When we talk about the challenges of women scaling the corporate ranks, we often discuss the lone female lost in the crowd of men. During my conversation with Bank of America’s Cathy Bessant, I was reminded that being the only woman can have advantages too, with some effort.
This North Carolina-based Chief Operations and Technology Officer noted how being the only woman might get you noticed, but it’s up to you to be memorable, build trust and compete among male peers.
Noticed, but now what?
Looking back at her first days in banking – which she thought was a ‘stop-over’ en-route to law school – Cathy realized there was something special about being among the few senior female bankers. She accepted a job offer from the only bank where she met a female senior vice president, and thus began her own 35-plus year career with Bank of America.
Assigned to make cold calls to corporate and commercial clients, Cathy learned an important lesson. “It was easy for me to get the first call with a company because a woman calling was so unusual,” recalls Cathy. “However, the second call would be a lot harder because the standard was higher for a woman than a man.”
To keep the client’s attention, Cathy says she managed , “In the same way most women deal with everything – by being super prepared, and not being out-worked by anyone.”
With one chance to make an impression, she also discovered the power of “two degrees of separation”. In Cathy’s words, “I learned that if I knew enough about the person I was calling, I could find two degrees of separation to make the conversation customized and memorable.”
And Cathy is clear that “memorable” isn’t about giving a good performance but rather “making an authentic connection with someone,” possibly through their personal interests or background: “It’s never just about business, since the person you are dealing with is the net sum of every aspect of their life.”
Adding that, “We are in the trust business in financial services, so you need to know the people you are meeting and understand what motivates them. These connect points are memorable and they build trust.”
She explained how trust and credibility are critical at every level, whether it’s the CEOs who must trust their lives to the people that report to them, a client who must trust the people who provide advice, or a regulator who trusts you are committed to regulatory excellence.”
Learning to assimilate with peers:
Although Cathy rapidly learned to hold the attention of decision-makers, she admits that it wasn’t easy to assimilate with her male peers. She recalled how: “When my career began, there were so few women in financial services that often good women were promoted quickly. That sounds like an opportunity, but typically that woman became the most junior person on the team. In that situation, a woman is likely to let everyone else talk first.”
To overcome this assimilation challenge, Cathy observed male behaviors, adopting and adapting them to her advantage: “I found that men often begin a conversation by talking about results whereas women talk about process. So, when I am in a room full of men I try to lead with results and let the process follow. Also, men ‘de-personalize’ more than women, so I began to step back, de-personalize any criticisms, to become more resilient and effective.”
While these tactics helped Cathy make herself heard, she advises that, “Part of the coping solution for a woman is that she should do things that make her more confident. If that includes over-preparation, you should over prepare.”
Systemic change to keep women in the game:
Although Cathy gladly shares her personal techniques, she also contemplates the systemic and scalable workplace changes needed to help the next generation progress.
“There are still women at the top of their game who decide to step out of the workforce to handle some challenge they face as a woman. This cannot be the only answer we offer them,” says Cathy. She points out that, with women representing 50-percent of the incoming workforce - including the technology field - employers must improve the pull-through rate of women who make it to the top of the organization.
Cathy concludes that, “Besides coming up with a solution that works for one woman, we need to change the ways of working to acknowledge the gender differences, so that women don’t decide their only option is to find another work environment.”
As we wrapped up our chat, I agreed with Cathy that we must find ways to level the playing field for all women and men. For today, one part of that solution is for women to learn from each other, including strategies to earn and hold the attention we deserve, and make connections that form real trust.
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.
More about Cathy Bessant: Cathy is Chief Operations and Technology Officer at Bank of America, where she leads a team of nearly 95,000 and is responsible for the technology and operations enabling all the businesses of the company. Since joining the bank in 1982, Cathy has held numerous leadership positions in Global Corporate Banking, Global Product Solutions, Global Treasury Services and Global Marketing and Corporate Affairs. She is an advocate and executive sponsor for the company’s LGBT Pride and LGBT Ally program, as well as the Diversity Advisory Council. For two years running, Cathy was ranked No. 1 among the “Most Powerful Women in Banking” by American Banker and appeared on Working Mother magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Working Moms” list of 2018. Cathy recently helped lead the formation of Harvard’s Council on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence and she is a board member of Zurich Insurance Group, the USA Field Hockey governing body and the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan advisory board.