Q&A With KeyCorp’s CEO Beth Mooney

July 8, 2011 12:00 am

What does it take for a woman to become the CEO of a top 20 U.S. bank? For Beth Mooney, the new CEO and chairman of KeyCorp, the journey has involved overcoming naysayers, getting help from mentors and sponsors and, most importantly, her own perseverance, hard work and vision for herself, her employees and their role in the communities where they do business.

She is taking over as the head of KeyCorp, No. 4 on The DiversityInc Top 10 Regional Companies for Diversity list. She has big footsteps to follow. Retiring Chairman and CEO Henry Meyer has been a strong leader at KeyCorp, and his commitment to diversity and philanthropy as critical to the bank’s business mission has been unwavering. DiversityInc Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Barbara Frankel was invited by Margot Copeland, executive vice president and director, corporate diversity and philanthropy, to speak at a reception honoring Mooney and to sit down with Mooney to talk about her new job and what’s next for KeyCorp.

FRANKEL: How is this feeling, all of this change? Is it overwhelming? Is it what you expected?

MOONEY: The opportunity to lead a company has been a career aspiration of mine. And I think “aspiration” is the right word because you never know. “Goal” says you were going to get there. “Aspiration” says it’s something that you worked and hoped to achieve. Now that I’m here, there is a bit of this sense of “Be careful what you wish for” because there was a piece of it that very much takes your breath away. A lot of responsibility goes with it.

It’s different audiences, different ramifications. I also think there is a huge honor for a board to make a selection like this. It was a process that was unlike anything I’d obviously ever been through. It has also been a humbling reaction. Perhaps the most heartwarming thing has been to watch the employee reaction. Somebody told me that I was the people’s choice.

Henry’s smile keeps getting bigger and my heart rate keeps going up. That’s the way that I look at it. Every time I’m in a meeting with him, he’s got a big smile and I’m kind of sitting there going, “OK, what are we going to do?”

FRANKEL: We have been talking with several CEOs about the feminization of leadership. Do you see that? How do you think women—not only in a CEO role, but in senior roles—change the culture of the organization and the leadership strategies?

MOONEY: One of the things Henry did was he created a culture where teaming mattered, collaboration mattered, respect mattered, integrity mattered, leadership mattered. He had already in his tenure as CEO created an organization that valued those things over the individual or the competition.

It is a culture where you don’t talk about what I did. Even if you’re talking about what I did, you say we did it. It was part of what drew me here and part of why I think I have been comfortable, thrived and then really fit the characteristics of someone who could be the next CEO after Henry.

You have chemistry within a management team. The culture of our organization was collaborative and team based, and that’s what we value. As a matter of fact, this year when we did our chairmen’s awards, they were all teams.

You don’t fit here if you can’t thrive in that kind of a culture. Is that, back to your question, a feminine leadership style or is that just people who are less competitive and more collaborative? I do think as a general rule, if I was going to go for the stereotype embedded in that, that women tend to be more collaborative and men can be more black-and-white competitive. This culture had many of the attributes of what you would call feminization, which could then lead to “Why did I fit in so well? Why did my career thrive here?” and then “Why was I a right choice and comfortable choice?” There has been research over the years that says that the higher up you go in a company, it gets less about competence and it gets more about culture and chemistry.

I think that much about our organization didn’t have that alpha culture, competitive culture, and I think our CEO had started that. [It’s] part of the reason why diversity and inclusion and all the various things that I think we are known for come out of this. But I also would agree with you that women do have a slightly different style and different parameters.

Women have a different range. There are things that every successful woman thinks about. I can’t do a certain thing a certain way because it wouldn’t be perceived well; it wouldn’t necessarily have the intended result. You learn within some constraints how to exercise leadership and authority in a way that resonates with people but is also true to who you are and doesn’t have unintended consequences.

FRANKEL: Why is diversity particularly important to you personally, and how has it changed your personal trajectory?

MOONEY: I won’t gauge everybody’s age in this room, but let’s just say most of us started our careers at a point in time where certainly by the numbers there were less women, less people of color, less diversity in American business, and at a time and a place where the expectation was that the workplace wasn’t going to be diverse. There is a story in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. They interviewed my first boss and he said that I got my first position (in 1979) by begging for a job. [It says] I wouldn’t leave his office. I sat there for three hours until he hired me.

He also admitted this all these years later—he’s obviously retired—that they only hired women into the training program under very special and unusual circumstances because that was where they were going to groom their executives. He cited how one of the women in the training program was the niece of the U.S. senator. I think there is still among us a time and a place where the world wasn’t fundamentally fair. It just was presumptively the way things were. And to be a young person who was full of energy and abilities and thoughts and desires and ambition, it kind of always felt like, “What do you mean you don’t think I can do that?”

We have experienced it, all of us, in some version. I also think the happy note is as our careers have progressed, we have seen American business evolve to become increasingly more diverse and inclusive. It’s not a perfect landscape, but it is certainly a different landscape. You weren’t supposed to make it. You were never going to get into corporate banking. You would never be able to be president of the bank. Those were all presumptions. They weren’t personal. That was just presumptive. Why is diversity important? If you’ve ever felt the difference of not being included but being excluded.

I am by nature an inclusive thinker. I look at diversity as much as anything around thought, approach, experience, and I’m never one of these people who is going to sit at the head of the table and make it clear I got the answer. I mean, there are times I have the answer and I’m quick to let everybody know. I call it exercising the 51 percent vote. But, as a rule, I enjoy the process of getting people to give you their best thoughts, their thinking, their pushback, their pros, their cons, how they think about it. I think a leader’s job is to synthesize all that and then kind of say, “I’ve heard you all and here’s what we’re going to do,” yet being acknowledging of the fact that people gave you their time, their best thoughts and their energy. To me, that’s a form of diversity and inclusion.

FRANKEL: How do you ensure the next generation has even more opportunity?

MOONEY: In my career, people used to coach me, particular early on — I was awfully ambitious. I would tell people what I hoped or wanted or thought. That was not something women did. Fortunately, I didn’t listen. I do think Key Executives Women’s Network is one where they identify diamonds in the rough. If nothing else, you can help them understand themselves, their career, their brand. That’s something we’ve introduced recently that I think is incredibly effective — think of yourself as a brand. What is it known for, how does it become reliable, conscious, trusted? What are its attributes? How do you promote a brand? I love doing that particular group because as you can only imagine, I get to riff a little and tell girl stories, the things that have happened to you over your career—and everybody has got them.

FRANKEL: Any specific example of something somebody taught you or showed you that really stuck with you?

MOONEY: The Republic Bank in Texas, the one where I wouldn’t leave the guy’s office until he hired me. I was trying to change jobs within the bank, which wasn’t really allowed. You were kind of like a serf; you went with the land. I landed in the head of the HR department’s office, and he called me in. He had clearly been told I was breaking china and was trying to change departments. I remember he told me: “You’re pretty upfront about the fact that you want more. People will be nodding and cheering for you as long as you succeed. If you ever stumble, folks will jump sides fast. You will be stunned at how many people will then be pulling against you because you have been so visible about what you are trying to do.” It was like fatherly advice. He said: “Are you comfortable being that out there about what you want? The risk you’re taking is the risk of your own ability. It has to match your ambition.” And I looked at him and I said, “I will always take the risk.”

Mentors are there to give you good and honest advice. That is probably the biggest gift you can get from a good mentor. Is it somebody who will help you look in the mirror and see yourself in ways that other people see you?

FRANKEL: I wanted to talk to you about community banking because it’s clearly been important to both your career and to KeyCorp in general. Why do you think that having both a diverse workforce, in terms of demographics, and an inclusive workforce, in terms of the culture that’s been created under your predecessor, has helped KeyCorp take a leadership role as a community bank?

MOONEY: Banking is truly about connecting with people’s needs—understanding what they want and finding a way to give them products, services and advice that help them accomplish goals. When you think about what the client wants, it’s not homogenous. It may be a similar set of products, but how you talk to them about it, or how you connect with them, needs to be different and embedded in who they are and the ability to hear and see and learn and respect them for who they are.

Each client for who they are—that’s one of our key themes. That’s diversity in its own right. From how you design your products to how you sell to a client to how you work with a community and take your philanthropic resources, volunteerism and time—to me, that is the core of diversity. You can’t have a robust business model that doesn’t respect that spectrum and teach people how to think about dealing with clients from a place of respect, earning their trust, giving them advice, meeting their needs, and at the end of the day have them being delighted with having done business at Key.

Part of Henry’s legacy is about community. He had a keen interest in trying to ascertain my interst and willingness for civic leadership. How do you connect to a new community when you move here as a single female? I told him, “Don’t worry about it; I’ve seen this movie before. It is the ultimate good for Key, good for me. I come to this community, and the richness of my life, personally, will be how I extend myself professionally and civically. There is nothing more satisfying than engaging in community, becoming part of its civic fabric, working in ways to make it a better place to live. That’s how you find friends and things you do because you’re intersecting with people who have similar interests and enjoy things like you do. And it’s part of how you make it a home.

FRANKEL: We’ve talked a lot today about Henry’s legacy. You’re just getting started. What would you like your legacy to be?

MOONEY: I’d like to be someone whose legacy is: She took Key; it had come through the economic crisis, it was on stable footing, but she really took it to the next level, performed for its shareholders, and did well by its clients, its communities and its employeees. It was a business model founded in values, founded in hard work, founded in good business strategies, and it outperformed. That would be a heck of a legacy—at a stock price where we could all retire.