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Aiming High: Barbara J. Desoer

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Barbara J. Desoer

Since 2001, the prominent civil rights organization Legal Momentum has honored the most successful and influential people who advance women in the business community with its Aiming High Award. Barbara J. Desoer, CEO of Citibank, N.A. (CBNA), is one of the five people being honored this year. The 16th annual Legal Momentum Aiming High Award honorees will be celebrated at a luncheon on June 7 in New York City. In addition to Desoer, this year’s award recipients are:

  • Lynn R. Charytan, executive vice president and general counsel, Comcast Cable, senior vice president and senior deputy general counsel Comcast Corp.
  • J. Michael Cook, retired chair and CEO, Deloitte
  • Barbara J. Desoer, CEO, Citibank, N.A.
  • Natasha Lamb, partner, Arjuna Capital
  • Tracey T. Travis, executive vice president and CFO, The Estée Lauder Companies Inc.

After a 35-year career at Bank of America, Desoer joined CBNA as chief operating officer in 2013, and in April 2014 was named CBNA CEO and to its board of directors. Citibank, N.A. accounts for approximately 75 percent of Citigroup’s total assets, and it is the primary entity within which Citigroup engages in activities through branches and subsidiaries in 95 countries and territories including the United States.

In addition to other executive roles, Desoer is co-head of Citigroup’s global women’s initiative called Citi Women. Recognizing that women make up more than half of Citigroup’s workforce, Citi Women is a company-wide effort to improve the development, advancement, and retention of women at all levels of banking. Diversity programs are a hallmark of Citi’s cultural experience that has fostered employee advancement throughout the 95 countries and territories in which Citi provides commercial, retail, and private banking products and services. Aside from her board service at Citigroup, Desoer is a director on the board of DaVita HealthCare Partners and is on the board of visitors at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned an MBA in finance from the Haas School of Business. She also holds a BA in mathematics from Mount Holyoke College.

NACD Directorship magazine asked Desoer to identify and address how personal champions and mentors have helped advance her own career. An edited transcript of this Q&A follows.

How have mentors helped you in your career?A mentor of mine is Tom Clausen, former CEO of Bank of America and president of the World Bank, with whom I worked closely while at Bank of America. He was a critical advisor to me at several points in my career—asking me probing questions that enabled me to consider different perspectives that I might otherwise have been blind to. He did not give me any answers —he helped guide and inform my thought process, which was invaluable and allowed me to accelerate my development and growth.

Who have been your greatest champions? My greatest champion is Liam McGee. While at Bank of America together, Liam threw me into countless situations that proved to be some of the most challenging and valuable opportunities that I’ve experienced. Liam had the uncanny ability to be right there when I needed him most while also knowing when to give me rope to go at it alone. It’s an approach I try to emulate with my team today. Both Tom and Liam have passed, and I miss their guidance and friendship. But their support and the lessons I learned from them resonate today and I am a better leader as a result.

Some CEOs have held town meetings with employees, while others strive to have their management and board teams set the cultural tone. Is there any approach or method to create a culture of inclusion that you would suggest based on your considerable experience? For me, it’s spending time with members of the Citi team in whatever venue I can. I get energy from my teammates, and it is an important feedback loop that can help to determine what is working and what needs to be rethought. I recently returned from two full days of meetings in Zurich with various team members, listening to their concerns, thoughts and ideas, while reinforcing the strategic context for what they are doing. Even the best and brightest need support. One should not underestimate the value of face-to-face meetings and providing well-timed context and perspective to any given body of work or initiative.

Since 2012, NACD Directorship magazine has served as the media partner for the Aiming High awards.