Cathy Bessant has been called the most powerful woman in banking. The chief operations and technology officer for Bank of America oversees 95,000 employees and contractors in 35 countries and a budget of $15 billion.
She joined the bank in 1982, a time when the industry had few women in its upper echelon. She remembers a few double takes when the men in the board rooms discovered she wasn’t someone’s assistant.
She’s been promoted and demoted, sometimes “super publicly,” she told the crowd in Tampa earlier this month at the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida Women of Distinction event. The setbacks, she said, helped her succeed.
That helps explain why Bessant decided to climb Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, even though she thought of hiking as “climbing the stairs at the Ritz Carlton.” It took a year of training, which included walking home along the streets of Charlotte with a backpack and hiking boots.
She reached the summit — and has the photograph to prove it, she likes to quip.
Bessant, 58, is married with two children. She lived in Tampa’s Palma Ceia neighborhood in the early 2000s and more recently helped form the Council on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence at Harvard University.
She sat down with the Tampa Bay Times after talking to a small group of Girl Scouts about the importance of making good friends and taking on big challenges. Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for length and clarity.
Men still dominate the highest levels of banking. Why?
In a lot of ways, this is the law of time. Banking is a risk management business, so the best bankers are bankers with lots of experience. Your 30-year and 35-year bankers are still predominantly men. We’ve got to get the critical mass of women candidates who have enough experience to be good at those senior leadership levels.
Is that starting to happen?
I think it’s changed a lot. Of (Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan’s) direct reports, six of us are women. For the industry as a whole, I think the critical question is what about the top role, the CEO role. Of the top 25 banks in the United States, there is only one woman CEO — Beth Mooney at KeyCorp.
Moynihan has said there’s a 50-50 chance that a woman will be the next CEO of Bank of America. Would you like it to be you?
He and I are the same age, so statistically that probably doesn’t work out. Plus, I love what I do, so I don’t think of it in terms of could it be me. But I do believe that he’s right, that there’s a good chance his successor will be a woman. That’s the kind of organization he develops.
What could the banking industry do to help promote more women into the highest positions?
I think that it starts with having a critical mass of diversity at the board level. We have that (at Bank of America) and it changes the dialogue about gender diversity. Decisions about who sits in the corporate suite and who is the CEO are many times board driven.
There’s a lot of excitement and anxiety about artificial intelligence. What’s around the corner?
I see great potential. In certain fields and in certain disciplines, it can make our decision-making better. In banking, for example, our decision-making about risk is better when we can use a lot of data to produce models that can show us how things are likely to happen in the future. I happen to think the same is true in medical care. We have the power to dramatically improve health and health decisions.
What are the downsides?
It’s really important to keep an eye on understanding that what AI can do and what it should do have to be thought of separately. We shouldn’t be enamored with the shiny object.
I think that people make a mistake when they believe that AI is automatically better than humans. Those models are designed by humans. To me, the key to all AI is understanding the question to be answered, or the problem to be solved, or the opportunity to be captured.
Some of the data issues and public data breaches we’ve seen have a lot to do with collecting data before we knew why. The why determines how we protect it and what we use it for.
What’s happening in the Tampa Bay market that stands out?
I think that the strong cluster of civic and business leadership is very unique here. You don’t find Jeff Viniks in every city.
I’ve lived here before, so I’d also say the growth is very noticeable and differentiates the area from other markets.
Is there anything you like to do when you come back to Tampa?
I used to like to drive by my house until the owner tore it down, which, sadly, I found out when I drove by one time.
My uncle was stationed at MacDill, and so even though my aunt has passed away, I like the feeling of knowing that I can smell her pancakes. For me, it’s very visceral and very personal.
What’s harder, overseeing a large slice of Bank of America’s operations or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro?
What I do is hard and complicated. I’m always mindful of the fact that everything I do impacts other people. But I know I’m competent at what I do. For me, mentally and physically, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro required something I really didn’t know I had, so I found it the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
What are you going to do next to get out of your comfort zone?
People that are close to me tell me I have to figure out that next thing because they can’t stand it when I don’t have a purpose. I have found that those things happen situationally and opportunistically. If I look for it, it won’t come.
In 10 years, will you still be in banking?
No, I won’t. Obviously I am a banker at heart, but it’s not my intent at 68 to be a banker. I will have a purpose. I’m very driven to be active. But I imagine I’ll either decide to sunset this element of my career, or I’ll believe the bank is better served by people with fresh perspective.
That’s always a dangerous question because you don’t want anyone to think that you’re a lame duck.
I’ll be showing up to work tomorrow.
Contact Graham Brink at [email protected] Follow @GrahamBrink.