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The road to leadership is different for everyone. For Bank of America CAO Andrea Smith, it meant embracing the unexpected, seeing examples of how not to lead, and knowing when to push for change.

Category: celebrating women, gender and equality, international women

Bank of America’s Andrea Smith on dealing with disruption from day one

Within reach: Conversations with leaders on the front lines of the financial services industry

 

The road to leadership is different for everyone. For Bank of America CAO Andrea Smith, it meant embracing the unexpected, seeing examples of how not to lead, and knowing when to push for change.

Bank of America’s Andrea Smith on dealing with disruption from day one

 

Andrea Smith: We all need to be able to commit to ensuring that we’re going to continue to create jobs, that we’re going to continue to look for the best talent, but that we’re going to create environments where people can come here and be successful, with knowing all the challenges that we’re dealing with right now.

Tanya Ott: From day one, Andrea Smith has had disruptions and unexpected turns in her career. She pushed through and today is “one of the most powerful women in banking.”1

Tanya: I’m Tanya Ott and for several months on the podcast we’ve been talking to women about the challenges they face in the financial services industry. Today [we have] Andrea Smith, the chief administrative officer at Bank of America. She manages many different lines of business, including real estate, vendor management, communications, marketing, branding, data analytics, media, crisis management, business continuity … and, these days, COVID-19 response. Looking at her portfolio today, you’d never know she had such a rocky launch into the field.

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Andrea Smith: I started right out of college when I was 21. The first job I had was not what I was expecting and I thought I would just do it for a year or two, and get some experience under my belt. And here I am 33 years later. It’s shocking and at the same time very gratifying.

Tanya: Tell me about that. That first job. Why were you not expecting it?

Andrea: The reason I wasn’t expecting it is because it wasn’t the job I accepted. So, I worked at a small bank all through college and got an offer from this small bank. When I say small, I’m talking less than 25 total employees, so I had the opportunity to do every single job there. But the job I took was at the big bank at the time called First Republic, and I had accepted a job as a project analyst. I showed up in one of those blue suits with a high collar, with the woman’s tie around the neck, and my boss came out and I said, “Hi, I’m Andrea Bradley reporting for my new job.” She said, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. Your job has been eliminated.”

Tanya: Oh, no.

Andrea: I said, “Excuse me? I’m on time, what’s happening?” She said, “Well, actually, we were eliminating that entire department. But we have a new job for you. We’d like you to be a programmer.” I said, “What, a computer programmer?” Because I’ve only had one computer class in college, and it was the basics. This is in the old days, with the big floppy disks.

Tanya: Yeah, yeah ...

Andrea: She said, “No, no, you can do it. All you have to do is just, here’s a book, read this book, and you can start creating reports.”

Tanya: Oh my goodness.

Andrea: So I went home that night and I thought to myself, well I guess I could quit—I won’t even put this on my resume. Or I can, do it. I mean, how bad can it be? So I went in the next day and said, “OK, I’m here.” I started reading the book and I started coding FOCUS, COBOL, C, Fortran, if-then-else-this, the green blinking things on the screen. I did that for over a year. The bank failed six weeks after I took this job. If they were treating all shocks like this, putting people in roles without a lot of experience, you can see why that would happen. But I stuck with it and I learned a lot. I learned how to be a programmer. I built a lot of relationships. It’s not a job that I loved at all. I didn’t like it. So when we got acquired, I was asked by the new group that came in if I wanted to move into a different role and I jumped at the chance.

Tanya: So let me just ask, how much of that willingness to just dig in there and try to figure out how to make that first job work is rooted in the personal story of you and your mother and your situation growing up as a kid?

Andrea: I think a fair bit of it. My parents split up when I was in grade school, got divorced when I was in sixth grade, and my mom had dropped out of college to have me when she was 20. She had my brothers and ended up putting herself back through college and then getting her master’s in social work and working while being a single mom. I saw what she did. I saw the sacrifices she made, and I saw how she was able to prioritize and make all that happen and the risks that she took on a regular basis. So to me, trying to be a programmer was nothing in comparison to raising a family as a single woman, putting herself through school, and ultimately getting her master’s. I had a very strong grandmother also, who was a huge influence on my life and always around. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’re blessed. You might get fired, but what will you learn from that? You need to pick yourself up and move on. That’s how I’ve always approached failure, which I’ve had many in my career. Those are some of the best learning opportunities that you have. Many people would say that I’m courageous because I try a lot of different things without necessarily being an expert in them. I’m willing to take those risks. But I think that was all part of how I was raised.

Tanya: You talk about trying a lot of different things, a lot of different, varied assignments. How did that lead to Bank of America creating a C-suite position for you? Because this was sort of a bespoke kind of position, right?

Andrea: I always tell people you really need to take charge of your career and be very clear about what you want to do. One of the things I’ve observed through the 33 years I’ve been here and just broadly, is that when you do a good job your manager and their manager assumes that you want to stay in that particular line of business and just continue to do a good job. You’ve got to make sure you’re advocating for yourself and you’re having others advocate for you. So when I took the job as the head of HR in 2010, when Brian [Moynihan] took over as CEO and asked me to do that, I said to him at the time, “I’m flattered. This is fantastic. But I only want to do this job for five to seven years.” I’ll never forget, he said, “But you haven’t accepted the job yet.” I said, “I know, I will accept if we agree on that condition. You don’t have to promise me a job at the end of that. I just know what I’ve seen over time is many people stay in the job too long.” You lose something from an impact perspective and an objectivity perspective.

He agreed. As Brian and I continued to talk about opportunities for me, he had lots of different ones. I said no to several of them because it wasn’t something that I thought I would be very good at or something that I was even very interested in. Then he came up with the CAO role, where he pulled functions from other lines of business that he thought weren’t running as effectively as they could. I remember when we talked about it, the main thing at the time in this function was the stress test, which we had failed for the last three out of five years when I took over in 2015. I said, “This seems to be more of a financial exercise, the capital plan. This is not something I would say that I’m really good at.” He said, “No, but you’re really good at driving large-scale change. You’re really good about building processes and you really have strong relationships and can get businesses to be accountable for things that they need own.” And so I [took the job]. And the last five years, we’ve passed the stress test and our capital plan is in great shape. So the message here that I would give to people is not only advocate for yourself, but be willing to take some risks. Know what your skill sets are that you’re bringing to the table, and then you figure out how to complement your gaps with leaders who have those skills.

Tanya: What’s really interesting about your trajectory, and particularly the time that you spent leading HR, is that there seems to be certain kinds of positions that women tend to fill more often in this industry, HR being one of them, marketing, communications, those kinds of positions that maybe don’t necessarily lead to the C-suite because they’re not responsible for P&L and other things like that.

Andrea: I think that has been true, but you’re seeing that change. Financial services have been laggards in that change. But you’re seeing a lot more women take over lines of business. Certainly, see Jane Fraser take over [at Citi], announced last year. But you’ve seen other industries, with IBM and the defense industry. So, that has been true, but we are seeing that pendulum swing.

Tanya: At the beginning of our conversation, you talked about that first day on the job and you had the, what did you call it, the women’s tie, you know, the late-‘80s, early-‘90s executive look for women going in on that first day.

Andrea: Oh my gosh, 1988. It was some navy blue dress suit or skirt and a white blouse with a high collar and blue jacket and the little thing that went around, the tie.

Tanya: I don’t know about you, but for me—we’re about the same age—at that point in time, I was wearing a lot of shoulder pads as soon as I got officially out of college, it was shoulder pads all the time.

Andrea: Yes! The shoulder pads, I forgot about those! I had those too. And pantyhose.

Tanya: And the big statement belt.

Andrea: Yes.

Tanya: The thing that’s interesting about that is at that point in time, that was what we had as this sort of executive presence, visually. That’s what we were looking at as women. I’d love to dive into that idea of executive presence versus authentic self, and how you balance those things in a workplace.

Andrea: We had dress-for-success classes that we went to, to actually promote the attire that we just talked about, back in the ‘80s. We also had classes on where to put the silverware and how to use the silverware, put the napkin in your lap, etc., not to salt your food before you tasted it, because that could be perceived as judgmental. All of that is coming, flashing back to me. But from where I started in 1988, there were no women reporting to the CEO anywhere and there were no women on the board when I started. The first woman that I worked for, the woman who came out and said my job had been eliminated, was not a good leader at all. In fact, she made statements like, “You can’t leave until I leave.” I didn’t really know what that meant, but I kept going to look in her office and her glasses and her jacket were still there. I was staying until 10 or 11 o’clock at night and the woman never seemed to leave, but she wasn’t in there. So my colleagues finally came to me at the end of the week and said, “Andrea, she leaves at like 4 or 5. She just leaves her stuff here so that people will continue to stay and work.”

Tanya: Oh, my gosh.

Andrea: I thought, well, that is ... What is that? Then! This is the most ironic thing. My parents have come to town, my mom and my stepdad, to take me to dinner. We were out eating and this woman approached our table and just [said] hello, Andrea, how great I was, et cetera, and left. My mom said, “Wow, she’s incredible,” and I’m like, “Are you kidding me? That’s the first time this woman has ever talked to me.” It was so disingenuous. That was coming right out of the chute. It’s one of the first memories I have around, “I’m just not going to be like that. I’m going to be the same person at work, not at work—the same authentic person that I am.” Some people may not like that. Some other people may like that. But that has served me really well in my career and certainly as head of HR because you’re faced with arbitrating very tough decisions. The thing that I always wanted people to say about me is that she was fair and that I listened and that people knew that I was genuine.

Tanya: You talk about all these hard conversations that you’ve had to have. How do you think organizations can best embed inclusion and diversity into their business efforts rather than thinking about them as sort of an add-on or a nice-to-have element?

Andrea: It’s got to be part of each leader’s platform. Of course, the culture starts at the top, but it’s more than just measuring progress from a representation perspective. It’s about the environment that leaders create, allowing people to bring their whole self to work and the way you do that is by having candid conversations, being approachable, being authentic, wanting to understand people’s stories, and trying to understand what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes, even though you may not be that ethnicity or that sex or et cetera. The most successful people that I’ve seen and companies that I’ve seen around diversity and inclusion are those that make it personal. Not just a number, not just a metric, but, “What are you personally doing to advance diversity and inclusion in your organization? How are you spending your time? Who are you mentoring? Who are you sponsoring? Are you out on college campuses? Are you building programs within your team to help promote and develop people that look different than you?” That’s what it’s about versus just a statement and a few numbers.

Tanya: What do you hope the conversation about gender equity in financial services is going to look like, say, in 10 or 20 or 30 years from now?

Andrea: I hope it’s going to be all about the progress we’ve made and how far we’ve come. We say that a lot, that now that we’re actually seeing people shatter these glass ceilings, I hope that that’s going to continue. And we just talk about, wow, look where we are now from 10 years ago, we had one female CEO of a big financial services institution. Now we have a lot more. We have all these women leading these lines of business. I’m hopeful that that’s the case. I will say, though, the pandemic has really impacted our low—to moderate-income communities, our people of color and our women more disproportionately than others, because many of the women that had been making great strides are being forced to pick between trying to figure out how to work from home and how to take care of their families. That’s something that I’m really proud of, that Bank of America came out of the chute early on around all the benefits that we offered our teammates, including paying for child care, $100 dollars a day starting in March so that people could really figure out how to help get their children taken care of, get them logged into Zoom or whatever they need to do and still be able to contribute to our company.

Tanya: That is such a challenge, though, the issue of child care or balancing family at home, particularly for women. There is a lot of conversation about there being a generation of women that are really going to be starting of behind the eight ball in their careers right now.

Andrea: Yeah, and that is something that we all have to commit to ensure doesn’t happen. One of the things that Bank of America is trying to do is be a catalyst. We’ve seen people follow our lead on this supplement for child care. We’ve seen people follow our lead on getting more flexible. We’ve seen people follow our lead—we were the first company to go to $20 an hour for pay. So it’s about bringing people along with us. It’s really not a competition. It’s got to be a coalition. We all need to be able to commit to ensuring that we’re going to continue to create jobs, that we’re going to continue to look for the best talent, but that we’re going to create environments where people can come here and be successful with knowing all the challenges that we’re dealing with right now.

Tanya: Andrea, thank you so much for the conversation. It’s been really delightful talking to you and hearing about your story.

Andrea: Thank you so much for having me.

Tanya: Andrea Smith is the chief administrative officer for Bank of America. I mentioned at the top of the show that this is part of a series of conversations; we’re having leaders in the financial services industry. The path to leadership is different for each one of the women we’ve talked to … and you can find all of their stories, plus research on gender equity in the financial services industry at deloitte.com/insights.

 

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