The Women to Watch: No. 13, BMO Financial's Sharon Haward-Laird

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Executive Vice President and Head, North American Treasury & Payment Solutions, BMO Financial Group

It didn't matter to David Casper, the U.S. CEO at BMO Financial Group, that Sharon Haward-Laird had never held a revenue-producing role when he tapped her in 2016 to run one of the company's most important business lines — treasury and payment solutions.

An attorney by training, Haward-Laird at the time was the company's head of corporate communication, government and investor relations and before that was general counsel in the capital markets group. In both roles, Casper said, Haward-Laird exhibited strong leadership, first navigating BMO Capital Markets through thicket of regulatory challenges following the financial crisis and later taking charge of BMO's internal and external messaging by combining the communications, government relations and investor relations functions under one umbrella.

"When I had an opportunity to elevate someone in the bank to my leadership team to run our treasury and payments solutions group, I had no doubt that Sharon was the right leader for the role," Casper said.

Haward-Laird is making Casper look very smart. In the last two fiscal years, the treasury and payments solutions unit had the highest return on equity of all BMO Financial's business lines. Revenue in fiscal year 2018 increased 35% from just two years earlier, growth Casper attributes to Haward-Laird's leadership in addressing product gaps and redefining the service model to be hyperfocused on customers' needs.

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For example, her group earlier this year launched a biometric authentication platform for commercial banking that allows customers to use their eyes, face, voice or fingerprints to securely access their accounts online or on mobile devices. The investment in biometrics came in response to customer complaints that the previous method of accessing accounts, via a hardware token, was too cumbersome.

Haward-Laird is involved with a number of internal resource programs at BMO Financial and has been an especially active supporter of mental health initiatives.

It's an intensely personal issue for Haward-Laird, whose daughter struggles with depression. Last year Haward-Laird led the creation of a mental health awareness program that aims to de-stigmatize mental health issues, and in town halls and other company events she speaks candidly about her daughter's struggle and its impact on her family.

Haward-Laird said she believes that her passion and vulnerability on this sensitive topic is making BMO Financial more of a "safe place to talk openly about mental health."

Also, "it has made me a better executive, as I now regularly think about the impact of stress, anxiety and other mental health on my team," she said. "I ask people how they are doing and they know I actually care."

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