For seven straight years, JPMorgan Chase executive Heidi Miller, a tireless advocate for her profession, has been recognized by American Banker as one of the most powerful women in the industry. This year she will be honored with a lifetime achievement award, to be presented at the Oct. 6 event in New York celebrating all of the women in this year's ranking. Miller plans to step down early next year from JPMorgan Chase, where she ran the treasury and securities services business for six years before she was put in charge last summer of the firm's international operations.

Mentor to Many

"When I saw her enthusiasm I thought, 'If she believes in me, then I should believe in me." —Paula Bell, on the encouragement she received from Cara Heiden, her mentor at Wells Fargo

Before Wells Fargo had a formal mentoring program, Cara Heiden instituted one herself. She has since lost count of how many people she's mentored over the years. But the beneficiaries of her guidance won't forget the experience anytime soon.

Paula Bell, a business process consultant at Wells since 2006, reached out to Heiden three years ago after hearing her speak at a diversity event in Des Moines, where Heiden said she was specifically interested in connecting with African-American employees to learn more about their perspective.

Heiden, whose retirement as co-president of Wells Fargo Mortgage was announced in July, mentioned on the panel in Des Moines that she opened a line that at least four new mentees every year, and that she always was open to people reaching out to her.

“That put a little bug in my ear,” Bell recalls. She emailed Heiden the next day and asked if she would consider taking her on as a mentee. Cara responded within 24 hours, and the two women began planning the first of many meetings. “We always made sure to meet once a month at the very beginning," Bell says. "Even if a lunch or dinner had to be rescheduled, Cara made sure to make the time to meet with me.”

Bell says that Heiden helped her prepare for interviews and various opportunities within Wells, and she credits her mentor keeping her focused on the idea of advancement. "She looked at the job descriptions of positions I was interested in and helped me find a fit. I was a little leery and scared, in a comfort zone and didn’t want to move, but when I saw her enthusiasm and thought, ‘If she believes in me, I should believe in me,’ and I went for it.”

Bell vividly remembers a piece of advice from Heiden that still resonates strongly for her: "Whether you’re in a position of leadership or you’re an individual contributor, you have to be consistent. It’s implicit to your credibility that you’re consistent in what you do and humble in the way you’re doing it.”

Taking Time

“Stepping down as CEO gave me a great opportunity to take my own advice, to reassess what my life plan is and will be.” —Peyton Patterson

Knowing her tendency to dive headfirst into new activities, and hoping to avoid the trap this time around, Peyton Patterson, former president and CEO of New Alliance Bank in Connecticut, says she subjected herself to a “disciplinary review" of sorts and hired a life coach when she left New Alliance.

The coaching had nothing to do with career counseling or resume polishing. What the coach did, Patterson says, was to help her prioritize her life and her ambitions, mainly by envisioning her life as though it’s a circle: “How would you cut it to represent how much time you spend working, or on philanthropy, or with your family?" Patterson has been reevaluating all of it as part of a strategy to figure out her next act, a follow-up to the CEO role that ended when New Alliance got sold to First Niagara.

“Do I want to consult? Go back into operating? I wrote everything down," Patterson says.

She says she established a bank-consulting company so that she could "remain active in the industry but be able to travel.” She also has been teaching at the business school at George Washington University.

She is still very much contemplating a return to an operating role within banking. On that front, she is hesitant to rule out anything completely, and would consider options at banks larger, or smaller, than New Alliance was. “I love a challenge with respect to transforming businesses to be profitable, and issues of governance. It’s not about the size, but the credibility of the institution and the opportunity presented," she says.

About the only career option Patterson has scratched off the list thus far is a run for public office, though she has been staying active on the issues she cares about most, including education reform, healthcare, job creation and the advancement of women in business.

Finding a role in banking that somehow married her interests in business with her interests in one or more of those civic matters "would be great," Patterson says. "But I don’t want to jump into anything.” 

No Regrets

“I don’t feel defensive at all about someone coming in, having new ideas; that’s a process of how we should all do our jobs." —Beth Acton

When Beth Acton retires this fall as the chief financial officer of Comerica, it will be with no regrets.

She is proud of the way she and her institution have come through the trials of the recession, and she cites her team and her successor—Karen Parkhill, a former JPMorgan Chase executive and one of the bankers on our 2011 list of the 25 Women to Watch—as “good and strong and a source of pride.”

Acton says she is looking forward to being untethered from her Blackberry for longer stretches, and to devoting more time to serving on corporate boards and the board of the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas.

"The time just felt right to retire,” Acton says. “I don’t feel defensive at all about someone coming in, having new ideas; that’s a process of how we should all do our jobs. Circumstances change—externally, internally—and you have to be able to adapt.”

That's one of her messages to others in the industry. Another is to refrain from planning your whole career path at once. Speaking late last year to an undergraduate women’s group at Indiana University’s business school, Acton encouraged the students to slow things down. “Take things one step at a time. Sometimes you have to take a risk. Don’t just major in something because you think you’ll get a job. Find something you enjoy and don’t set your sights on being the CFO on the first day. Broader experience will make you successful," she says.

Acton says she was pleasantly surprised by how knowledgeable and focused the young women at Indiana seemed to be. "They are so much farther than where I was at their age, on how you juggle, and what they want to do and where they want to go," she marvels.

Of course, there are many more role models for that compared with when Acton was starting out. “If I look back on my own career, mentoring programs weren’t a thing early on. Women were in the minority and you just kind of made your way," Acton says. "Two men are my main mentors. One of them was my father, the other person is my husband.”

It was move from Chicago to Detroit, prompted by her husband's work, that led Acton to a position with Ford, where she spent 19 years before joining Comerica. (Comerica had been based in Michigan before relocating its corporate headquarters to Dallas.)

Following the release of Comerica's third-quarter results, Acton will move into an advisory role and will assist with the transition of the CFO post. Her last official day with Comerica will be April 12, 2012, the 10th anniversary of her arrival at the bank.

Stepping Aside

Other notable women in the industry who have announced their retirements this year include (pictured clockwise from top left) Lynn Carter, who is stepping down this year as the president of Capital One Bank; Jane Thompson, who retired in June as president of financial services at Wal-Mart; Kathleen Carr, who announced this spring that she was grooming her successor as president of Cardinal Bank in Virginia; and Kay Hoveland, who retired in July as president and CEO of Kaiser Federal Financial Group, the holding company for California’s Kaiser Federal Bank.

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