Weatherhead catches up with Beth Mooney, CEO of KeyBank, and the first women to serve as CEO of a Top 20 U.S. bank. We sat down with her on July 26, after she accepted the 2012 Business Achievement Award from the international business students’ honor society, Beta Gamma Sigma (BGS), at a Weatherhead event.
The event kicked off BGS’ new “Meet the Leaders of Business” Speakers Series. Distinguished guests including Betty Jo Licata, President-Elect of Beta Gamma Sigma International, and Robert S. Reitman, former CEO of the Tranzonic Companies and past winner of the Beta Gamma Sigma Achievement Award, attended the celebration in honor of Mooney and of BGS’ centennial. Read the transcript of Mooney’s remarks.
An iconic story recounts Mooney’s entry into banking management. She approached bank after bank in Dallas, Texas, but was refused entry into their management training programs. Finally, she managed to get an audience with the head of HR at what was then Republic Bank. She told Bloomberg news that she “basically refused to leave until he offered me a job." After three hours, he finally agreed.
Read below for our conversation with Beth Mooney.
W: Where do you think the persistence comes from that helped you win over the first person to give you a shot at management?
BM: For one thing, I was very focused, and I wanted the job. At that point, it was almost an act of desperation; I thought, “I got in to see this man. This is my shot.” But it’s interesting: I also often say, in hindsight, that I didn’t know any better. I was young, full of enthusiasm, and convinced that I could get him to hire me—and I did. So, some piece of it was youthful exuberance, but I also didn’t have the sense not to do it. This gentleman could have thrown me out at any time—I joke today that if someone did that to me, I’d call security. Even now, when I think about it, I can’t believe I did it.
But he has said in interviews that, in how I handled it, he saw a passion and a desire and an edge that he hadn’t seen in many people. Those were early signs of tenacity and persistence. And if you look at my career, I am tenacious and persistent in my personality, and that is part of how I got here.
W: Work-life balance or “having it all” still seems to be a challenge for women. What is your perspective as a woman executive?
BM: I heard a line recently that I liked: “Work-life balance is a misnomer.” It’s all about managing, versus balancing, the two parts, because balance suggests equality between them, and that’s probably not true for anyone at certain levels, or at certain points in their career.
W: Much was made of your appointment as the first female CEO of a top-20 U.S. bank. What was your reaction to the media attention?
BM: Banking has been one of those incredibly male dominated places, one of the last places where people saw a woman truly rising to the top. And it is important to celebrate and recognize that. But while I was ready for the job, I wasn’t ready, for lack of a better word, for the notoriety. I understood the significance, but the notoriety caught me off-guard.
To understand how far women have come in leadership and in boardrooms, you have to go back 20 or 30 years. There were far fewer women in the workplace outside of administrative positions, less was expected of them, and there was an assumption that women wouldn’t stay the course in their career because of other life events. I entered management at a time when people didn’t expect you to persist, rise to the top, and become CEO. But looking out, I see the world has changed. We’ve already experienced a change in [my] generation. I’m very hopeful about inclusion and diversity, because I see incredibly talented women everywhere at the middle management level. Just fast-forward 10 or 20 years, and statistically, more and more will rise to the top.
W: What don’t people know about being a CEO?
BM: I think that if you do it well—and perhaps this is particularly true in these times of Occupy Wall Street—you have a tremendous sense of obligation to the constituents who count on you: your employees, clients, shareholders, and communities. You are aware of the bar that has been set and the impact you can have across the spectrum. You can’t let it weigh you down so that you can’t act, but you must bear in mind your legacy of creating success across those constituencies. I think people may believe that CEOs lose their values, lose sight of why they’re there. Well, from where I sit, I feel a deep sense of obligation to my community.