The credit rating company VantageScore recently asked me to answer some questions for a monthly newsletter it puts out, and thinking about what to say made me realize just how much I have learned from our Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance over the years. I want to share two of the questions here and expand on the answers I gave, as a way to celebrate the women who have been in the rankings during the past 13 years.
Question: What are the top traits that you see female banking leaders share?
Intelligence, confidence and resilience.
Many other qualities came to mind too, and I settled on these three only after a lot of internal debate. None of these are exclusive to women, but they are the ones that stand out most when I think about the stories the women in our rankings have shared about their careers.
Perhaps I should be less surprised, but one of the things that struck me in getting to know the women better is that some of them have had significant career setbacks along the way. It hasn't always been one success after another. I think it is helpful to other women who are feeling defeated to know that these women have overcome similar challenges to get where they are.
They also have had to deal with a lot of self-doubt in doing so. Even the most successful women don't experience confidence as a constant natural state. It seems confidence is a soldering process.
It is interesting to me that some of the things these women do for fun — like learning to kitesurf (HSBC's Katia Bouazza), performing in a local "Dancing with the Stars" fundraiser despite being a self-described "terrible" dancer (Bank of America's Cathy Bessant) or singing in public (Wells Fargo's Diane Schumaker-Krieg) — are actually personal challenges they set for themselves that ultimately build their confidence. It's like they make a practice of becoming confident.
Bessant says having to dance in front of 900 people went beyond scary for her. "I felt not just fear but abject terror," she says. "But there's an incredible sense of empowerment and quiet confidence when you take something that scares you more than anything else and just do it."
Citi's Jane Fraser has a great story on becoming fearless, which she shared with us last year. She had been invited to play in a nationally televised golf outing with Tiger Woods. Like Bessant, she says her immediate reaction was, simply, "terror."
Her then-12-year-old son helped ease the tension by pointing out that everyone would be watching Woods, not her. But what helped most was her own realization about how readily she embraces challenges at work. Though scheduling conflicts nixed the golf date, her fear had dissipated by then.
Speaking at the awards dinner for the Most Powerful Women last October, Fraser encouraged women to train themselves to overcome fear and take on "stretch assignments" at work. "You just have to be 'all in' — mind, heart, guts, hours," she says.
Question: What career strategies can help women in banking move forward to leadership roles?
I have a list. But at the very top of it is: find a sponsor.
This advice comes from so many of the women we have profiled. By their own account, they might never have gotten so far in their careers without a push from someone who took an interest in them.
Our reigning Most Powerful Woman in Finance, Mary Callahan Erdoes, once told us a major force behind her rise at JPMorgan Chase has been Jes Staley, the former head of the global investment bank. She says Staley continually pushed her to take on bigger jobs and more responsibility, even as she was raising three young daughters.
Staley "saw potential in me that I didn't see in myself," Erdoes says.
Ellen Alemany, the former chairman and chief executive of Citizens Financial Group, gives similar credit to a boss she had at Citigroup.
In a profile we did before her retirement, Alemany talked about how Bob McCormick guided her into a pivotal role that helped prepare her to run a bank — despite her resistance.
"When I look back on my career, I had really strong sponsors. Bob McCormick was one of them," she says.
In a video interview we just did with Citi's Julie Monaco, she talks about how such encouragement is key to getting more women in the senior ranks.
"I've had very senior positions open and literally had to go and beg women to apply for the jobs," Monaco says in the video, which you can see here.
Because women prefer to meet all the job requirements before they apply, "they don't see themselves in that position," Monaco says. "We have to help see them in that position."
Bonnie McGeer is the Editor-in-Chief of American Banker Magazine.