A Woman’s Place is in the C-Suite

As a young girl in Arkansas, Natalie Bartholomew always knew she wanted to be a banker. She collected credit card applications at department stores and deposit tickets from her grandfather, a banker, so she could “play bank” at home. She joined a junior bank board in high school and was employed as a teller by her senior year.

Today, Bartholomew is the chief administrative officer at Grand Savings Bank, a $455 million asset community bank based in Grove, Oklahoma. But as she was promoted through the ranks at a succession of Arkansas-based community banks, and began attending industry networking groups and conventions, she noticed something. “It was just a boys’ club,” she says. This isn’t an anecdote from banking’s yesteryears: Bartholomew is in her 30s. “Oh my gosh: This is the industry I’m in,” she thought at the time. “There are no other young females, and no wonder they don’t want to be here, because this is the road you have to go down, this is the hill to climb … these guys have ruled the roost for so long, then why would a young woman want to even attempt to conquer this industry?”

Women are ready, willing and able to lead in today’s C-suites and boardrooms: Forty-five percent of working women aspire to hold an executive role, according to Gallup’s research on women and the workplace. Yet, corporate America remains dominated by men. Fewer than 5 percent of S&P 500 companies are led by a female chief executive officer, including two financial services companies—Beth Mooney of KeyCorp and Margaret Keane of Synchrony Financial. Women hold just 21 percent of senior leadership roles, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on promoting gender inclusion. In fact, the nonprofit claims there are fewer female leaders in the U.S. than there are men named John.

Too frequently, executives and boards assume women aren’t willing to work as hard or put in the long hours that can be required to advance through the ranks. That’s a misconception, says Teresa Tschida, a senior practice expert at Gallup. “Our research would say that, for women [who] want to move up to those senior roles, they are just as willing to work long hours.”

A gender-diverse leadership team can also strengthen strategic decisions. While individual strengths vary widely, women are generally better at relationship building, according to Gallup’s research, along with structure, routine and planning. “They do work smarter—they’re more efficient,” says Tschida.

A study examining the effect of gender diversity on profitability, published in 2016 by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, found “the correlation between women at the C-suite level and firm profitability is demonstrated repeatedly.” And the proportion of female executives and female board members is instrumental, which “underscores the importance of creating a pipeline of female managers and not getting lone women to the top.”

“Diverse teams bring different life experiences and different perspectives and function better,” says Deborah Streeter, a Cornell University professor who leads the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, most companies have a “leaky pipeline” when it comes to female talent. “The pool of women, by the time you get to the C-suite level, is too small,” she says.

The gender-diverse executive team at $1.3 billion asset First United Corp., based in Oakland, Maryland, generates a positive reaction among its employees and community. Four executives on the seven-member senior management team are women, including the chief executive and chief financial officer. People “will comment to me how inspiring it is for them to see that the company provides opportunity equally,” says CEO Carissa Rodeheaver. “It’s really representative of the fact that you can do whatever you set your mind to, and it doesn’t matter what your gender is in moving through a company. It’s all about your ambition, it’s all about your skill sets, it’s all about your desire, it’s all about your passion to continue to move forward, whether you’re a man or a woman. We will recognize that—we’ll foster that, and we’ll help you to grow.”

In most cases, a leaky talent pipeline isn’t the result of outright discrimination, but rather relying on outdated approaches to leadership development and corporate culture.

Building diversity on leadership teams—in the C-suite and on the board—doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of intentional practices and strategies that reward women as well as men, and programs that help banks better identify and promote their best employees—regardless of gender.

“We’re not specifically aiming to have more women in our workplace. We’re aiming to be inclusive and have top talent, and we recognize that that talent comes in all shapes and sizes,” says Kim Manigault, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Cleveland, Ohio-based KeyCorp, with $140 billion in assets. “That doesn’t happen by accident. That happens when you have a very direct and deliberate and committed focus on diversity and inclusion across all the programs and policies within your organization.”

Diversity can’t be achieved overnight. “It’s a long-term process of cultivating candidates inside the company,” says John Daniel, chief human resources officer at $41 billion asset First Horizon National Corp., based in Memphis, Tennessee.
A number of banks, including First Horizon and KeyCorp, have leadership development programs in place. “Women who get development—of any kind—actually show a greater confidence than the men who go through the same program in their ability to apply their skills, because they felt supported, and they got that development, and they worked on leadership skills,” says Stephanie Neal, a senior research consultant at the talent management firm Development Dimensions International, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Focusing on developing female leaders is paying off at Fifth Third Bancorp, says Chief Administrative Officer Teresa Tanner. Female employees at the $146 billion asset Cincinnati, Ohio-based bank were working hard but staying under the radar. So, the bank created a program—tailored to women—to address development gaps. “We really felt that doing a gender-specific program that could really talk about those skills that women need at an executive level, creating a safe space with other women to stretch and grow, would be a great investment,” she says. One-third of the program’s graduates have already received promotions or taken on new responsibilities. “It has far exceeded my expectations,” she says.

Personalized development plans can enhance development, especially for female employees. “It helps [leaders] to target where they put their energy and then, of course, they see greater results,” says Neal. Women, in general, tend to have specific development needs, including “building confidence, knowing how to build stronger networks, and knowing how to create greater influence in an organization, especially when the status quo works against them,” she says.

Fifth Third’s program works on building soft skills that may not be as readily developed among female talent—confidence in promoting oneself, for example, and learning how to network. “Things that we haven’t historically been so overt about teaching women how to do, and I’ve seen it pay off,” says Tanner.

Personalized development appeals to men and women—particularly to millennials. “We find this desire for the culture of coaching, and about growth and development, is coming from some of the younger generation in the workplace today,” says Tschida.

Individual development plans play a key role in developing executives at First United. “Every person in the company has an individual development plan, and it talks about areas where they feel that they are strong and want to continue to grow in, or areas where they have an opportunity to improve,” says Rodeheaver. The bank introduced a “skip-a-level” approach this year that has Rodeheaver reviewing all development plans for employees who report to her direct reports, so she can better understand where coaching is needed, which she sees as vital to succession planning.

“Succession doesn’t just happen at the executive level—it really needs to happen throughout the company,” Rodeheaver says. “This gives me the opportunity to look one layer below my direct staff to see, who do we need to continue to develop for succession in the future.”

Women are less likely to receive feedback on their performance, according to a study conducted in 2016 by McKinsey and LeanIn.org—underscoring the important role mentorship programs can play in developing female leaders.

Rodeheaver says she benefited personally when former CEO Bill Grant took her under his wing. “He opened doors for me, he introduced me to people in the industry,” she says. “If you look at our organization, we have a lot of women in leadership positions, so he was an excellent mentor for all of us and, I think, he really was a champion for women in the bank, not because he set women apart—because he didn’t set women apart.”

Unfortunately, women often don’t receive the same mentorship opportunities as men. There are a few reasons for this. First, few banks have a formal mentorship program in place. Just 15 percent of executives and directors said their bank offered a mentorship program in Bank Director’s 2018 Compensation Survey. Men hold the majority of executive positions, so informal programs tend to exclude women.

It can be difficult to naturally develop cross-gender relationships, so formalizing the process helps level the playing field between men and women to ensure the bank is developing the best employees, regardless of gender. “Leaving things to be more chance, more informal really puts those powerful mentorships for women at risk,” says Neal.

At KeyCorp, 450 employees participated in mentoring last year, says Manigault. Seventy percent of those mentor/mentee matches included a woman. “We had a significant component of those groups that were multicultural as well, meaning you can get guidance, coaching, development from somebody who doesn’t look like you, or who isn’t in the line of business you’re in or who hasn’t had the experiences you’ve had. It’s all about where you are going to get the guidance, coaching and development that’s the best for you.”

Employee resource groups, deployed at organizations like KeyCorp and First Horizon, also play an important role. “We have a population of women in our organization [who] want to come together, rise and grow through the ranks together, from junior level to executive level,” says Manigault.

Managers are particularly hesitant to provide constructive feedback to their female reports. Streeter refers to this lack of feedback as “ruinous empathy,” and despite the best intentions on the part of managers, it does more harm than good.

“Nobody can grow without feedback,” she says. Ruinous empathy cheats employees—particularly women—out of opportunities to improve and grow.

And rather than indirectly punishing talented female employees by declining to mentor them, male executives who feel nervous about interacting with women in the #MeToo era should rethink their approach. “Male leaders now say, ‘Look, I am worried, I don’t want to take a young woman to lunch at a restaurant, because I’m worried that I’ll be a target,’” she says. “If that’s true, don’t take either men or women for lunch at a restaurant, use a different method for interacting with them.” 
Reconsider other practices too, like networking on the golf course. That could be another practice that more frequently rewards men over women.

“Provide a safe structure, so people can become sponsors—it’s one of the major things that women lack in many environments is access to mentors and sponsors,” says Streeter. And executives should be responsible for developing potential successors. “Mentoring and sponsoring both women and men has to be part of the way that leaders are also evaluated by the board.”

Bartholomew found herself looking outside for mentors, and building that support system led her to create her blog, “The Girl Banker.” Women in banking are hungry for these connections—and they want advice, she says. “There [are] always a lot of questions about additional education and resources to help further them in their career,” says Bartholomew. Work/life balance is also a hot topic, and one of her most popular blog posts discusses so-called mom guilt. “Working moms, they love their children, they love their family, and they love their career, and they don’t want to be held back by either one,” she says.

Motherhood plays a big role in delaying or even derailing women’s careers, but banks can provide perks that benefit both men and women in the company, including expanded paternity/maternity leave benefits and flexible schedules.

At First United, flexibility can be as simple as giving employees—no matter their family situation—time to spend on what matters to them, whether that’s attending PTA meetings or coaching their child’s soccer team—or something else entirely, says Rodeheaver. That can mean working some hours from home as well, if the position permits it. “I don’t mind where you work, as long as the work’s getting done,” she says. “It’s very common for me to have my staff send me an email and say, ‘One of the kids is sick, I’m going to be working from home today.’ And it’s having that trust that they’re going to be able to pull that off.”

Some banks are rethinking the benefits they offer employees so they can better retain women or attract them back into the workforce. The “Career Comeback” program at the Swiss financial services company UBS Group offers permanent positions to men and women worldwide who want to reenter the workforce, along with the education and mentorship they need to make the transition.

Fifth Third has focused its efforts on retaining women through its maternity concierge program. “We were seeing women at mid-career leave the workforce at a much higher rate—it was almost double the turnover rate of a typical employee,” says Tanner. Employees who wanted to stay on to build their careers struggled to balance the demands of work and family. The solution? “We basically give someone their own personal assistant,” she says, to run errands, from getting groceries to planning a baby shower to helping buy a car seat. “They give them that extra set of hands that they need so that they can worry about work and continue in their career, but let somebody help them through this huge transitionary change in their life.” It’s had an impact on Fifth Third’s ability to retain these employees: Women who used the program were 25 percent more likely to stay on the job.

Women have access to the maternity concierge program until their child’s first birthday. After that, they can use the bank’s general concierge program, a similar perk offered to both men and women.

Access to expanded maternity perks and flexible scheduling can have a big impact on employees, but companies should also ensure they’ve removed any cultural stigmas around using these benefits, advises Cathleen Clerkin, a senior research faculty member at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. If applicable, ensure that men and women are using the benefit equitably. For example, she says that women say flexibility is important to them, but research suggests men are more likely to receive this benefit. “Women might not want to ask what the options are, for fear of backlash,” she says.

Setting transparent policies around flexible scheduling and similar benefits can help combat this concern. “When there is fuzziness, that’s where you see implicit bias sneak in,” says Clerkin.

Implicit or unconscious bias—the unconscious stereotypes held by the average person—are perhaps the trickiest issue to tackle when creating an inclusive culture that rewards and advances all, rather than some, employees.

We all hold some form of unconscious bias. Most of us just don’t know it.

“For the most part, people really mean well, and they really want to support women,” says Clerkin. But leaders often make assumptions that don’t align with a talented female employee’s actual goals. It’s a pattern of behavior called protective hesitation, and results in fewer opportunities for women to grow as leaders. They may be passed up for a challenging assignment, for example, or a promotion that requires the employee to relocate. “There’s this protective hesitation around trying to do the right thing, [which] can actually prevent women from getting through the pipeline,” says Clerkin.

She recommends a simple solution. “It sounds so simple, but just asking women, ‘What do you want, how can I advocate for you, what kind of feedback do you need, what kind of positions do you want,’ instead of trying to guess what the best decisions are, I think is something that would really make a difference.”

At Fifth Third, the management committee—comprised of the bank’s top 100 leaders—recently spent two hours with a neuroleadership expert to learn more about bias and diversity. “We have to model it from the top, and we have to continue to educate and challenge the way we think about this,” says Tanner.

Streeter recommends a saying to weigh your own unconscious bias: “Detect, inspect, reject.” Detecting the bias requires being aware of the problem. From there, leaders should inspect whether a decision—who should be promoted to fill a key role, for example—is based on facts or influenced by bias. Based on that, the leader can then accept or reject a decision. 
First Horizon counteracts bias by conducting multiple panel interviews to determine who will be accepted into its leadership development program or fill senior roles. “Bias operates on individual decision making,” says Daniel. “If you’re working in a group, and you have what I would call real factors—competencies that are used as an assessment tool—the group selection process counteracts and helps offset a lot of the bias.”

Relying on personal networks tends to reward the male-dominated status quo, so a diverse slate of candidates must be considered before filling key positions. “Our search guys [are] told, ‘You will present us a diverse slate, and we will pick the best candidate,’” he says. “It’s not an accident that the last two hires that we made were both female.”

Transparency and measurement are crucial elements in a bank’s battle against unconscious bias. Relying on relationship-building over quantitative measures will ensure that a bank maintains the status quo—a primarily white, male C-suite with a couple of token diversity hires sprinkled in.

KeyCorp shares the progress it’s making on its diversity goals to anyone who visits its website. “We are very frank about our numbers,” even when those numbers make some uncomfortable, says Manigault. Monitoring and measuring helps KeyCorp understand what’s working and what’s not, and meet the diverse talent needs of business line leaders.

“Any time you can track who’s applying for positions and who’s getting them, what kind [and] how much resources people are getting—any time you can track metrics, it helps us find out where our blind spots are,” says Clerkin.

Are women advancing and developing at similar rates to men? Is there a wage gap between genders? These are the types of metrics companies can monitor, in addition to the composition of the leadership team and board, says Streeter. And set specific goals—just like you would for a line of business. “Nothing will happen if you don’t set a goal that is measurable, and then track it and work your way toward it,” she says.

And when performances are evaluated based on quantitative measures, rather than gut instinct or personal relationships, women fare better. And focus on the quality of the performance, not face time or hours spent in the office, says Tschida. “If you tell [women] what the outcome is, and you allow their more natural inclination to structure and discipline in their own right, they can be efficient, and they can hit that outcome in different ways,” she says. “Men would like that, too.”

Focusing on the employee’s outcome, rather than gut instinct, means the organization is advancing its best talent. That’s better for the bank.

Women tend to get stuck in organizations just below the C-suite. KeyCorp’s total workforce was 60 percent female in December 2017, compared to 27 percent for its executive and senior officers, and 31 percent for its board. At the end of 2016, FifthThird’s workforce looked roughly the same, with 61 percent women overall compared to 31 percent of its board, and 23 percent of its executive and senior team. At the end of 2018, First Horizon reported that 30 percent of its executive management committee was female, compared to 60 percent overall. And this is among banks that are actively working to create a more diverse workforce, rather than being content with the status quo.

All things equal, Streeter recommends hiring the diverse candidate. “When candidates are really quite equal, people will use some gut instinct—they will say something like, ‘She’s just not as good a fit as he is,’” says Streeter. “If all things are equal when you look at the qualifications of people, you’ve got to start opting in favor of diversity, if you lack diversity. That’s not giving women preferential treatment, it’s just saying, our corporation needs to have more diverse leadership, that’s one of our goals and to meet that goal, we have to start looking at environments and opportunities to diversify the leadership.”

That could also mean making the table a little bigger to include women. This enabled First Horizon to add more women to its executive management committee. “The enlargement of the committee was to make sure that we had the opportunity for lots of people to have a seat at the table when corporate decision making and policy making” occurred, says Daniel.

As for the lack of women ready to lead? Fifth Third’s Tanner calls that a cop out. “There are a lot of executive women out in the workforce … Go find them, and bring them to your company, and if they’re deeper in your organization, then develop and bring them up,” she says. “We have to quit with the excuses. If we really want to develop a workforce of tomorrow that is going to lead us into our future generations, we have to fix this, and we can’t do it at the rate we’ve been doing it.”