Strong leadership traits. Several stand the test of time: drive, confidence, integrity, vision.
But every era requires its own set of skills to match the moment. Neutron Jack, Chainsaw Al — these personas wouldn’t fly today. Would the men who own them, Jack Welch of General Electric fame and Al Dunlap of Scott Paper (and later at Sunbeam, where he was celebrated for his ruthlessness before he was taken down in an accounting scandal) been able to reach the same the same heights in their careers if they had come around a generation later than they actually did?
Across banking, there is a sense that the profile of leaders is in flux. The leadership characteristics we value today are not the same as what we valued 10 years ago.
And 10 years from now? It’s safe to say that financial institutions will be looking for leaders with swift response times, an appreciation for the impact of new technology, an ability to manage an ever-widening circle of stakeholders, and a knack for collaboration, be it across business silos or with outside partners.
Boris Groysberg, a Harvard Business School professor who co-chairs an HBS Executive Education program called Leadership in Financial Organizations, says tomorrow’s leaders will need a different mix of technical skills and what he calls “soft skills,” such as communication, relationship building and cross-cultural intelligence.
It’s not so much that the soft skills are supplanting the hard skills, he says; rather, both sets of skills are increasing in importance. Experience at the executive level will need to be deeper and broader.
“Being an executive is going to be much harder than it was 10 years ago,” Groysberg says.
Of course no one gender has a lock on any of the skills that will be in demand. But if bank boards are serious about keeping the capabilities of their management teams aligned with firms’ needs, then some argue that women have a unique opportunity in the coming years to put forth their candidacy for leadership roles.
“Generally speaking, most women possess excellent bootstrapping skills. They can be skilled at managing costs and doing more with less,” says Maria Coyne, executive vice president for consumer and small business banking at KeyCorp. And women, she adds, “often are good collaborators, a critical skill for the required retooling in the industry.”
In banking, male and female leaders alike are calling on their firms to bust up the silos that have kept customer relationships segmented by product, with checking account customers for instance viewed through one lens and mortgage customers seen through another, without the client relationship ever being addressed in its totality.
The challenge is that at many banks, the entire infrastructure-including technology systems, compensation incentives and the internal pathways to power-has been built up around these vertical patterns.
In a “vertical, hierarchical system-because people behave as they are measured-you have to demonstrate, ‘I did that,’ because that’s how you’re going to get compensated and that’s how you’re doing to get recognized,” says Deborah Hopkins, chief innovation officer at Citigroup and chairman of the firm’s venture capital initiatives.
But women, she says, “are not so driven by that type of recognition.”
Studies show that men are more inclined than women to trumpet their own accomplishments, perhaps giving them an edge in promotions. But this advantage would mean less if vertical power structures were dismantled, and collaboration skills were in higher demand.
The collaboration trend also has spilled into the regulatory sphere, where banking agencies were forced to coordinate more, initially because of the financial crisis and later, after the Dodd-Frank Act passed, as a result of Congressional mandate.
Mary Miller, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for domestic finance, says her team is working on projects “that need a great deal of collaboration, where we’re bringing regulatory agencies in from all over town,” while also seeking the cooperation of the private sector. She says that’s easier to accomplish “to the extent that you can check egos at the door a little bit and try to get to the heart of the matter.”
And that’s where executives like Citi’s Hopkins see women having the edge.
“We see more need to think in a broader way and across the organization, and out [to other] organizations, so what that often means is forming teams. And where I think women do particularly well is in that ability to collaborate … to be able to get a team working together quickly.”
Today’s leaders talk a lot about the importance of being authentic. Authenticity can be a particularly poignant ideal for women, who for so long were forced to play male versions of themselves to get ahead in their careers. To Katia Bouazza, a debt capital markets executive with HSBC, authenticity is a natural extension of the trustworthiness we look for in leaders.
“In today’s society, you want more transparency … and you want to relate to the people around you, as opposed to big leaders 10 years ago, who were on a pedestal, untouchable.”
She suspects that this desire will only increase as the industry continues to seek to repair trust not just with the public, but with its own people.
Some of the transparency trend is, like a lot of things, being driven by technology, which also is changing how (and when, and where) people communicate. And communicating, of course, is a key feature of leadership.
“I think about my children’s generation and they are very electronically and technologically connected,” says Michelle Van Dyke, a regional president with Fifth Third Bank.
“They will text before they look somebody in the eye and talk. And it’s sad, but I think we’re going to have to figure out how to lead differently. … Sitting down and having a conversation with somebody may not be as effective 10 years from now as texting them or sending them an email or a tweet or I don’t know-we can only imagine what it’s going to be. So we’ve got to be adaptable and we’ve got to be flexible,” Van Dyke says.
Technology is changing the way public opinion is galvanized and expressed. (Witness the online petition that collected more than 300,000 signatures from people unhappy with Bank of America’s plan last year to start charging a $5 monthly fee for debit cards.)
It also is changing the response times demanded of leaders, says marketing and media strategy consultant Davia Temin of Temin & Co., who works with executives from the banking sector and other industries.
“I don’t think that a CEO needs a Twitter or Facebook account. In fact it’s often inappropriate; you really don’t want your CEO tweeting at midnight,” Temin says.
“On the other hand, this is where reputations are made and broken in nanoseconds, and if you’re not intimately familiar with it, you’re going to make the wrong calls.”
Temin sees crisis mode as being, in a way, “the new normal” for leaders. And given the speed with which they will need to make decisions, she says, the age-old strategy of surrounding oneself with a close circle of trusted advisers will become all the more important.
“It’s also knowing who to listen to and not to listen to,” Temin adds, “because there’s a lot of misinformation out there-and I think that with social media, that’s only going to increase.”
The impact of technology on leadership roles would seem to be a fairly gender-neutral topic.
But if it’s true that women excel at fostering relationships-and the research indicates that they do; in a study released this year by the leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman, women outscored men in relationship building (and nearly every other category) when rated by their peers, their bosses and their direct reports-then the proliferation of technology may present a special opportunity for women.
Says Temin, “As our technology gets finer and firmer and more entrenched everywhere, the new valuables are going to be the antithesis to that-person-to-person interactions, getting closer to clients, relational kind of stuff-because that will be the rarer commodity.”
Heather Landy is editor in chief of American Banker Magazine.
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