The women who have attained the title of chief executive officer in the financial services industry are a rarity. But those at banks large and small know exactly how other women can join their ranks: Ask to do more.

"I never thought I would be a CEO, but I always liked to learn and take on challenges, even if they seemed like messy problems," says Ellen Costello, the president and CEO of the $52 billion-asset Harris Financial Corp. in Chicago. "So I kept doing that, and I think it prepared me to be a CEO."

Shaza Andersen says a natural desire to take on more is how she ended up with her title too.

"I just kept going. I didn’t think, 'I want to be a bank president or CEO.' I never thought that," says Andersen, who has been CEO at the $538 million-asset WashingtonFirst Bank in Reston, Va., since founding it in 2004. "I always wanted to learn and do more. I never wanted to be static."

Asked to reflect on pivotal moments in their path to the top, several of the CEOs in our rankings this year shared a wide range of stories. They pinpointed a key decision, an insightful conversation or a nudge from a smart mentor. All had a significant impact, not always one that was apparent at the time. But their hope is that others can take something useful from the experience.

Stepping up

When the community bank where she had been chief operating officer sold itself to a larger competitor about 10 years ago, Shaza Andersen needed some downtime. She had every intention of staying home with her children, then ages 2 and 6. She had a noncompete agreement that prohibited her from going to other local banks anyway.

But two months in, Andersen was antsy. Luckily for her, "they didn’t say I couldn't start a bank," she says.

"What really tipped it was when my customers were calling me at home and saying, 'What bank did you go to? We want to move with you.' I thought, "Hmmm, there is room for another bank." And that's when I started pulling the group together and getting organized."

Andresen got encouragement and financial support from Joseph Bracewell, the CEO from her former bank and now the chairman of WashingtonFirst, whom she considers a mentor. She says that helped to keep her from feeling daunted. "I didn't really think too much about it. It felt like an extension of what I was already doing more than a whole new venture. I thought of it as, 'This is what I've done all of my life, and I sort of stopped the ball when we sold the bank, and I just want to continue it.'

"Having said that, the night before we opened the doors, I remember sitting in bed and telling my husband, 'Oh my gosh, now that we’re going to open, what if they don’t come?' All of a sudden, it was a panic. But they came."

Going where the challenge is

Ellen Alemany, chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group, credits a former boss at Citigroup with guiding her into a role that helped prepare her to run a bank—despite her initial resistance.

In the mid-1990s, she had been in charge of one of the industry groups at Citi's corporate bank, when along came a job she didn't think she wanted, running the corporate bank in both the U.S. and Canada.

"It was right after the Canadian crisis, right when there were lots of real estate problems, and the bank was writing off millions of dollars in Canada. I said, 'That’s great. I'm really flattered, but I'll just run the U.S. You can give somebody else Canada to run.'" Her boss, Bob McCormick, urged her to reconsider, saying it was an opportunity to manage the business in another country with its own board and an unfamiliar regulator.

She ultimately accepted the position, and "a year and a half later, the bank asked me to run the corporate bank in Western Europe, which was 18 countries," Alemany says. "If I hadn’t done that job, I would never have been ready. When I look back on my career, I had really strong sponsors. Bob McCormick was one of them. [That job] was really when I made the decision that I wanted to run a bank, and understand how everything operates—soup to nuts—and lead and manage a lot of people. So it was a big transition for me in my own career."

Refusing to settle for less

Laurie Stewart, the president and CEO of Sound Community Bank in Seattle, turned down a promotion early in her career after her bosses refused to pay her as much as a man in the same role.

When she told her father what had transpired, he was irate—but not for the reason you might expect.

"My dad just had a fit. He said, 'Why would you possibly think you could make as much money as a man?' He said, 'You’re a girl. You’re married.' Probably that moment made me more of an activist for women than had anything that had happened before," Stewart says.

"Ultimately they did hire me. They waited about three or four months and then they came back and said, 'We still need you for this job and we’re willing to pay you.' When I was promoted to senior vice president a number of years later, my dad said to me, 'So did they pay you the right salary this time?' And I said, 'They sure did, Dad.' And he said, 'You convinced me. I changed my mind.'"

Managing life choices

Few role models existed for women executives 30 years ago, but Margaret Keane, president and CEO of GE Capital Retail Finance, in Stamford, Conn., says she had the good fortune to work for Pam Flaherty, who at the time ran Citibank's U.S. retail operations.

"She and I had this great conversation," says Keane, who during her mid-20s worried about whether she would need to scale back her career to have children.

"It was about bandwidth. Could you still get to a senior level in an organization? And in her view, you could. Obviously, she did. She was honest enough to say, 'You’re going to have to make choices along the way, but you can do it.'"

Keane considers the conversation an "aha" moment that helped her to accomplish more in her career than she might have otherwise. "I had to have the confidence that I could do it."

Decades later, Keane still lives by the advice Flaherty gave her. "She said, 'Don't try to change who you are. Don't try to be a man in a man's world, but be yourself in a man's world. If you do that and deliver, you’re going to be successful.'"

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