Lifetime achievement: Barclays’ Barbara Byrne

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In her nearly four-decade career on Wall Street, Barbara Byrne ascended to the top of the investment banking world, earning a reputation along the way for helping companies through moments of peril.

But the first woman to be named a vice chairman at the once-vaunted New York investment bank Lehman Brothers also has made advancing women in male-dominated industries a focus of her work, both within banking and outside of it. She has even used her own money to help make a difference, investing in films by female directors and startups with female leaders.

“I’ve always been drawn to challenges, and I’ve always been drawn to conflict, because when you get to a point where there’s a heated discussion, if you’re drawn into it, that’s where creativity happens,” said Byrne, who retired this year from her vice chairman role at Barclays. “For me, that was what banking was. It was an opportunity to sit at the table and help find the path that moved everybody forward.”

For her trailblazing career as a senior-ranking woman on Wall Street, and her longstanding dedication to supporting women in business, Byrne will be honored on Thursday with a Lifetime Achievement Award at American Banker’s gala celebration in New York for the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance.

In climbing the ranks to the role of vice chairman, Byrne developed an expertise for working on complicated restructurings.

For instance, she advised Altria on its spinoff of Kraft Foods in 2007, as well as its spinoff of the cigarette maker Philip Morris in 2008. She also advised the Williams Companies on a restructuring in 2002 to save the troubled energy company from a bankruptcy.

Byrne said her assignments, once she reached the upper ranks, often involved situations that were “complicated, fraught with peril.” But she enjoyed them, she said, because that’s “where there’s something happening.”

“I don’t see conflict as being bad,” Byrne said. “I see conflict as being human, and I find a way to stabilize it.”

She isn't shying away from conflict in her retirement either.

Just months after her departure from Barclays, Byrne has once again found herself drawn to a challenge — one that is playing out in the public spotlight.

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Byrne was named in September as a director of CBS Corp., in part of a larger board shake-up. The changes coincided with the resignation of former Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, who stepped down amid allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

While Byrne has a long track record of working with boards on complicated cultural and financial issues, she faces a particularly thorny situation at CBS. Before resigning as CEO, Moonves allegedly misled directors about the allegations he faced, and concealed his attempts to find a job for one of his accusers who was threatening to go public with her claims, according to The New York Times.

There are other questions about the future of CBS as well. Among them: the company’s controlling shareholder, Shari Redstone, has been pushing for a merger with Viacom, the cable TV conglomerate.

Byrne sees the high-profile board assignment as a good fit for the skill set she spent decades building as an investment banker — and the opening chapter in the next act of her professional life.

She's had a career filled with remarkable experiences.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 1976, she spent four years at the company now known as ExxonMobil. Byrne said she was drawn to banking because she has always been intrigued by financial markets and the story they tell over time.

She talked lightheartedly about how, after she joined Lehman Brothers, she navigated the assumptions that her male colleagues had about her, such as the expectation that she would quit once she got married.

Byrne, one of only a few female bankers at the time, was single and had no plans to leave. But she found ways to play along and make her colleagues think otherwise.

After receiving her first bonus, for instance, she bought herself a mink coat, which she admits wasn't exactly her style, and wore it into the office. When her male colleagues asked about the coat, she said her boyfriend, a partner at Goldman Sachs, bought it for her.

“I did not have a boyfriend, by the way,” Byrne said, adding that she didn't have time to go on dates because she was working such long hours. She still has the coat in her closet, she said.

At times, Byrne would tell her colleagues about the weekend plans she had with her fictionalized beau, one time even mentioning a weekend jaunt to Paris.

“Of course I was not going to Paris,” Byrne said. “I was sitting in my apartment, eating Haagen-Dazs ice cream, watching television.”

Still, as Byrne talks about the male colleagues who provided her with advice and support early in her career at Lehman, her tone becomes more serious.

Those mentors included Harvey Kruger, the well-known Lehman banker who pushed Byrne to take on high-profile assignments. Kruger passed away last year. And Tom Hill, who currently serves as chairman of the hedge fund solutions division at Blackstone, gave her the flexibility to work from home on Fridays as she was raising her children.

A breakout moment for Byrne came in the late 1980s, when she pitched Burlington Northern Railroad on a major restructuring and won the assignment. That assignment, which involved taking apart a conglomerate, earned her a reputation for working on complex situations.

Shortly after winning the assignment, she was promoted to managing director. From there, she expanded her coverage from energy to technology and other industries and, years later, was named vice chairman.

Her ascent at Lehman, however, also put her at the top of the company during the financial crisis. Looking back at the day Lehman collapsed, in September 2008, she remembers being in the office, feeling shocked that regulators allowed the company to fail, and horrified that the firm she helped build was going under.

She remembered losing 13 pounds in two weeks from the stress, and questioning whether she had miscalculated by choosing a career in banking. The experience taught her to draw distinctions between her personal life and her professional one.

“You begin to say, ‘OK, I am not my job. My job is what I do, but here is who I am as a person.’ And those are big learning moments for all of us, actually,” she said.

Barclays acquired Lehman's capital markets business after the collapse, and Byrne in many ways picked up her professional life where she had left off, working on deals with the company’s most prominent clients.

While at Barclays, though, she also turned her focus to social issues, and to the advancement of women in the workplace.

Byrne led the company's Social Innovation Facility, which funded a number of projects, including the development of an index that tracks the performance of companies led by female executives. She also represented Barclays at events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Byrne, who is 64, retired at the end of last year, though she remained on salary through May. She said it was simply time to go, especially if she wanted to spend time serving on the boards of public companies, which often impose an age limit for directors.

In addition to CBS, Byrne said she may serve on another board. She also continues to invest in films written and directed by women, a business she got into after serving as a co-producer of “Equity,” a 2016 film about women on Wall Street. She is also investing in business initiatives with a social purpose, including GingerBread Capital, which funds women-run startups.

Byrne beams when she talks about spending time with her family. She is married with four grown children, who have started careers in technology, media and the nonprofit sector.

“Family is the most important thing in the world to me, investing and believing in them,” Byrne said. She said she often gives her children advice, telling them to be their best selves, and to simply give new opportunities a shot. “The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll fail.”

Asked whether she has advice for young women in the industry, Byrne does not miss a beat, sounding as if she has a long list of life lessons at the ready.

“Mistakes that you make, you learn from them,” she said. “Just get up and go. Question things. Don’t assume everyone has your best interests at heart — they may not.”

Byrne also urged young women to raise their hands for challenging jobs — and to ask for help from the the networks of friends and mentors they have developed in the workplace.

“You basically want to say, ‘Put me in, boss. But once you put me in, support me the same way you would support the guys,' ” she said.

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