Chairman and CEO, CIT Group

Long before she set out to reshape CIT Group, Ellen Alemany accepted her first job as a bank CEO — on the eve of the mortgage meltdown.

A big lesson that has stuck with her since then is the importance of communicating clearly and constantly with employees.

Alemany took over as CEO of RBS Citizens Financial Group in March 2008, after spending two decades climbing the ranks at Citigroup. Months after she accepted the job, the financial markets collapsed, and the New England company's overseas parent, Royal Bank of Scotland, posted the largest corporate loss in U.K. history.

Alemany wore several hats as head of the U.S. subsidiary, including serving on the management committee for the Royal Bank of Scotland and participating on the Federal Reserve's advisory council. During the height of the crisis, she would often start her day with a 3 a.m. conference call with her U.K. counterparts.

But one of her most important responsibilities at the time was simply quelling the heightened sense of worry among Citizens employees that their jobs — or the company as a whole — were at risk.

"For the six years that I ran Citizens, there were rumors every few months that RBS was selling it," Alemany said.

"Just getting out there to talk about the importance of the franchise, that allowed me to build the bank" during the crisis.

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Alemany began hosting town halls and visiting branches, making sure she answered employees' questions directly. She also made sure all branches were given talking points, so that front-line bankers knew how to calm worried customers.

To this day, her former colleagues tell her that these efforts made a big difference in the corporate culture.

"They knew we were OK, because if we weren't, they wouldn't have seen me," Alemany said. "It was my visibility and my communication out there that kept everybody calm."

Alemany, now CIT Group's CEO (see story on page 40), stepped down from RBS and briefly retired from banking in late 2013. A year later, Citizens completed its initial public offering.

— Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton is a reporter for American Banker, where she writes about the business of national and regional banking.