Leading by example eliminates ambiguity

One lesson I learned early in my career: there’s no ambiguity when you lead by example. If there’s a difficult assignment, volunteer for it. If there’s a deal to be done and it requires working over the weekend, roll up your sleeves and work with your team to make it happen. If you’re committed to developing a diverse workforce, hire, coach and build a pipeline of people with diverse backgrounds, experience and perspectives.

During the course of my nearly 25 year career in banking, with close to 20 of those years at U.S. Bank, I’ve held a range of increasingly senior positions across multiple businesses, including leveraged finance and corporate banking for the energy, media and communications, and technology sectors. When I look back, it’s clear how my own aspirations and opportunities have been shaped by watching those who have come before me. Those role models — smart, hard-working and successful — have played an important part (sometimes unspoken) in encouraging me to lead and accept new challenges.

Ongoing career development has always been important to me. In a world defined by accelerating economic change, it’s more important than ever to stay a step ahead. For me, this began when I was chosen to participate in a training program that consisted of five six-month rotations in different locations around the world. I was not only exposed to different business lines, but every stop involved immersion in a new culture, a new manager and new colleagues. This opportunity helped me develop not only a broader perspective on the financing needs of diverse clients, but also a deep appreciation for some of the more underappreciated aspects of leadership, such as building consensus and the value of protocol.

My time overseas helped me further appreciate that every culture has its own way of getting things done. In Japan, there is an indirectness to communications that can be challenging to an American. One interesting example: after arriving in the country and settling in, I asked my colleagues whether I could scale nearby Mt. Fuji. My queries were mostly deflected. Over time, I came to learn that my co-workers were too polite to tell me that they didn’t think I could do it (I guess they didn’t see me when I was helicoptering back and forth to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in a driving rain storm).

The key takeaway for me: there’s more than one way to get an idea across. Back in the U.S., we come from many places, cultures and backgrounds, and bring a wealth of different skills and experiences to our jobs. As such, it’s important to encourage contributions from all perspectives and to create a framework that allows for cooperation across departments, seniority lines and businesses to get things done.

From the start of my career, I’ve been fortunate to have women around me who served as a very visible reminder of what was possible. In college, it was the president of the university. Here at the bank, there are women leaders right up to the vice chairman level, including Leslie Godridge, co-head of Wholesale Banking, of which I am a part. In our day-to-day work with technology companies, we’re starting to see more women in leadership roles as well. Seeing them there, leading by example, is a powerful motivator to all of us, especially the next generation.

When I took on the role as head of the Technology Banking Division for U.S. Bank, I was again charged with building a diverse team and fostering a culture that would allow that team to excel. Our group competes in a dynamic marketplace, providing lending and other financial services to a broad array of technology companies. Moving fast is paramount, and teamwork is critical.

A paradox of successful team building is that it inevitably begins with the individual — identifying strengths and creating roles that give team members the opportunity to have their unique abilities recognized, and to realize their potential. You also need to know when to ask more from the team, and then give them the encouragement to leverage those abilities and make that extra reach at critical times.

A recent example of this is when my team received a call from a major client late on a Friday afternoon — a request for a substantial loan. The entire team worked together through the night and we were ultimately able to approve the loan by Saturday afternoon. This extra effort led to an expanded relationship with an important client.

A key takeaway from this: the need to be ready to act when a client makes an “out of the box” request and to find a way to say yes. To make that happen, you need to have the structure in place ahead of time. As a leader, it’s my role to help the team by communicating with internal stakeholders about the needs of current and prospective clients, often and well in advance, so that they can be prepared to make an informed decision quickly. And, when the clock strikes midnight on a Friday night and the client needs a response by Saturday, you as a leader can’t phone it in — you have to be there.

Gail Scannell is National Technology Banking Division Manager and Senior Vice President at U.S. Bank in St. Louis.