How Connecting With People Helps Build a Better Banker

Pressure can be good or bad. Too much in the wrong circumstances can prompt people to make mistakes, get sick or behave badly. Apply pressure in the right circumstances, however, and nature can produce a diamond.

When Beth Mooney, chairman and CEO of KeyCorp, was just starting out, she found herself in a career-defining, high-pressure situation. She’d graduated summa cum laude with a BA in history from the University of Texas and had targeted banking as a likely place to begin her career. But every time she went into a bank, she was asked if she knew how to type. Her first job in the profession was as a secretary. After a move from Houston to Dallas, she vowed never to go that route again; she was a terrible typist.

She said she knew her male counterparts were getting interviews for banking training programs, so she went to all the big banks in Dallas and declared that she wanted to be in their training program. This was not how things were done. At that time, women were not really a part of the industry outside of administrative support roles, but at the Republic Bank of Dallas, now First Republic, she finagled her way into the head of HR’s office at lunch time.

She said the man obviously wanted to get rid of her, and passed her off to the head of the training program so he could explain why she wasn’t suitable.

“I always say if anybody did to me what I did to this gentleman I think I’d call security, but I decided when I got in his office I wasn’t going to leave until he hired me,” Mooney said. “When I got in his office I just wore him down. I was in there for three hours. I told him I could do a great job, I was prepared to go to school at night to get an MBA, it went on and on and on, and finally in frustration, he just looked at me and said, ‘I’ve never seen anyone want something this badly. I will not sleep nights if I’m the person who tells you no.’”

Men in the same position Mooney was after made $18,000. The head of training said he would pay her $12,000, but the bank would also pay for her to get her MBA. However, if she missed one course, dropped out one semester or did anything wrong, she was history. Mooney said he finished with, “Go out there and prove me wrong. Would you please leave?”

She got the MBA from Southern Methodist University, graduated with honors, and became the first woman the bank ever hired as a corporate banker. Mooney moved through numerous positions, changed locations, took on problem areas in banks and then fixed things. In her mid-30s, she realized she wanted to be a CEO.

“I was with a group of friends when I was at Bank One (now JPMorgan Chase) in Columbus, Ohio,” Mooney said. “We were all talking about the CEO, and a number of the women were talking about how much they admired our CEO’s wife. She was a lovely woman, she was very involved, and they all kind of expressed this, why aren’t we Jane McCoy? I was very quiet. Someone said why are you being so quiet, and I said because I don’t want to be Jane McCoy. I want to be John McCoy. It was the first time it hit me. I had always wanted to go as far as my abilities would take me, and I was shooting for the top. I just didn’t know I would make it.”

It took a lot of hard work, but she did make it. Mooney said she made some good choices and went through some opportunities where she got her knees skinned and was beaten up a bit, but she learned the lessons and kept moving forward.

During the past decade Mooney has taken on some large general management roles. She managed integration of a bank when her previous employer, AmSouth Bancorp in Birmingham, Ala., merged with Regions Bank, and she became chief financial officer for Regions Financial Corp. in 2004. She joined KeyCorp, the 14th largest bank in the U.S., in May 2006 as vice chairman of the community bank and was appointed chairman and CEO in May 2011. Mooney is the first female CEO of a U.S. top 20 bank.

Bank on Banking

Mooney said the greatest challenge for any CEO is to build an organization that lives up to its full potential and creates value for its shareholders, clients, employees and community. She happens to be CEO of a bank, and she’s inherited the role at a unique point in history, one she said will dictate how banks recover their credibility after being tarred with the same unfavorable brush.

“We have just come through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and it will be the most challenging economic period of time probably in our lives,” she said. “There has been a huge difference between Main Street and Wall Street, but I’m not sure in the public’s mind they’re that different. I view regional banks like Key as instrumental to the economic health of our nation and how we promote our businesses, support our communities and really support clients from the average person who uses our branches to very sophisticated Fortune 500 companies.”

Mooney said the economy likely will never fully recover without a strong and stable banking system that is committed to lending and doing the right thing to allow clients to reach their goals and objectives. She said she has a chance to help build what banking will look like in the future, while restoring the trust of clients and communities and being successful and profitable for shareholders and employees.

“We’re strong, we’re stable, we have momentum, we’re well-positioned, we’re just going to be relentless about how we execute, clear about who our clients are, differentiated in our strategy and start talking with each successive order about how we’re winning in the marketplace and winning with clients, all the while making Key a great place to work,” she said.

Female CEOs aren’t thick on the ground, and in most leadership discussions, regardless of gender, leadership style is a topic of interest. Mooney describes hers as charismatic, with an interesting mix of right- and left-brain traits, someone who’s firmly grounded in the business who can by dint of rich experience understand many facets of the organization.

“You can talk about the business, and I’ll understand the problem, the opportunity, the challenge and have a point of view for how we could meet the challenge or grasp the opportunity, but we’re a people business,” she said. “That is where the right brain starts coming in. We are as good as our people and their motivation to do well by their clients.”

Good leaders inspire employees’ hearts and minds and make them feel part of something bigger, where they have a place to grow that also cares about the community. “When I talk to our employees about what we’re trying to accomplish and how they fit into our success, I think people want to go the extra mile,” she said. “I’m known to be tough but fair, and someone people will say, ‘She works as hard as anyone, she cares as much as anyone,’ and collectively an organization will rally behind people like that.”

Margot James Copeland, chief diversity officer of KeyCorp and chairman and CEO of KeyBank Foundation, agrees. Copeland, who is African-American, said she invited Mooney to worship at her church and was stunned when many KeyBank employees she didn’t even know were in the congregation ran up to give her hugs and welcome her.

Copeland said Mooney’s contribution to the company’s diversity strategy — a combination of workforce, workplace and marketplace concerns — has been her focus on integrating it with Key’s employee engagement strategy. The authenticity of her leadership, as evidenced by the hundreds of emails Mooney received after she was appointed CEO, and the responses of those employees/church members, facilitates that integration.

“She promises employees at this company that they will be valued, that this will be a good place to work, that they will be rewarded for their contributions and that they can bring their full selves to the workplace,” Copeland said. “That allows employees to release their discretionary energies for the betterment and advancement of the company. We measure that, and she is advancing the accountability factor — holding leaders responsible for developing climates of inclusion and making sure the workforce is representative of the places where Key lives and works — which is the most critical thing to do when you’re trying to drive inclusion.”

Some of those congratulatory emails expressed pride that the company had embraced a female CEO, and Copeland agreed that Mooney is a strong female leader, but she said the gender piece is merely an accident of birth.

“She’s a strong leader and that’s even more important,” she said. “In her DNA Beth is just very focused and effective. People are very inspired by her leadership. We call her our rock star. And not only are we focused on developing and evolving into the best bank that we can be, you should see Beth in the community. She is awesome. I love that she has relationships across socio-economic classes. It’s amazing to watch her. In any given setting she is not only comfortable, she is so authentic.”

Like many banks during the recession, Key is recovering. Chris Whalen, senior managing director at Tangent Capital Partners, a registered broker dealer with the Securities and Exchange Commission and a member of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, said the bank went through a tough time, but is rated A by Institutional Risk Analytics, the Los Angeles-based bank ratings, risk management and consulting service of which he is part owner.

“As far as having a woman as CEO, I think that’s wonderful — we could use more of that in the industry — but ultimately that position demands performance, whether it’s a man or a woman doesn’t really matter, particularly to investors. They’re going to be indifferent to the gender of the CEO; all they want to see is performance.

“You have to pick this person based on their competence,” he said. “You can’t just pick someone because they’re a woman or a minority even though that might be a socially desirable outcome. The person running the bank has to know what they’re doing. They have to command respect and be able to manage the enterprise, because running a bank is not just another company; you have a lot of legal and other duties that go along with the job that are quite onerous compared to the typical public company.”

More Than Money

Mooney said an effective and ubiquitous diversity strategy is integral to running a successful bank — or any business built on relationships — and building relationships with clients is one of Key’s strategic priorities. That means the bank’s workforce has to be representative and appreciate of diversity in all its forms. Otherwise it cannot understand clients’ needs or tease out the best ways to help them meet their goals.

“It’s not just the product or service,” Mooney said. “It’s meeting clients where they are, understanding their points of view and what they’re trying to accomplish. One of our strategic priorities is to engage a talented and diverse workforce because we think it makes us better, and we look to our leadership and our diverse and minority employees to help us understand how Key can do that better.”

Mooney often refers to diversity’s importance at Key by the numbers. For example, is there sufficient diversity at different levels of the company across all job grades, all different levels and positions? When external hires are made, are they chosen from a diverse candidate slate? And these things are measured internally and externally. “The office of the comptroller and currency, they come in and do community reinvestment exams, which look at how much are you helping underserved populations get access to banking, to lending and doing constructive things to support neighborhoods. We have earned the highest rating you can possibly get on our CRA exam seven times in a row, and we are the only large national bank that has gotten that honor,” Mooney said.

“For companies like ours to survive and stay vibrant in this economy and position themselves for the future, we have got to extract the best talent we can, and to do that we have got to cast a wide net and fish in many ponds to make sure we’re getting the best in any given recruiting situation,” Copeland said. “I am proud of her leadership. The fact that she’s a woman is an extra plus, but trust me, she is a leader not because she is a woman, but because she is excellent.”