I started on Wall Street in 1980 as an investment banker in Lehman Brothers’ natural resources group. With very few women in financial services at the time, I was often asked, “How long do you think you’re going to stay at this?” It wasn’t a question of if I’d leave, but when. Back then, many assumed women were not likely to last long in this industry. Nearly 37 years later, I’m a vice chairman at Barclays, which acquired Lehman Brothers’ U.S. operations in 2008. But I have fewer women peers than I would like.

There have always been challenges being a woman in finance. Early in my career, it was obvious that a woman with a strong opinion was commonly seen as difficult. When I insisted that deadlines be met or that we deliver for a client within a short time frame, colleagues often said I was being too demanding.

Overcoming these challenges, which seemed unfair but were unavoidable, required a very conscious effort on my part to see myself almost as a third party in a movie — often a drama, sometimes a horror film and, at times, a comedy. Humor was essential, but having perspective also helped me to know when to react to what my colleagues were saying and how to react. In time, I learned to move toward the conflict and directly address it — by finding common ground, having a thick skin, and telling myself that the comments did not stem from malice but were motivated by fear and ambition.

Putting a puzzle together
Barbara Byrne's singular focus on clients and developing teams showed her that banking is not just a man’s sport.

I responded by building relationships inside the firm and with clients — delivering the firm to the client and believing in mantras such as “Let’s be a team,” and “Yes we can, and yes I can.” Team victories were more important than personal ones. Then and now I believed while getting a hit every three at-bats earns you a spot in the Hall of Fame, it is teams that win. Defining a series of wins — small and achievable — builds confidence and team achievement. Time and time again, my singular focus on clients and developing teams showed me that banking is not just a man’s sport.

One breakout moment in my career came in 1987 when I identified a strategic opportunity that could create enormous value for a potential client, the railroad and natural resources conglomerate Burlington Northern. I took a risk in developing and pitching an idea that ultimately became a game-changer for me.

When I first called on Burlington Northern, our team didn’t have much of a relationship with the company. But I made building that relationship a personal priority and took the chance to think big. After considerable research, I made a presentation suggesting that Burlington Northern restructure its business and spin-off via an IPO and share distribution with its natural resource business, Burlington Resources.

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Our pitch worked. Burlington Northern hired Lehman Brothers to structure and co-lead the IPO spinoff of Burlington Resources. My colleagues were in disbelief that I had pitched and actually won this assignment. Later that year, I was promoted to managing director.

Executing this strategic restructuring of Burlington Northern was a major inflection point in my career, and my focus on developing relationships meant lasting connections outside of my firm. Thomas O’Leary, the Burlington Resources CEO, became a close friend. I’ll never forget when Tom flew across the country just to say hi when I was ill in the hospital.

It’s been 30 years since the Burlington transaction. The qualities women needed to get ahead seemed surprising back then, but they are now much more understood, and there are many more senior women in corporate America as a result. However, we still need to do more to seek out the unique perspectives that women can bring.

Women are inherently hardworking and have a distinctive ability to foster strong and long-standing relationships. Women instinctively understand human motivation, which allows them to read a room well — an essential task when you are making the case for a change in strategy. Take General Electric, for example. The company’s former treasurer, Kathy Cassidy, is a prime example of a woman who asks questions in a different way and with a truly open mind. Kathy is a very active listener and would always ask, “Is there a better way to achieve this objective?” GE would tell you firsthand it has benefited from bringing women like Kathy into leadership positions.

At Barclays, we have made it a priority to foster an open dialogue with clients about the value of diversity. This year’s Barclays high-yield bond and syndicate loan conference, for instance, included a session on “diversity in the workplace,” led by two senior Barclays leaders and three of our clients. GE is another company that is determined to drive a dialogue as it campaigns for a world where “we treat female scientists like celebrities.” The company is committed to bringing 20,000 women into STEM roles by 2020. Being conscious of the need to do better is the first step toward getting more women in leadership positions.

From there, progress must be measured and benchmarked and we must commit as an industry to put women in positions with real commercial impact and authority. For instance, Barclays launched the Women in Leadership Index in 2014 on the NYSE. The Index, funded by Barclays’ Social Innovation Facility that I chair, highlights the market performance of companies that have either a female CEO or a board in which at least 25% of the directors are women. What gets measured gets done.

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The representation of women in the film industry is even lower than finance. In Hollywood, the barriers to entry are higher as one has to be funded to have a voice and impact on what stories are told and who tells them. So when I was approached by Sarah Megan Thomas, a young female producer with a vision of a Wall Street thriller featuring women as protagonists — to be written, produced and directed by women — I joined a core group of Wall Street women to fund the production of “Equity.”

I want millennial women in finance to aspire to senior roles, and to be prepared for the challenges that those roles can bring. The profession of banking is one that can belong to them and one which they can improve and expand. A more inclusive future for young women can only be made possible if today’s bankers deepen their commitment to having more female employees in senior client-facing roles. That’s why I’ve made it a priority as a vice chairman in the investment bank at Barclays, not only to advance client relationships, but also to advocate for the advancement of women.

The world is a lot more open to different ways of thinking now than when I started in this business. Today, success and diversity work in tandem. Nobody wants a client meeting where everybody looks and thinks the same: homogeneous groups produce homogeneous results. Clients want different perspectives. They want to hear better ways of tackling challenges. They want a relentless quest for better.

Ultimately, we all win when we get diverse ideas and creative energy that lives at the edge of challenge and “what-ifs.” There is no clearer proof that diversity is not just the right thing to do; it’s good business.

Editor's note: This post is part of an ongoing series examining diversity issues in the banking industry. See previous posts by Maria Vullo, Eric Arthrell, Allyson Kapin and Craig Newmark, and Rakefet Russak-Aminoach and visit American Banker's Women in Banking page.

Barbara Byrne

Barbara Byrne

Barbara Byrne is vice chairman of investment banking at Barclays.

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