Most Powerful Women in Banking: No. 22, Huntington's Helga Houston

Register now

Chief Risk Officer, Huntington Bancshares

A small gesture early in Helga Houston’s banking career has informed her approach to guiding younger bankers on sometimes-delicate matters.

One day while she was working at Bank of America, a senior leader took Houston out for a drink following a meeting with the board of directors.

“You really know your stuff,” the older woman told Houston, “but you look down when you talk. People can’t hear you, they can’t understand you and it doesn’t exude confidence.”

That moment made a big impression on Houston, now the chief risk officer at the $108.2 billion-asset Huntington Bancshares.

“I didn’t work for her, but she cared enough to take the time and have that conversation with me,” Houston said. “It just reminded me how important it is to give honest feedback to others.”

Sometimes that can mean encouraging a mentee into a new role, as Houston recently did when her department went through a series of organizational changes. She guided one of her employees, a young woman who’s active in the African-American Business Resource Group that Houston sponsors, into a job where she would assume responsibility for consumer banking risk.

“It’s a huge role,” Houston said, but one she knew the young woman was ready for. And she echoed the words of that senior leader, telling the younger woman, “You can do this. You have everything you need. Have the confidence and I’ll be here to support you along the way.”

Houston joined the Columbus, Ohio bank in 2011, and today is one of the first people that CEO Stephen Steinour consults on critical business decisions. With oversight for Huntington’s risk-taking activities and risk management framework, she leads more than 500 employees and also plays a major role in the bank’s business strategy and capital allocation.

Houston said her father initially encouraged her to pursue a financial services career, first as a real estate appraiser, but it was lending that really sparked a passion in her.

“I love solving problems for people,” she said. “Helping businesses succeed and working through that, that’s what resonated for me. It was always about, how do you use the business of banking to help solve problems?”

See the most recent rankings:

One of the big picture problems Houston is focused on solving is cultivating the next generation of risk management professionals. She tackles that partly through her work with the Risk Institute at Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. Huntington Bancshares is a founding member of the Institute, which aims to introduce risk management skills into the curriculum and spark students’ interest in the field of risk management. Houston serves on its advisory board and guest lectures graduates and undergraduates in finance, with an emphasis on risk.

She’s also sought out the opinions of other risk professionals in other industries. Recently, Houston said she was chatting with another chief risk officer, this one at an energy company, and the two began sharing best practices. Huntington offered some of its established practices for credit underwriting and market and liquidity risk analysis, while the energy company was able to share deeper operational risk practices and emerging risk analysis, she said.

Sharing ideas among risk professionals of all stripes can only make everybody stronger at what they do, she said.

“We tend to get very focused on financial institutions’ risk and sharing across banks,” she said. “But to do it across industries, whether it’s the defense industry versus a consulting firm versus an operations business, the fundamentals of what we do from a risk perspective really carry over.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.