Even after more than three decades at Northern Trust, Jana Schreuder hasn't let herself get complacent. "Constantly learning, constantly developing" is her career motto.

She's ping-ponged across business lines, from client services to risk, tech to wealth management. Last year she was named chief operating officer, a post that draws on what she's learned at every stop. "I know how things work, and I know how they impact clients and partners," says Schreuder, who is No. 8 on our 2015 Most Powerful Women in Banking list.

Though she's now in the C-suite — and among the potential successors to Chief Executive Rick Waddell — Schreuder took an unusual path into banking. As an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University in Texas, she started off studying theater. "I wanted to be a famous actress," she says. "I learned my sophomore year that I would starve to death. At least I caught it early."

She found a more practical subject to major in — business — while working through college as a cocktail waitress. She married soon after graduating and moved to Chicago, where her husband, Eric, had a job in the hotel industry. There, she happened to hear about Northern Trust from a group of Tennessee bankers passing through town. She says they recommended the company "because of its values."

Getting through the door took persistence. She sent in four applications and got four rejections. The fifth try worked. Schreuder was hired as an accountant for the institutional business — a brand new initiative then, now accounting for about half the company's revenue. She moved into management as the company grew and picked up a graduate degree from Northwestern University along the way.

Schreuder's willingness to take on risky assignments hastened her rise. In the late 1990s, right as the Internet was taking off, she took a job leading e-commerce strategy, which "was huge in terms of skill-building, but frightening in terms of doing something outside my comfort zone," she says.

She also cites the decision to sell Northern Trust's recordkeeping business shortly after she moved to Atlanta to run it. After six months in charge, she realized it would never earn the returns it needed to. She convinced other leaders, and they sold the company to Hewitt Associates in 2003.

Deciding that a business she had just relocated to lead wasn't viable, and then breaking the news to all its employees, was "tough from an emotional perspective," she says. "But it was the right thing to do."

The experience proved pivotal. "It gave me confidence in doing the right thing even when it was hard."

Now, as the $106 billion-asset company's chief operating officer — and the first woman to hold that job in its 125-year history — Schreuder leads a staff of 6,500 worldwide. Her overarching goal is "to make it easier to do business with Northern Trust."

One of her initiatives is using sophisticated customer data to figure out where to invest. She also established Northern Trust's first innovation lab, to apply feedback from clients and partners to product design.

Schreuder is a board member for several Chicago education and arts organizations, as well as for the tech firm Entrust Datacard, but outside of work, family is her main obligation. Her daughter, Allison, is studying at Occidental College in California, and last month Schreuder and her husband celebrated their 36th anniversary - which, she points out, is just one year more than she's been with her company.

"My relationship with my husband is the only one longer than my relationship with Northern," Schreuder says.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.