Five leaders who made a big impact — and fast

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Every year at this time, we highlight a lot of impressive female leaders who are trailblazers in an industry where being a woman in the senior ranks is still uncommon.

So in keeping with the spirit of our rankings of the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance, I thought it would be only fitting to introduce you to a few more standouts.

These five executives in the wealth management and investment banking sectors had a significant impact in their businesses. But the reason we are making a point of sharing their stories here is about more than what they achieved; they are all the more impressive because of how swiftly they did so. Each one is in her role less than two years.

Another common theme for several of them is their willingness to take a major career risk, which, they say, is what positioned them for such success.

Rebecca Robinson had been senior director of planning for the Southwest region at Wells Fargo, with a top-performing team and great relationships with senior leaders. But she decided four years ago to take what was perceived to be a lesser position with Zions Bancorp.

"It was widely viewed as a mistake by many of my mentors and leaders," said Robinson, who, now on her third title at Zions, became the director of enterprise wealth management as of January 2016.

"As I had hoped, the lateral move quickly expanded into new responsibilities. Within six months I had assumed responsibility for the trust company, and in three years I had responsibility for all of the company's wealth management."

Her risky move also paid off in personal growth, pushing her to learn about new areas of the business and expanding her leadership skills. "It stretched me beyond what I saw as possible," she said.

At the beginning of 2016, the wealth businesses at Zions operated as three separate divisions and used seven different platforms. In one year, Robinson created a single operating unit, eliminating duplicate platforms, cutting expenses significantly, and scuttling the historic internal competition between silos. During the transition, adviser staffing doubled and profitability improved by a high seven figures.

Lest you think Robinson is all work, consider that she also climbed Russia's Mount Elbrus last year, part of her plan to scale the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

Like Robinson, Nicole Perkins took on a new role in January 2016, becoming managing executive of Hawthorn, a family wealth business at PNC Financial Services Group focused on those with investable assets of more than $20 million.

Her career path to this point has been, let's say, unpredictable. She worked at an ad agency ("I hated it"), ran a restaurant and had a solo law practice.

"I have made many unconventional career moves and highly recommend it," she said. "I am a believer that you should not stay in a job, environment or relationship if you are not happy. As the daughter of small-business owners, I learned that you have to make your own success, and it takes hard work and failures to get it right."

Though revenue and net income are up at Hawthorn, Perkins' focus is not just on the metrics. To emphasize relationships over sales goals, she directed senior leaders to spend more time with clients alongside their teams, listening and coaching.

On quarterly calls she began a practice of highlighting a success story — whether closing new business, introducing a new service to a legacy relationship, or successful fee renegotiations — both as a means of team recognition and a way to share best practices.

She is happy to have moved from the legal industry to the financial industry five years ago, despite the risk of "taking a step backwards in terms of hierarchy" at the time.

"I knew the key to my personal success was to be authentic and resilient," Perkins said. "People will doubt your decisions, and you will doubt your decisions. But you have to bounce back and keep going or you will never move forward and gain the confidence to trust your own decisions and who you are."

As co-head of the global financial institutions group at Deutsche Bank, Celeste Guth is in a familiar role, but still taking on an entirely new challenge.

After 29 years at Goldman Sachs, she joined Deutsche, where she is the most senior woman in the Corporate and Investment Banking unit and a member of the Americas management group.

"I thought there was a huge opportunity to make a difference at the bank," Guth said.

She has built a team of strong performers over the past year and a half, realigning the talent and adding to it with some external hires. And amid a turbulent time for Deutsche in general, her team has shone. Of the top five U.S. initial public offerings in her sector during the first half of this year, Deutsche played a role in three of them.

Guth is among the few Wall Street women running a major group in investment banking, and as such is eager to foster more diversity. Among her tactics for doing so is a fellowship she established at Harvard Business School targeting women who want to pursue a career in finance.

Karen Fang joined Bank of America in 2010 to establish its Cross Asset Solutions and Strategies group, which she describes as a "SWAT team" of sorts that reaches out to clients with creative solutions in areas such as risk management, balance sheet optimization and structured financing.

Though she continues to devote significant time to that growing business, Fang also now leads fixed income, currencies and commodities sales for the Americas. She took the new role in March 2016, and her team generated more than $5.7 billion of revenue for the year, growth of 10% over 2015. Revenue in the first part of this year went up another 5% over the same period in 2016.

One of Fang's priorities is to leverage technology to improve client service, and ultimately to discover new business models, rather than just refine old ones. She said machine-learning tools like Kensho and DataRobot have helped her team improve its speed and precision.

"We are at an inflection point," Fang said. "We need to adapt and evolve as our clients are changing, and how they consume and pay for the products and services we provide them is changing."

Kristi Mitchem is the chief executive at Wells Fargo Asset Management. She joined the company in June 2016 from State Street Global Advisors and, within her first six months, combined its three separate product-centric businesses into a unified operation.

To create a companywide mission, Mitchem hosted a series of interactive "vision boarding" sessions with several hundred employees in five key cities. Their input culminated in a new mission: "Let's put the 'happily' back in ever after." This reflects a desire to go beyond just superior performance and actually help clients live better lives.

Mitchem also hosted town halls to provide business updates, set a tone of transparency and rally employees. If the exit polls are any indication, her strategy worked; 95% of the attendees agreed with the statement that they left those meetings feeling "proud" to be part of the company.

The restructuring effort could have undermined morale, but Wells Fargo reports increased employee engagement and productivity instead.

As all of these women have shown, change can come about in a relatively short period of time. So why the glacial pace for advancement in gender equality in the senior ranks?

It's a challenge the women here — and 75 more profiled in our rankings — are keen to take on. Many are active in efforts to change that, whether through sponsorship of younger women at their companies or much larger initiatives. (One particularly interesting effort is underway at Fifth Third Bancorp, spearheaded by its chief administrative officer, Teresa Tanner.)

Here's to all of them, to their professional achievements, and to their future success in making equity a reality.

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