Most Powerful Women in Banking: No. 19, BMO Financial's Ernie Johannson

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Group Head, North American Personal Banking and U.S. Business Banking, BMO Financial Group

BMO Financial Group has long supported the United Way, but branch employees and others in its U.S. personal and business banking group have historically not been all that engaged in past fundraising efforts.

That changed when Erminia “Ernie” Johannson, then the group head for U.S. personal and business banking, became co-chair of BMO Financial’s North American United Way 2018 fundraising campaign.

With a goal of increasing engagement, Johannson encouraged employees to go out in their communities to spend more time volunteering and see first-hand the programs the United Way supports. They responded in record numbers. More than 90% of employees both companywide and on Johannson’s team participated in fundraising and related events and her team alone raised close to $1 million —$100,000 above its stated goal.

The success of the campaign is a testament to Johannson’s skills as a leader and motivator and goes a long way toward explaining why BMO Financial CEO Darryl White keeps giving her bigger and more important jobs.

Johannson was the chief risk officer for a number of business lines in Canada and the U.S. when she was tapped in early 2018 to head personal and business banking at BMO Financial’s U.S. subsidiary, the $123 billion-asset BMO Harris Bank in Chicago. The Canadian banking giant has made no secret of the fact that it wants the U.S. bank to produce nearly one-third of its profits, and Johannson’s charge was to improve delivery, service and profits of the retail operations largely through digital transformation.

She so excelled in that role — driving sharp growth not just in profits, but also in employee engagement scores — that earlier this year White expanded her responsibilities to include oversight of personal banking in Canada. Johannson also continues to head North American retail payments, a role she has held along with her myriad other responsibilities since 2015, and since 2018 she has been a member of BMO Financial’s 13-member leadership team.

"Ernie has an incredible passion for delivering an exceptional customer experience, with an excellent track record of innovating and generating sustainable profit growth in rapidly changing environments," White said in May in announcing the promotion. "With her expanded mandate, she will support our ongoing efforts to accelerate growth."

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Johannson’s leadership style is to be “transparent about everything” — business line financials, customer perceptions through such metrics as net promoter scores — and to break down barriers that slow down decision making.

“If you are in branch, we don’t want you waiting for headquarters to tell you what to do,” Johannson said. “Own your branch and run it like you are an entrepreneur.”

She also leads with a certain fearlessness, noting that sometimes you have to be prepared to “beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission” in order to achieve desired outcomes.

That fearlessness was evident very early in Johannson’s career when a superior told her that he would be the one presenting a project to senior leaders that she had had been working on for months. To her own surprise, Johannson, just 23 at the time, firmly told the colleague “no,” and went ahead and made the presentation as planned.

“That moment was transformative for me as a leader and a professional,” she said. “I realized that being authentic was important to success and that speaking the truth is powerful and — regardless of outcome — the best path forward.”

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