I remember an "aha" moment I had while standing in the office of the head of retail for Bank One/JPMorgan Chase.
"Look at this," he said, pointing to his computer screen. Listed before him was the ranking of relationship managers by sales. At the top were all women no surprise to me, because the value of women as relationship owners is one I had been talking about to banks for some time.
But I was impressed that he had zeroed in on that. Smart companies have moved from not just marketing to women, but hiring female leaders or managers who can leverage those relationship-building skills.
The recognition of women's relationship management skills is just one of the advances I've seen women make in the banking world. In the last year, talking to well over 200 financial firms, I've been surprised to see a preponderance of women leaders, primarily on the marketing front. And companies are getting smarter at harnessing non-traditional talent like Oppenheimer & Co. which hired a female marketing executive from Monster.com, bringing key online experience in addition to strong relationship building skill sets.
I remember sending a cold letter to one of the nation's top bank CEOs after I sold Women's Financial Network to Muriel Siebert. I was shocked but delighted to get a meeting, and ultimately I went on to work with him. That accessibility seems to have opened up in today's online, social world with some bank execs now on Twitter.
Good CEOs realize that the key to their business's success may hinge on creativity or innovation, and being accessible is key. Women in banking can now get their ideas heard at the decision-making level, which could translate into a new role, a strengthened relationship or a job move.
But challenges for women in the banking world remain.
The struggle for balance, from the job to the one's daily duties at home, continues to take a toll. In my own conversations with senior women, it seems they're able to juggle obligations thanks to their higher salaries and longer relationships with their firms. Other less senior women often find that a major crisis at home may take them out of the workforce and that returning is harder than they planned in this economy. Additionally, work models, unfortunately, might be getting less, not more flexible, as we've seen at Yahoo, where working from home is now prohibited.
Complicating matters, qualified women who find themselves stuck in the advancement pipeline may defect to other industries. I know of many talented female technology leaders who are opting to shun the corporate world to run their own business with the support of communities like Women 2.0. They want the creativity, rewards, and chance to innovate, a challenge that may be lacking in many large banks.
For banks, addressing this type of turnover can be tough, but the cost of replacing a good employee may be even more hurtful to a firm.
We've all seen how risk can hurt banks, so it's easy to say, "Avoid risk." But operating in a culture that shuns risk and becomes too heavily structured can create other challenges for women. Many women particularly those who themselves are heads of households may be afraid to take risks for fear of losing their jobs.
Banks can't ignore the new dynamics. To succeed today, firms need to encourage female employees to take the right kind of risks, such as trying new innovations to serve clients. Failing to do so can truly mean the difference between financial success or failure.
We are seeing more of a symbiotic relationship between banks and tech innovation, presenting new opportunities internally for women as women externally continue to drive much of the purchasing, banking and socializing online. Firms behind this curve should take the opportunity to ask a few key questions:
- Is your business a commodity or does it call for new, innovative and perhaps technology-driven talent?
- Is your company's personnel reflective of who you want to serve? Are you able to truly know your customers, often women, with relationship managers and leaders who understand their needs?
- Does your culture reflect the level of risk-taking you want employees to embrace? Is it a culture of accessibility and client service or of old structures that may inhibit growth?
Women have indeed come a long way. Just look at KeyCorp CEO Beth Mooney. Perhaps it's banks that now need to reflect on their own progress and the role of women in that progress to help them serve the next generation.
Jennifer Openshaw is president of Finect, an online network for the financial advisory industry, and was founder and CEO of Women's Financial Network, sold to Siebert Financial.