Former Acting Comptroller of the Currency Julie Williams has learned one key lesson throughout her career she hopes all bankers will heed: When faced with tough decisions, do the right thing.

Accepting a lifetime achievement award at American Banker's 10th anniversary Women in Banking Gala in New York City on Tuesday, Williams attributed recent high profile enforcement actions and continuing compliance problems within financial institutions to individuals losing sight of that basic principle.

"People who knew better didn't do the right thing," she said. "And it has damaged major institutions, individual careers and also the reputation of the banking industry in general."

Using her speech as an opportunity to share lessons she learned, "sometimes the hard way," Williams offered few specifics about her time at the OCC. She also didn't directly address her unexpected departure from the agency last month. Sources have said Williams was forced out by Comptroller Thomas Curry.

Of her tenure, however, Williams did say "in some cases, I was asked to do or not to do things I didn't support … and I said 'no.' I haven't lost a second of sleep over those decisions."

Some of these tougher moments, she says, arose when dealings with "infamous players" within the savings and loans crisis, responding to "discoveries of terrorist financing" and addressing incidents related to the 2008 financial crisis.

Prior to her unexpected retirement, Williams spent 19 years at the OCC, serving twice as acting head of the agency and most recently as first senior deputy comptroller and chief counsel. She is the first woman to serve as general counsel for any banking agency and continues to volunteer her time at NeighborWorks America, a non-profit organization created by Congress to support community-based revitalization efforts.

Williams did not discuss her post-retirement plans during the speech, but did quip that she has "not yet made a decision about writing a book" on incidents that took place during the financial crisis.

In presenting the award to Williams at the gala, Teri Carstensen, president of Depository Institutions Group at Fiserv, cited Williams' push for the industry to incorporate research and consumer testing into disclosures and her push for "uniform, modern standards" of bank regulation amongst her notable accomplishments.

"Throughout her career, Julie has been a strong advocate for American consumers, demonstrating her commitment to work effectively with national banks" and federal associations, Carstensen said.

During her speech, Williams suggested women bankers be conscious about how they come across, think strategically about their professional personas and make adjustments to fit the circumstances they are in.

"Sometimes women are stereotyped as being calculating, so be calculating about yourselves," she said.

Like fellow lifetime achievement award recipient Lynn Carter, she also urged the audience to remain open-minded to the opinions of others.

"This sort of dynamic thinking has been essential to the success the OCC has had over the years establishing and sustaining principles important to the agency, consequential to the future of the banking industry," Williams said.

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