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1. Irene Dorner

Irene Dorner's edge lies in her authenticity.

When the CEO of HSBC USA speaks, it feels real, not only because of the honesty and confidence she conveys, but because of the actions backing up the words. "If I am committed, then you'll get 200 percent, total energy; it will happen," Dorner says. "This is what I do."

Her current commitment: changing the culture at HSBC, where the 17,000 people who work for her are on notice that Dorner is demanding more from them.

HSBC has made some big missteps in the United States, from its 2003 purchase of subprime lender Household International to more recent problems in compliance with anti-money laundering rules. Dorner, an Oxford-trained lawyer who has spent most of her 33-year career with HSBC, was dispatched to New York in 2010 to help the company's U.S. business regroup.

Testifying on Capitol Hill this summer, she showed why it was smart to entrust her with the task. She struck just the right notes of respectfulness, resoluteness and reconciliation with the Senate panel probing the bank's AML problems. She promised to fix things, and left no room for doubt that she would.

"Irene connects on a personal level with employees, customers, industry colleagues and government officials," says her boss, Stuart Gulliver, Group CEO for London-based HSBC Holdings Plc. "Her words, like her actions, convey integrity and empathy. This combined with her keen business judgment makes Irene one of our most effective senior leaders."

Rebuilding the brand has meant more than just words.

"I have clawed back. I have sacked people. I have reduced people's bonuses," an unapologetic Dorner says. Her motivation for cleanings things up go beyond her concerns for HSBC.

"These crises ... just seem to keep coming down the pike," Dorner says of the industry's string of scandals this year. "I don't distinguish between our reputation and my competitors' reputations. Anything that happens now in the industry pulls us all down a notch."

Bringing things back to her $190 billion-asset slice of HSBC, she says, "One of the things that I am trying to get through to our entire bank is I would rather you walked away from a piece of business that has a question mark next to it than do it in order to boost your bottom line. I am looking for sustainability."

Dorner's career has been on fire the last few years, as she moved from CEO of HSBC Malaysia to CEO of HSBC Bank USA to her current role. A serious health scare didn't slow her down. Last fall, Dorner learned she had ovarian cancer. She underwent six months of chemotherapy and had surgery in May.

"It was an enormous shock," Dorner, 56, says of the diagnosis. "It was not in my game plan at all. But I was the luckiest person in the world" to have a surgeon discover the cancer while treating an unrelated problem.

Her overall fitness level and positive attitude (she says it never really occurred to her she might die) helped her cope. Now cancer-free, she says, "It has made me hugely grateful for everything that I've got. I am much more appreciative of home, husband, holidays, work, everything."