As the banking sector faces considerable challenges, Scotiabank’s Alberta G. Cefis discusses how women hold the key to advancing their own careers and delivering a fresh leadership approach to the financial services industry.

Q: You’ve earned many honors as a successful ‘woman in banking.’ How do you feel about this title?

A: I am humbled by the fact that I am recognized by my peers.  I am proud of my career choice in financial services and have been fortunate to experience success along the way.

Most importantly as a woman in banking, I am focused on being a leader with vision who can develop and articulate strategy, win the hearts and minds of employees, and empower high performing teams to execute and deliver sustainable value.

I also feel I have an obligation to support and encourage the next generation of female financial services leaders within Scotiabank and within the broader industry.  

Q: Tell us about the challenges that remain for women in the world of banking.

A: Despite great strides, a male dominated culture still exists, where men and women with similar traits – including ambition – are not necessarily judged as equals.

While the banking sector has made diversity and inclusion a priority over the past decade, with specialized advancement of women programs and HR policies such as flexible work options, there is still much to do. While the number of women in middle management has grown, it remains a man’s world at the top. For example, in Canada, only 17-20 per cent of executive roles are held by females. I feel confident that we will see more senior roles occupied by women; the question is how quickly. As the leader of Scotiabank’s Global Transaction Banking division, more than 45 per cent of executive positions in my unit are held by women.

Q: You’ve been an energetic supporter of women’s advancement, particularly through mentoring. Is this the best way for women to build their careers?

A: Mentoring played a big part in my career and I recommend it to others, but with the caveat that not all mentoring is created equal. That was also the premise of a Harvard Business Reviewarticle, entitled “Why men still get more promotions than women.” It argued that real sponsorship is key to a mentee’s success. This means that the mentor must not only give feedback and advice, but also use their influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee. It seems that high potential women are often over-mentored and under-sponsored, relative to their male peers. I keep this in mind as a mentor, and I’d advise women to seek solid sponsors and be mindful that sponsors and mentors are often different people.

Q: What other advice can you provide to females in this profession?

A:  For anyone striving to build a career in a competitive industry, I still recall the premise of Tom Peters who wrote, “The brand called you” in Fast Company. Peters said that individuals are as much a brand as Nike or Coke. Thus, you should identify the qualities that make you distinctive from your colleagues. For women, we shouldn’t have to emulate men, but instead build our own areas of differentiation. I feel that my three points of differentiation are my abilities to: articulate a compelling vision and translate it into strategy, build high performing teams, and deliver through faultless execution.

I was never one to sit back and hope things fell into place – I took risks and worked in different functional areas and departments to broaden my knowledge and experience.  I think women need to really consider stepping out of their comfort zones to support their development, push themselves forward, and express their ambition to lead. Women tend to be very thoughtful and think that their performance will speak about their ambitions. This is not always the case and women need to make their goals and aspirations known. It comes down to an individual taking control of their career and setting the wheels in motion towards their aspirations.

Q: Do women’s unique traits put them in a good position to lead the banking sector through the uncertainty ahead?

A: Absolutely. Women often possess skill sets that make them effective leaders in times of crisis or change, such as effective communication, team-building, conciliation, and critical analysis.

I see these traits in a number of the women who are admired for their leadership in different roles across business, political and non-profit sectors. They include Christine Lagarde, Head of the IMF, Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, and renowned missionary, Mother Teresa. In particular, Mother Teresa profoundly inspired me as a world leader through her exceptional vision, courage and tenacity against all odds.  Beyond her humility and selflessness, she showed us how we can make this world a better place through simple acts of kindness, translating this into a global message of peace and hope.

These women, who are very much pioneers in their fields, have shown great perseverance to succeed. Their example demonstrates how much women can achieve to reach success on their terms, reshape our world, and better the lives of people and communities around the globe.


Bio: Alberta Cefis is Executive Vice-President & Head of Global Transaction Banking at Scotiabank. With more than 30 years of broad financial services industry experience, she   leads the global trade finance, correspondent banking, cash management and payments operations for Canada’s most international bank. She also champions diversity and the development of female leaders, both within the Bank and externally, through the Women’s Executive Network, The International Women’s Forum and as an active mentor. 

Cefis is also involved in a number of boards, industry associations, and community endeavours. Currently, she is a Chair of the Board of Directors of Opera Atelier, a world-class baroque opera company in Toronto; Member of McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management Advisory Board; and, Director of the Board of the Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario.

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