Slideshow The Most Powerful Women in Banking

  • September 25 2017, 12:01am EDT

The Most Powerful Women in Banking are reshaping not only their institutions, but also their industry.

And each is doing so in her own unique way.

Cathy Bessant, the chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America, is at the top of our ranking this year, reflecting the increasing importance of tech in business strategy across all of banking and her leadership on issues that are key to how the industry adapts to the digital revolution.

Notable additions to the ranking include two new female chief executives at top-40 banks. Ellen Alemany, who is a familiar face, but took a hiatus from banking for several years, is back as the chairman and CEO at CIT Group, where she is working on a tricky turnaround. And Nandita Bakhshi is just heading into her second year as the president and CEO at Bank of the West, a unit of the French banking giant BNP Paribas.

Hannah Grove, Teresa Tanner and Beth Johnson are also newcomers to the Most Powerful Women ranking. Grove, the chief marketing officer at State Street, helped ignite a social media furor this past spring with the now famous Fearless Girl statue.

Tanner, Fifth Third Bancorp's chief administrative officer, has overseen a brand relaunch, a cheeky new advertising campaign, and a revamp of employee benefits. But perhaps most interesting is how she spearheaded a unique initiative that aims to keep new moms from leaving the company — which you really should check out.

Johnson is the chief marketing officer and head of consumer strategy for the newly independent Citizens Financial Group, where she is building a database to help facilitate proactive pitches to customers based on their needs.

The ranking also features longtime stalwarts such as Marianne Lake and Sandie O'Connor of JPMorgan Chase, Barbara Desoer and Jane Fraser of Citigroup, and Diane Reyes of HSBC.

Regional banks with women in the ranking include PNC Financial Services Group, U.S. Bancorp, MUFG Union Bank, KeyCorp, Huntington Bancshares and Regions Financial.

Community bankers are well represented too, thanks to Dorothy Savarese of The Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank and Patricia Husic of Centric Financial.

Read on to get the full list and find out what all of these impressive women have been up to.

Make sure to check out this year's other rankings:
Women to Watch
Most Powerful Women in Finance

1. Cathy Bessant

Chief Operations and Technology Officer | Bank of America

Although she oversees one of the world's largest corporate technology teams, Cathy Bessant is not the kind of fervent cheerleader for digital breakthroughs that one encounters in Silicon Valley.

She urges businesses that are pursuing the use of artificial intelligence — one of the hottest areas of the tech sector — to do so with ethical guardrails. And she is all too aware of the downsides of rapid technological change, including the steep rise in cyberattacks in recent years.

That said, Bessant, who is American Banker's Most Powerful Woman in Banking for 2017, is a big believer in the power of technology.

She leads a team of nearly 100,000 employees and contractors in Bank of America's technology and operations unit, responsible for everything from innovation to cybersecurity to the technological underpinnings of a $2.2 trillion-asset banking company.

Moreover, she has emerged as a key thought leader regarding the digital revolution that is upending the banking sector.

"What is banking and what is technology? The two are one and the same," Bessant said in a recent interview.

Yet Bessant eschews the sort of change-the-world hype that permeates the tech sector. Her measured approach befits her decades of experience on the business side of the industry, including stints in corporate and small-business banking.

For example, Bessant is quick to acknowledge the many ways in which banks are different from fintech companies.

"Look, it's very attractive to say a bank should be a fintech company, and yet we're very different," she said. Those in the fintech sector are typically smaller, less regulated, and more agile than banks, "so they have a higher tolerance for one idea out of 10 working."

Like many banks, Charlotte, N.C.-based B of A is pursuing the deployment of artificial intelligence in areas such as marketing and risk management. But Bessant wants to be meticulous about how it eventually is used, to ensure the company does so in a responsible manner.

One hesitation has to do with the importance of keeping AI from replicating the biases of human beings. She also stressed the need for companies to focus on developing employees' skills, so that they still have jobs to perform after many of their current duties have been automated.

"Otherwise we run the risk of workforce decimation," Bessant warned.

Information security is one of Bessant's key areas of focus, and in 2016 she played an important role in the formation of the Financial Systemic Analysis and Resilience Center, a collaborative effort between companies in the private sector and U.S. government agencies to combat cybercrime.

The idea is to share information about threats in a real-time environment, rather than only in reports written after the danger has passed. Other banks that played a role in the organization's formation were Bank of New York Mellon, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, State Street and Wells Fargo.

"Collaboration makes us stronger, and we're learning that every day," Bessant said.

B of A expects to spend roughly $600 million in 2017 in the area of information security, which is handled by a team of 2,200 people across numerous countries.

"The intensity and breadth and depth of attack just grow exponentially over time," Bessant said.

"Success in protecting a company, I think, is quite dependent on having the best technology and the best talent. And so we invest heavily to do both."

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2. Marianne Lake

Chief Financial Officer | JPMorgan Chase

Women looking to balance their high-powered careers with a family life can take inspiration from Marianne Lake.

"You can have it all," the U.K. native said in a recent interview. "But you just might not be able to have all of it at the same time."

Lake is in position to know. She has taken on a seemingly impossible challenge — raising three young children as a single mother, while simultaneously serving as chief financial officer at the nation's largest bank by asset size.

"It's about thinking every single day and every week about what is urgent and what's important," said Lake.

"It's not like I get it right every day. I just hope to get it right generally. The one advantage that you have from being maybe slightly older when I had my children is that I've been around the block a bit, and I know how to manage my time. And I do have reasonable help, so that doesn't hurt."

Lake's career could hardly be more demanding. She plays a leading role in JPMorgan Chase's earnings calls, which are heavily scrutinized since the quarterly results are considered a harbinger for the industry. She serves as a member of the bank's operating committee. And she leads a team of more than 10,000 employees.

Inside the bank, Lake has become a champion of using robotics to automate repetitive tasks. She said that the automation push, which is still in its early stages, has been warmly received by employees, since it is freeing them up to handle more interesting work.

Asked whether the adoption of robotics will eventually lead to job cuts, Lake said: "I'm not going to pretend that we're not interested in the efficiency aspect of it. Of course we are. But it doesn't necessarily mean that in the foreseeable future there's a structural change in the size of the workforce."

Lake is widely seen as one of the top contenders to succeed Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan's 61-year-old CEO. When asked about that possibility, she said that she loves her current job. Then she added: "I'm 100% committed to the company. I'll serve at the pleasure of the board in any capacity they want me to for as long as they'll have me."

3. Ellen Alemany

Chairman and CEO | CIT Group

Long before she set out to reshape CIT Group, Ellen Alemany accepted her first job as a bank CEO — on the eve of the mortgage meltdown.

A big lesson that has stuck with her since then is the importance of communicating clearly and constantly with employees.

Alemany took over as CEO of RBS Citizens Financial Group in March 2008, after spending two decades climbing the ranks at Citigroup. Months after she accepted the job, the financial markets collapsed, and the New England company's overseas parent, Royal Bank of Scotland, posted the largest corporate loss in U.K. history.

Alemany wore several hats as head of the U.S. subsidiary, including serving on the management committee for the Royal Bank of Scotland and participating on the Federal Reserve's advisory council. During the height of the crisis, she would often start her day with a 3 a.m. conference call with her U.K. counterparts.

But one of her most important responsibilities at the time was simply quelling the heightened sense of worry among Citizens employees that their jobs — or the company as a whole — were at risk. 

"For the six years that I ran Citizens, there were rumors every few months that RBS was selling it," Alemany said.

"Just getting out there to talk about the importance of the franchise, that allowed me to build the bank" during the crisis.

Alemany began hosting town halls and visiting branches, making sure she answered employees' questions directly. She also made sure all branches were given talking points, so that front-line bankers knew how to calm worried customers.

To this day, her former colleagues tell her that these efforts made a big difference in the corporate culture.

"They knew we were OK, because if we weren't, they wouldn't have seen me," Alemany said. "It was my visibility and my communication out there that kept everybody calm."

Alemany, now CIT Group's CEO (see story on page 40), stepped down from RBS and briefly retired from banking in late 2013. A year later, Citizens completed its initial public offering.

4. Nandita Bakhshi

President and CEO, Bank of the West; Co-CEO | BNP Paribas USA

Nandita Bakhshi has begun to put her stamp on Bank of the West.

Bakhshi, who was hired away from TD Bank in 2016, is a 30-year industry veteran with extensive experience in retail banking and payments.

When she arrived last year at Bank of the West, Bakhshi embarked on a listening tour across the San Francisco-based lender's 23-state footprint. She also launched a virtual office, known as Nandita's Corner, where the bank's 10,000 employees were encouraged to share their ideas.

In addition, Bakhshi has been hosting "Ask Me Anything" sessions to provide candid answers to employees' questions.

One key initiative during her first year as CEO was the launch of Bank of the West's new logo. The logo prominently features the name of the bank's parent company, the French bank BNP Paribas.

The rebranding amounts to a bet that being associated with a global megabank will enable Bank of the West, which has deep roots in California, to generate more revenue. But during a March 2017 interview, Bakhshi said that the $83.7 billion-asset bank's customers will continue to work with branch managers, and decision-making will remain local.

"We are not going to lose our local flavor," she said.

Another recent accomplishment was a reduction in the number of days it takes for Bank of the West to close a mortgage.

The bank set out to identify ways to improve the home-buying experience, then developed ways to digitize documentation and keep customers better informed throughout the loan process. In the first few months of the process, Bank of the West says that it has seen a 10% reduction in the average time to close a home loan.

Bakhshi, who began her career as a part-time teller, attributes her success in part to a focus on making good hires. "When you get to the position where you are hiring and training people, don't settle," she said. "Make sure you recruit first-rate talent and it will improve your whole organization."

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5. Diane Reyes

Group General Manager and Global Head of Liquidity and Cash Management | HSBC

As electronic payments continue their steady ascent, Diana Reyes has an enormous job.

Reyes is the global head of liquidity and cash management at Europe's largest bank by assets. From her office in midtown Manhattan, she oversees a division of the bank that operates in more than 50 countries, serving the cash management needs of more than 400,000 business clients.

Those needs are changing fast. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of noncash transactions globally rose by 40%, amid a decline in the popularity of checks and a proliferation of digital payment options.

With Reyes providing leadership, HSBC is trying to stay ahead of the curve.

"What got companies to where they are now will not necessarily serve them well going forward," she said. "The status quo is no longer a comfortable place to be."

Among the payment modernization steps the London-based bank has taken: launching "Move Money," a screen for online banking users that is designed to offer an intuitive look at various ways of making payments; and rolling out "Track Money," a self-service tool that documents each stage of the payment process.

In India, where the government is pushing to build a cashless society, HSBC has enabled its corporate customers to send and receive money on mobile devices.

Reyes is a former Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase executive who joined HSBC in 2011. Today she leads a staff of roughly 9,300 employees.

She said that she has learned to become more resilient over the course of a 20-plus-year career.

"When something happens in a meeting or during an interaction that bothers you, don't stew on it," she advised. "Allow yourself 48 hours to digest and reflect, and then put it in a box and let it go."

6. Sandie O'Connor

Chief Regulatory Affairs Officer | JPMorgan Chase

For Sandie O'Connor, the importance of sponsoring talented young women in banking is personal.

O'Connor got her start at JPMorgan Chase 29 years ago, in a rotational program for young graduates who aspired to work in audit and risk management. During the two-year program, she did stints in fixed-income trading, swaps and derivatives and asset management.

At the end of her rotation, O'Connor expected to take a job in business management, but the head of liquidity and interest rate management made an offer that shocked her. " 'Would you like to come onto the desk?" O'Connor recalled him asking. "We'll train you to become a trader.' "

Working on a trading floor wasn't the career path she expected, nor was it a path that many women took at the time. "You could count the number of women on the trading floor on one hand, and you didn't need your whole hand," she said.

Unsure of what to do, she talked to several of her colleagues. They were mostly men who encouraged her to ask about working in sales instead, still a powerhouse Wall Street job, but one that was seen as being better suited to women.

Then O'Connor talked to the man she later married — who urged her to take the trading job. He pointed out that the head of the investment bank was taking a chance on her because he saw something promising.

She decided to go for it.

"I dove in with both feet and I never looked back," O'Connor said. "It literally was the basis for everything I have done in my career that has differentiated me."

After finishing the sales and trading program, O'Connor went into fixed-income trading, managing interest rate risk for the house account.

That set in motion a career path that has taken her across the New York megabank, in jobs such as chief executive of prime services, treasurer and now head of regulatory affairs.

But it all started when her boss created an unexpected opportunity for her, and when she trusted herself enough to accept it.

7. Barbara Desoer

CEO, Citibank | Citigroup

When Citigroup encounters its next big, nettlesome problem, it's a good bet that Barbara Desoer will be called on to fix it.

In 2012 and 2013, the New York-based megabank was hit by a pair of regulatory orders connected to deficiencies in its anti-money-laundering program. Upon joining Citi in 2013, Desoer took responsibility for overseeing the bank's AML efforts.

At the time, Citi had two separate global units dedicated to the prevention of money laundering. One of the groups focused on regulatory compliance, while the other handled the operational aspects of monitoring roughly 750 million transactions around the world each month.

Last year, the bank combined those two units to create a global AML organization — a move that the bank says was unrelated to its regulatory problems. The combined unit has two co-heads: Allison Clew, a former AML consultant at Deloitte, and Denise Reilly, a Citi veteran, both of whom report to Desoer.

In an interview, Desoer said that the reorganization combined activities that were being duplicated and also clarified employees' responsibilities. "It's been very well received," said Desoer, who spent 35 years at Bank of America before joining Citi.

Another part of the bank that came into Desoer's orbit following a rocky period is Citi's stress-testing operations.

Citi had failed the Federal Reserve's big-bank stress testing exercise — known as the Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review — in both 2012 and 2014. Desoer took over for the 2016 tests, and Citi has passed in each of the last two years.

Desoer said that the stress tests have become more than a regulatory compliance exercise. The statistical models developed to estimate how well the bank would weather economic distress are also being used to evaluate the risks associated with specific business decisions.

"We take that into consideration with all the other risks, as we're making decisions about an acquisition of a portfolio or an expansion of a business," she said.

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8. Jane Fraser

CEO, Latin America | Citigroup

Last fall, Citigroup announced plans to invest $1 billion in its Mexico franchise. Then over the summer, the global banking giant made clear how great its expectations are for the U.S.'s southern neighbor, declaring that roughly 25% of its plan to improve its worldwide consumer banking returns comes from Mexico. "So no pressure, really," said Jane Fraser, the dry-witted Scotland native who heads Citi's Latin American operations.

Fraser has been tapped to revive lagging parts of Citi's business before and Mexico is her latest turnaround assignment.

Citi's Banco Nacional de Mexico, also known as Banamex, was reeling from massive fraud when she arrived in 2015. Still, the bank had a lot going for it: a full array of corporate and consumer banking services, and substantial market share.

Fraser foresaw a big growth opportunity in Mexico, where half of the population is unbanked. Last year Citi rebranded the bank as Citibanamex and simultaneously announced its massive investment plan, one of the largest financial commitments the company has ever made. The investment is being used for several big projects: modernizing Citi's branches in Mexico, which get far more foot traffic than their U.S. counterparts; developing the Mexican bank's digital capabilities; and improving customer service.

Citi's plan to double down on its south-of-the-border unit has drawn some skepticism, given President Donald Trump's positions on immigration and trade. But Fraser struck an optimistic tone, noting that revenue was up 8% during the second quarter from the same period a year earlier, and vowing to push for a modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"I think we all feel there is a big win-win opportunity for both countries," she said.

9. Anne Finucane

Vice Chairman | Bank of America

Bank of America's reputation took an enormous hit from the financial crisis; it's been Anne Finucane's job to restore it.

"The starting point was to be brutally honest and self-reflective about our reality," Finucane said. "Candidly assessing and reassessing the situation was painful, but it was necessary."

As B of A's vice chairman, Finucane leads the company's environmental, social and governance effort. She also chairs the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.

One of her key initiatives involves so-called green bonds, which are used to finance environmentally friendly projects. The Charlotte, N.C.-based company has issued a total of $2.1 billion in green bonds. It calculates that the 22 projects financed to date will result in 2,167 megawatt hours of clean energy from wind and solar projects.

Finucane said in a 2016 Wall Street Journal interview that B of A's initial efforts to improve its environmental record came in response to demands from groups like the Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club.

More recently, other factors have spurred B of A to make environmentally friendly investments, including the evolving expectations of its own employees.

"You have a group of employees — millennials — who are a larger group than we baby boomers, and their expectations for their companies are quite demanding. And we want to keep those young people, and keep them in the company," Finucane said.

Finucane has been with B of A and predecessor FleetBoston Financial for 22 years. But recently her reputation management skills have been drawing notice beyond the banking industry. Earlier this year, Uber, which has been rocked by a sexual harassment scandal, reportedly considered making her its next CEO, though it ultimately chose someone else.

10. Dorothy Savarese

Chairman, President and CEO | The Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank

Mr. Smith has nothing on Dorothy Savarese when it comes to fighting for a cause in Washington.

As chair of the American Bankers Association, Savarese was one of a handful of bankers who met with President Donald Trump and other officials in March to advocate for regulatory relief. She also has aspoken with the Treasury Department about concerns in the industry.

In communications with regulators and lawmakers, Savarese focuses on providing real-world examples of the challenges that bankers face every day, such as how new mortgage rules make it more difficult for seasonal workers to buy homes. She also provided solutions to these issues: If a bank is willing to keep a mortgage on its books, shouldn't that loan automatically be a qualified mortgage?

During the meeting at the White House, Trump and other officials were attentive and seemed to understand the struggles that the bankers shared, Savarese said.

"Talking to them about the real-world harm that was created by well-intentioned but overreaching regulation was a huge moment for me," said Savarese, who is also the chairman, president and CEO at The Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank in Harwich Port, Mass. "The president was very focused on the implications of regulations on the ability of community bankers to serve their customers and asked many questions about that."

Still, Congress has been slow to pass major legislation. Despite this, Savarese noted that there is "a strong bipartisan understanding of how changes could directly impact the economy and families in America."

"I've been coming to Washington for a long time and there are always obstacles in getting things done," she added.

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11. Diane Morais

President of Consumer and Commercial Bank Products for Ally Bank | Ally Financial

When Diane Morais became Ally Bank's president in 2015, the digital-only depository was already a remarkable growth story. Since shedding the bailout-addled GMAC brand, Ally had grown its deposit base at a rate more than four times faster than the industry as a whole.

The soaring deposits delivered a relatively low-cost source of funding for Ally's flagship auto lending business. It was fueled by a simple formula: Pay high yields, and don't hit customers with gotcha fees.

The problem was that Ally had very few products to sell to its digital-savvy depositors. Particularly at a time of rising interest rates, customers might be tempted to bolt for higher rates on offer at another bank. Morais was charged with rectifying the situation, and she has moved quickly.

Morais drove the plan to acquire TradeKing, an online brokerage platform, for $275 million. The service was recently rebranded as Ally Invest; it offers trades in stocks and exchange-traded funds for $4.95.

She also oversaw the introduction of Ally's inaugural credit card, a cash-back offering that is issued by TD Bank, as well as the bank's re-entry into the mortgage business.

Morais, who worked at Bank of America and Citigroup before joining Ally in 2008, is paying close attention to what millennials want from their bank.

"They don't want to hunt and peck. They don't want to stand in line," she told American Banker in a recent podcast interview. During this year's first quarter, almost 60% of Ally's new customers were members of the digital-native generation.

One feature that has proven popular is Ally Assist, which launched two years ago in the bank's iPhone app, and uses artificial intelligence to answer questions from users who would prefer not to make a phone call. "Customers love it," Morais said.

12. Stacey Friedman

General Counsel | JPMorgan Chase

Stacey Friedman has some sage advice for anyone struggling to find the right balance between their work and home life.

"There are a thousand things that will pull on your time that seem urgent, essential and important," she said. "But you have to decide for yourself what's precious, and you have to protect it."

Friedman, who oversees a team of more than 1,900 legal professionals in 29 countries, recalled that earlier in her career she missed her grandmother's 90 birthday party because she considered herself too busy to attend.

"To be clear, everyone will define what's precious to them differently — for some people that's French lessons on a Wednesday, for some it's having breakfast with your family, for others, like myself, it's being home Friday evenings with pizza and a movie with my kids," she said.

Friedman has been JPMorgan Chase's top lawyer since January 2016. Earlier in her career, she was a partner at the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, where she focused on complex banking and securities litigation, as well as regulatory matters.

Since becoming general counsel at the nation's largest bank by assets, Friedman has worked to build out the company's Office of Legal Obligations. That office is working to map out all of JPMorgan Chase's legal and regulatory obligations globally, and to connect those obligations to internal policies and procedures.

It is a gargantuan job, but the goal is to find better uses of time for employees who have traditionally spent tons of hours digging manually through laws and rules.

Friedman, who is a graduate of Duke University Law School, also puts her legal training to use in her extensive charitable work. She serves on the board of the National Center for Law & Economic Justice, which provides legal representation to people living in poverty.

And she worked with the American Civil Liberties Union in a successful court challenge to a state law that prohibited unmarried couples from becoming adoptive or foster parents.

13. Andrea Smith

Chief Administrative Officer | Bank of America

Charlotte, N.C., has long been a community of haves and have-nots. A 2014 study found that among the nation's 50 largest cities, Charlotte ranked last in economic mobility.

But two nights of street violence last fall, which followed the fatal police shooting of an African-American man, made addressing economic inequality a bigger civic priority for the city where Bank of America is based. "It created more of a sense of urgency," said Andrea Smith, a B of A executive who is at the forefront of local efforts to take on the economic conditions that are widely seen as having contributed to the civil unrest.

In January, Smith became chair of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, and she is leading a nascent effort to focus the organization on local job creation and career readiness.

In March, Smith was named co-chair of the Leading on Opportunity Council, a group formed to devise a plan to address the city's economic divide.

Smith is a 29-year B of A veteran who became the company's chief administrative officer in 2015. Her responsibilities include global corporate strategy and oversight of the annual regulatory stress tests. She moved to Charlotte in 1994 and, with the exception of a brief stint in New York, has lived there ever since.

The street violence in September 2016 was unsettling to many Charlotte residents, including lots of bank employees.

During the unrest, B of A advised thousands of employees to stay home. At the end of one workday, protesters gathered outside the bank's headquarters holding signs that said "Legalize Being Black" and "Black Lives Matter."

After those events, Smith launched "Courageous Conversations," an event designed to discuss what was happening in Charlotte and how B of A employees could have a positive impact. Similar events have since been held in other cities that are part of the bank's footprint.

"Let's talk about what happened here. And let's talk about it in St. Louis. And let's talk about it in Baltimore. And let's talk about it in Dallas. There was no shortage of places to have these conversations," Smith said.

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14. Karen Larrimer

Head of Retail Banking and Chief Customer Officer | PNC Financial Services Group

After being named head of retail banking at PNC Financial Services Group, Karen Larrimer determined that its 2,500 branches were having trouble recruiting and retaining employees. Turnover was too high, especially among recent hires.

One major cause of the problem was obvious. Among the 10 largest U.S. banks, PNC was paying the lowest salaries to its tellers, according to data from PayScale.

Larrimer asked for an analysis of the effects of a potential minimum wage hike. After reviewing the data, she concluded that the benefits from attracting and retaining employees would far outweigh the extra expense.

Her strategy appears to be paying off. After PNC raised the minimum wage last year, turnover fell, and the company reported that it was seeing a return of $1.45 on every dollar invested.

The wage hike is one example of how Larrimer has shaken up the status quo in PNC's retail banking division. Shortly after she took over, the mortgage sales force became part of her unit, an organizational change that the company says has yielded results. In the first quarter, PNC posted its largest-ever growth in home equity loans by mortgage lending officers.

Larrimer also decided to eliminate one specific branch-based job, which was designed to generate conversations between PNC's customers and its financial advisers. She determined that the same results could be achieved without that particular role. By the end of 2016, roughly 450 jobs were cut, with 40% of the affected employees finding other opportunities at the company.

Larrimer, who sits on PNC's 12-member executive committee, has held a wide range of positions over her 37 years in the industry, including roles in marketing, sales, operations and business finance.

15. Leslie Godridge

Vice Chairman and Co-Head of Wholesale Banking | U.S. Bancorp.

Leslie Godridge marks her 35-year career in banking by the downs as much as the ups. The way she sees it, tough times can impart important lessons and present new opportunities.

Godridge was hired by Bank of New York in the early 1980s, and the U.S. economy was soon mired in a deep recession. Her work centered on the automotive sector, where the distress was particularly severe.

"So you learn a lot about companies, their management, their credit, their strategy, how they deal with the crisis," Godridge said. "It was the best training, and credit training, I could have ever gotten."

On Sept. 11, 2001, Godridge was running Bank of New York's corporate bank from an office in lower Manhattan. "This was an incredibly challenging time, which taught many people, including myself, leadership skills that I could never have learned from business school," she said. "I evacuated our employees. I walked to Midtown. We set up corporate banking operations in a temporary space overnight. We made sure employees were safe, and we continued to support our customers and keep the financial wheels turning."

In 2007, Godridge was hired to build U.S. Bancorp's corporate banking unit, then a regional operation, into a national business. The financial crisis provided a growth opportunity for the company, which managed to weather the storm better than many of its rivals. "Other banks were retreating, retrenching. And I took advantage of the stability provided by U.S. Bank and was able to recruit top talent," she said.

Last year, Godridge helped launch a resource group that focuses on retaining female employees and helping them advance inside the company. She and her co-head of wholesale banking have committed to broadening the pool of candidates for all open positions in their unit. "It's not about giving an advantage to one person over another," she said. "It's about making sure that everyone has the same opportunity for growth and advancement."

16. Hannah Grove

Chief Marketing Officer | State Street

Hannah Grove has made it her mission to "eradicate jargon" at State Street.

The idea is to make the language of custody banking easier to understand so that the 225-year-old company can feel more accessible to its clients — and easier for the public to trust.

Over the past year, Grove, State Street's chief marketing officer, has made a push to remove business-speak and highly technical banking phrases from the company's press releases. She has also found new ways to write about arcane financial topics — including by using emojis on Twitter to explain topics such as the blockchain and securities regulation.

"We've wrapped ourselves in complexity, and we've been very, very difficult to understand," Grove said. "The overall language is generally quite inaccessible, and we've really tried to open up to much more transparent plain-speak."

Grove this year was appointed to serve on State Street's management committee; she is the first CMO to hold the post. As it is for all bank marketing executives, Grove's most significant challenge is adapting State Street's marketing to fit the digital age. For Grove, that has meant finding new ways to engage online with clients, both existing and future ones. She has made a push, for instance, to establish a unique voice for State Street on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.

Her social media efforts received a big boost this year, when State Street unveiled its Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street. The statue, which depicts a young girl staring down the Wall Street bull, generated 3.3 billion Twitter impressions within five weeks, and more than 405 million Instagram mentions.

The attention was good for business. State Street runs an exchange-traded fund that tracks companies with high levels of gender diversity on their boards and in senior leadership, and in the 20 days following the unveiling, trading volume in the fund was up 170% compared with the previous 90 days of trading.

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17. Patricia Husic

President and CEO | Centric Financial

Patricia "Patti" Husic, president and CEO of Centric Financial, aims to be on the leading edge of engaging with millennials.

Failure to do so could result in the Harrisburg, Pa., company becoming irrelevant, Husic fears. By 2020, this generation is expected to make up about half of the workforce.

"If we aren't looking right now to see how they work differently and see what resonates with them, we will miss the boat," Husic said. "We won't even be on their radar screen."

Other institutions may overlook this customer base because millennials have limited assets. But Husic sees catering to them as an investment in the future.

Centric wants to help millennials make their first big financial decisions, like buying a home, in hopes that they will become lifelong customers.

"We are looking to capture them now because they will go on to become future business owners," Husic said.

To achieve this, Husic partnered with the Harrisburg Young Professionals to form a millennial advisory board last year. The advisory board, which also includes Centric employees, is far from being merely symbolic. It has already influenced a variety of decisions and will have an influential voice as Centric goes through a systems conversion.

Following the group's recommendation, Centric implemented a feature where users can log into their mobile apps using a fingerprint. Centric's new office has its core values proudly displayed and there are brainstorming rooms available to make the space more worker-friendly. Those are also suggestions from the panel.

Pushing for a more inclusive workforce is not new to Husic. In 2012, she helped found the Pennsylvania Women in Banking Advisory initiative, which held its first conference two years later. This year's conference included more than 300 women and attendance by men more than tripled.

For these efforts, the Pennsylvania Bankers Association honored Husic with the inaugural Woman of Influence award.

"We are energizing and educating hundreds of future leaders and becoming the face of inclusion in banking," she said.

18. Anne Clarke Wolff

Head of Global Corporate Banking and Global Leasing | Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Anne Clarke Wolff sees a mixed picture regarding efforts to improve gender equality in the banking industry's top ranks.

On the one hand, women can now take longer maternity leave, they get more support from employers about their decision to take time off, and banks are taking steps to recruit more women.

But attrition among female employees continues to be a challenge, according to Wolff. The Wall Street veteran notes that at the highest levels of the industry, there remain key barriers for women.

"In executive suites dominated by men, the style and traits that make women successful up until that point often make it challenging to penetrate the glass ceiling," she said.

"Men and women communicate, lead and partner in very different manners, language and approach. Shifting performance and talent discussions to more objective measures of success, away from measures of likability, may be one way to gender-neutralize talent planning and open up the door to more opportunities."

Wolff joined Bank of America in 2011, as part of the company's push to expand its corporate banking business outside of the United States. She is in its Bank of America Merrill Lynch unit.

In fiscal year 2016, revenue for the international subsidiaries platform grew by 11%. The global corporate banking unit that Wolff leads works with many of B of A's largest clients.

Before joining Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Wolff was head of global sales for treasury services at JPMorgan Chase. Earlier, she spent nearly 20 years in a variety of senior roles at Citigroup.

19. Ranjana Clark

Head of Transaction Banking for the Americas and Bay Area President | MUFG Union Bank

In 2017, it's critical that large foreign-owned banks have finely tuned eyes and ears in Silicon Valley. At Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, the parent of MUFG Union Bank, those duties fall to Ranjana Clark.

From her base in San Francisco, Clark oversees the Japanese banking giant's digital transformation team, which is based in northern California. And she serves as a nexus between U.S. and Tokyo colleagues on emerging technologies.

Clark is a 34-year veteran of the financial industry who had done stints at PayPal, Western Union, Wachovia and Deutsche Bank, before joining MUFG Union in 2013.

After Clark's arrival, the U.S. holding company, MUFG Americas, participated in a $10.5 million investment in Coinbase, the electronic wallet and trading platform for digital currencies. That bet has paid off handsomely; Coinbase was recently valued at $1.6 billion.

Today, Clark is particularly excited about the new possibilities that artificial intelligence is presenting to the financial services industry. "Clients are seeking more of a self-service model to access information and perform operations," she said.

To go along with her executive responsibilities here in the U.S., last year Clark became one of the first two women globally to become an executive officer at the Tokyo-based parent company.

She sees progress being made on gender diversity at the middle levels of the industry, but said that it remains slow at the top ranks. "Few candidates have every skill set," Clark said. "They may have 80% to 90% of the expertise for a position. However, I've seen the expectation that women need to have a 100% skill set before people will take chances on them. This point of view needs to change."

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20. Amy Brady

Chief Information Officer, Technology and Operations Executive | KeyCorp

KeyCorp's $4.1 billion purchase of First Niagara is being hailed as a success, and Amy Brady deserves substantial credit.

Brady and her team were responsible for the behind-the-scenes technology integration. It was a process where a lot could go wrong. But Key says that the conversion was executed almost flawlessly, even as a host of other technology-related initiatives inside the company continued to move forward.

To manage the conversion process, Brady created a technology and operations command center that oversaw the integration of 50 work streams. She also coordinated a large training effort to ensure that employees were ready for the challenges they would face once the conversion was complete.

Throughout the process, Brady made sure to recognize the long hours that her employees were working. She provided food to staff on overnight shifts, flipped pancakes at team breakfasts, arranged chair massages for employees who were working over the weekend, and, in appreciation of the sacrifices being made by employees' family members, sent flowers to their homes.

Also last year, Brady organized sessions where employees could share their feelings about the unrest triggered by police shootings in black communities across the United States. "While this was an unconventional topic to discuss at work, I firmly believe that the risk was worth the reward, creating a bond among employees and shaping a better community within the workplace," she said.

Brady's career in banking spans 30 years. She managed branches after college and eventually moved into various technology roles, rising through the ranks at Bank of America before joining Key in 2012.

"In the field of technology, there is something to learn every day," she said. "Whether it's big data or cognitive development or robotics or cybercrime, there is something new around every corner."

21. Diana Reid

Head of PNC Real Estate | PNC Financial Services Group

Leadership is not about being the loudest voice in the room, it's about listening. That's Diana Reid's philosophy, and it's worked for her.

Reid oversees PNC's real estate finance business, which has 1,000 employees and 30 offices nationwide.

Key to running a successful operation is the ability to collaborate with others, Reid said, and that starts with listening to their points of view, finding common ground and using this ground "as the foundation for establishing crucial connections" to drive business growth.

Her real estate unit reported strong growth across the board last year while reducing its exposure to construction lending. The unit accounts for roughly one-third of PNC's annual revenue.

In a business populated by extroverts, Reid actually views herself as an introvert. It's an attribute that may have held her back early in her career, but "through observation and internal analysis, I discovered that I could intentionally modify behavior — through more intensive preparation and other actions — to turn this trait into an asset," she said.

Reid is an active member of the Urban Land Institute, the Real Estate Roundtable and the Committee of 200, an organization devoted to supporting female business leaders. She pays close attention to issues around sustainability and takes particular pride in showing off PNC's headquarters, which features a natural ventilation system, a water recycling treatment center and energy-efficient heating and cooling.

The business case for sustainability is hard to ignore. New office buildings that have green space on their roof to capture rainwater and use tracking devices to monitor energy usage may incur higher upfront costs, but produce "efficiencies that really translate into a lower cost of operating a building," she said.

22. Helga Houston

Chief Risk Officer | Huntington Bancshares

After a 22-year career at Bank of America, Helga Houston was let go on Dec. 10, 2008. The credit crisis was threatening the Charlotte-based company's financial viability, and Houston was one of numerous executives who were cut.

"I was devastated, and there was nothing in my career experience up to that point that prepared me for that moment," recalled Houston, who had been serving as the risk executive for global consumer and small business at B of A.

Over time, Houston said that she learned to separate what was in her control from what was not. She also took comfort from the challenges that other leaders in the banking industry have overcome. "It's more about how one responds to personal crisis and uses the opportunity to reassess," she said.

In January 2012, Houston became chief risk officer at Huntington Bancshares, where she has become a trusted adviser to CEO Stephen Steinour. Last year, one of Houston's major tasks was to integrate employees of the recently acquired FirstMerit into Huntington's corporate culture. It was the company's largest-ever acquisition.

"Cultural assimilation was a top priority," Steinour said, "and Helga's team was at the forefront of orienting our new colleagues in our risk culture, which emphasizes accountability and prompt escalation of issues."

Houston leads a team of 480 risk employees whose responsibilities include producing the annual capital plan as part of the Federal Reserve's stress-testing process. She is also Huntington's chief regulatory liaison, and has gotten substantial credit for the fact that the Fed approved the FirstMerit deal in just 185 days.

"I have one of the most fulfilling roles I could have imagined," Houston said. "I am certain that I would not be in my Huntington leadership role had I not been asked to leave Bank of America."

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23. Teresa Tanner

Chief Administrative Officer | Fifth Third Bancorp

Teresa Tanner is not afraid to take decisive action.

After becoming Fifth Third's chief administrative officer in 2015, she made big changes to its benefit plan, a move that challenged a long tradition of profit-sharing at the Cincinnati-based company.

The revised benefits include a retirement plan that increased the company's 401(k) match, as well as a program that lets employees earn money as they practice healthy habits, which has proven popular.

Tanner also led the process to relaunch Fifth Third's brand. A cheeky new advertising campaign focuses on customer satisfaction while also making light of the company's quirky, numerical name — presenting it as a fraction, 5/3.

"We are required to put 166.7% into everything we do," the star of one ad states.

Another initiative that Tanner spearheaded is Fifth Third's maternity concierge program, which offers free assistance to pregnant employees and those with children up to age one. Employees can get help finding day care or planning a baby shower, for example.

The decision to provide help to new mothers was a response to the reality that women often drop out of the workforce around the time they have children.

At Fifth Third, women make up 60% of the workforce, but account for just 23% of top executive and senior leadership posts.

"We can do more, and we need to do more, to allow women a path to top leadership," Tanner said.

Tanner began her career outside of the banking industry, and she learned early on the importance of being assertive. One formative experience came after observing a senior leader behaving inappropriately with women.

Despite pressure to stay quiet, Tanner decided to speak up, and the executive eventually left the company.

"It taught me a strong lesson that has been a guiding force for me for my entire career," Tanner said.

That lesson is "never let fear prevent you from doing what you know is right," she said.

24. Barb Godin

Chief Credit Officer | Regions Financial

As one of only two women on the 15-member operating committee at Regions Financial, Barb Godin is usually outnumbered when it comes to choosing venues for social outings.

"Being from the South, they really like golfing, fishing and hunting — and those are not the three sports that I particularly have much interest in," Godin said, in her characteristic lighthearted manner.

Godin, who is originally from Canada, said some of her male colleagues have expressed interest in going with her to the spa.

Still, she has made it a priority to advocate activities that don't make either sex feel excluded.

"My push has been — and I can't say I'm successful at it — that we do some gender-neutral activities at our level," Godin said.

For her own department, she organizes team-building events that revolve around food, such as potluck dinners, chili cook-offs, bake-offs and catfish fries.

"Anything involving food, people absolutely love," Godin said. "It brings people together."

Godin serves as a sponsor for Regions employees at a range of levels. In talking with women, she said she makes sure that they are proactive in asking for the jobs and salaries they want.

She also follows her own advice, noting that she recently met with the head of human resources, just to talk about options for the next step in her career.

"I said, 'For my own career, this is where I'm at. I have one more rung to go — can I make it to that next rung?' " Godin said. " 'Oh, and by the way, this is the salary I'm looking for.' "

Women in senior management roles often get passed over for jobs because their bosses assume they are happy where they are, Godin said. So she encourages her colleagues to use their voices, and make it clear where they want to go.

"I don't want them guessing, 'I guess Barb is happy, I guess she should just retire out of that job,' " Godin said. "I'm saying, 'No, I'm happy, but I would like to go up one more rung. What can you do for me?' "

25. Beth Johnson

Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Consumer Strategy | Citizens Financial Group

Sales strategy — long a critical issue for banks — has become a more delicate topic in the wake of the Wells Fargo phony-accounts scandal.

At Citizens Financial Group, marketing and consumer strategy is in the hands of Beth Johnson, a former partner at Bain & Co. who joined the Providence, R.I.-based company in 2013.

Johnson has led a push to invest in data analytics tools that are being used to improve the targeting of Citizens' sales and marketing efforts. Under her leadership, the company has been building a database that is designed to reveal which customers are best suited for specific products. Citizens said that it has seen a 35% increase in marketing response rates.

A college graduate who has student loans, and might be able to reduce her interest rate by refinancing that debt at Citizens, might be identified as a prospect in the company's database, according to Johnson. Whether the customer called or visited its website, Citizens has the ability to tailor its marketing pitch.

"This might be a need that could be very powerful for you as a customer," Johnson said.

Earlier this year, the $151 billion-asset company found itself in an unwelcome spotlight over a program called Citizens Checkup, in which branch employees meet with retail customers to discuss their banking needs.

Some current and former Citizens employees told The Wall Street Journal that information about some meetings was fabricated in an effort to hit the targets that had been set.

Johnson said that the company recently completed a review of Citizens Checkup and found no instances of customer harm. "So we are continuing with the program, and we think it is a good way to have those deep, needs-based conversations with our customers," she said.