)
She also won a fiduciary power certificate from the New York State Department of Financial Services, to allow the U.S. branch to provide wealth management services.
The hardest part, she said, was not working with regulators but getting the bank’s parent company to understand why these efforts were necessary. The parent company, which owns 18% of the U.S. bank, didn’t know it was deemed by the Federal Reserve to be a bank holding company.
“In the Federal Reserve’s eye, if you have a controlling influence, then you are a parent company,” Duan said.
China Merchants Group was incorporated in Hong Kong, where companies need to have at least 30% ownership to be considered holding companies.
The colleagues she worked with in China and Hong Kong were older than Duan, who is 36.
“In Asian society, if you're dealing with senior people you have to show respect, even if you have a different opinion,” Duan said. “I always take the approach of, I understand you, but we have to follow the rules in order for us to grow.”
So, to reassure senior executives in China about the need for Federal Reserve approval, not only did Duan patiently explain the situation, she obtained legal opinions from law firms in Hong Kong and the U.S. that backed her up.
“I'm kind of a bridge between the head office and the U.S. operation,” Duan said. “It’s really hard — you have to communicate with people in their preferred way.”
When she compares her leadership style to people a generation older, Duan points out that she relies on patient explanation rather than a more aggressive style and arrogant tone.
For instance, some of the younger members on Duan’s team sometimes question tasks assigned by senior management — wanting to understand the why.
“I spend a lot of time giving them the background of the task as well as the culture in China, the authorization structure in China, as well as the main objectives from our head office,” she said.
Transparency and overcommunicating
Kristen Bitterly has not been afraid to take risks when advancing her career. Every step has been an opportunity to learn and grow.
She started at Citigroup in sales and trading of derivatives and structured solutions. She would educate clients about these products, and then structure and price them, working with the trading desk.
“I loved it because it's a technical area of finance, but then you get to meet these amazing clients and the sophistication level is always very vast,” Bitterly said.
Some clients were former hedge fund founders, so very knowledgeable. Others had just come into some money, by selling a company, say, and were relatively new to investing.
“There's a great term called ‘telescoping,’ where you have to be able to go very deep and zoom in, but then you also have to be able to explain the bigger picture,” Bitterly said.
Knowing which approach to take when is important. “If you go either way, you could insult someone's intelligence or you get too technical and someone walks out of the room not knowing what you’re talking about, which is not productive,” Bitterly said.
Immediately after returning from maternity leave following the birth of her second child (she has two boys, ages 5 and 2), Bitterly was asked if she'd be interested in running investments for the east region of the private bank, from Boston to Miami.
“What intrigued me about it was it was direct client coverage, so instead of being a specialist that comes in when there's a particular need, you are talking to the clients frequently, addressing all their needs,” Bitterly said.
This offered her exposure to investments of all kinds, including private equity, real estate, and hedge funds.
“I had this great opportunity to expand my knowledge base and manage a team that was very senior,” she said. “Everyone on the team was an investment adviser with more than 20 years’ experience.”
A year into that job, there was a reorganization and a new position was created: head of capital markets for North America and Latin America. “I'm a fluid Spanish speaker. I've covered Latin America. My husband is Mexican,” Bitterly said. “So it intrigued me.”
She took the new role last spring. There was some resistance to the restructuring, Bitterly acknowledged. “I think the solution to that is you overcommunicate,” she said.
She began holding monthly town halls in which she would be very transparent, sharing what went well and what did not, and what the revenue numbers were for each product.
“Everyone is a business owner,” she said. “Everyone from our first-year analyst to the members of my team that are running some of the divisions need to know where we stand versus our goals.”
The older-millennial managers have had to adjust quickly to having a lot of remote workers, a trend that’s become more prominent in the past 10 years.
When the M&T-Wilmington Trust merger was completed, Mrozinski remained in the same building. This meant she suddenly found herself no longer working at a headquarters but in a satellite office.
“There's a disconnect there — how do you bridge that?” she said. “You have to learn quickly the tools to build relationships when you're not in the same room with everybody. Then how do you get stuff done as effectively and efficiently as you would if you were there face to face?”
Members of her staff are based in Wilmington, Del., Buffalo, N.Y., Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. One person also works remotely from South Carolina.
In the beginning, some employees questioned how she could be effective as their manager when she was several states away.
“I would say to these guys, I know you're used to your manager being onsite, but give me a chance,” Mrozinski said. “Think of it not as a bad thing that your manager is not there, but as a skill you need to develop. It's 2019 and chances are you're not always going to be face to face with somebody.”
She relies a lot on screen shares (to go over spreadsheets) and videoconferencing.
Closing the generational divide
Much like Duan, Mrozinski also sees older millennials like herself as a bridge between her younger millennial counterparts and more senior employees, particularly the baby boomers.
“When I was coming up in my career, you did things because that was the way they were done and there was a format and a structure and a process and you followed all of that and you followed the rules,” Mrozinski said. “Millennials are questioning more than I ever questioned anything at that stage of my career.”
The key for managers is to recognize that there's value in that and not take it as an affront, she said.
She also sometimes gets the classic entitled attitude from millennial workers who think they shouldn’t have to do certain things. “I had one guy who was so talented, but he couldn't get out of his own way with his sense of entitlement,” Mrozinski said. “I needed him to cover a meeting, and I said ‘I'm trusting you to cover this, but you need to remember who's on the other end of this meeting and you need to keep the attitude in check, keep the self-confidence a little bit in check. Let your actions speak more than your words.’ ”
She gets frequent demands for feedback, another stereotypical millennial behavior, as well. “Sometimes they say ‘I want feedback, I want feedback,’ but then when you give them feedback, it turns out they don't really want feedback,” she said. What they actually want is reassurance and praise, not thoughts on how they can do better.
When working with older people on her team, Mrozinski tries to defer to them.
“I try to make it clear, you’re here because you have the experience, I need someone who has more depth, who can face off on different issues,” she said. “The experience is invaluable; you can be the greatest analyst in the world, but you still can't replace 30 years of knowledge, industry understanding and experience. We've got to be respectful of people’s positions.”
The people on Mrozinski’s team who are a generation older “are much more abrupt, much more bulldog,” she said.
Sometimes this is helpful. “There are certain projects where we need someone to be very abrupt and very ‘this is the way it's got to be,’” Mrozinski said. “My style is more laid back and a little softer.”
When she was in corporate finance working on mergers and acquisitions, Mrozinski’s boss, who was about 20 years older, was “the pitbull.”
“She used to make so many people angry,” Mrozinski said. “I would come in and play the good cop, and at the end of the day, we would get a much better deal because of the way we played together with our strengths and weaknesses than either one of us would have gotten alone.”
Getting more personal
Bitterly said that the changing corporate climate also has produced a generation that’s more open about their personal lives than their predecessors.
“When I started out, I think there was a feeling that you had to have your game face on at work, and you couldn't bring your whole self to work,” she said. “Who you were professionally was a different person from who you were personally. Even something as simple as seeing pictures of people’s kids on a trading floor was very rare, because you didn't want people to think of you first and foremost as a mom.”
Technology, flexible work schedules and the idea that people are accessible at all moments of the day have blurred the lines between personal and professional.
“The only way to effectively manage that is to bring your whole self to work and be honest about the demands you have at home and professionally,” Bitterly said. “We all have those struggles throughout our careers and lives — whether it's caring for your children or a parent — when you need flexibility. The previous culture was one where you tried to show strength and resilience and you didn't want to show any cracks in the armor.”
Bitterly believes her generation will bring more compassion and emotional intelligence to their approach to management than the boomers generally did.
“Especially in this age of technology, where everything's becoming more automated, the ability to connect and inspire people is going to make a world of difference,” she said. “Especially with younger millennials, where it's so important to them to find purpose in what they do. With the older generations, it was about having a long-term, stable, well-paying career. That funded what you would be able to do outside of work. For people graduating college now, it's all about purpose and finding something that feeds your soul.”