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Does your bank think too pink?

Avoid this view of women customers and employees, says veteran exec Sallie Krawcheck

Does your bank think too pink?

Women make up more than half the U.S. population. They typically outlive men, putting family wealth, ultimately, in their hands. And they tend to be the family financial decision makers even when their spouses are around.

And yet frequently financial firms consider women to be a niche market, says Sallie Krawcheck, industry observer and former CEO of Merrill Lynch.

Krawcheck, keynote speaker at ABA's Women's Leadership Forum, gave the banking industry a "solid B+" in proactively serving women customers, but gave the wealth management industry "a less than solid C+." To treat women as a "niche market" simply makes no sense, in her view, yet the attitude persists, even in publishing aimed at women as financial players. Krawcheck noted that there are books with titles like Does This Make My Assets Look Fat?: A Woman's Guide to Finding Financial Empowerment and Success (Susan Hirshman, St. Martin's Press). Her audience of women banking executives clearly bridled as much as Krawcheck at such "pink" categorization. [Ed.: Please see the conclusion of this article for an exchange of comments.]

Financial companies need to move women from being seen as a niche market to their being regarded as a core element of a growth business, said Krawcheck, whose resume also includes top positions at Smith Barney, Citi, and Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Different, but not a niche

If anything, women represent a tougher market to sell to, according to Krawcheck's experience at a string of financial companies.

In her time at Smith Barney, for instance, Krawcheck says she found that men will buy an investment even if they don't really understand it, while women tend to bring more skepticism to the decision.

Claims that an investment outperforms this index or that measurement will sell a man on it, she continued, but women typically want to know about the specific return they can expect. Above all, women want financial providers to communicate with them in plain English.

Institutions that have women in decision-making roles are assisted by that viewpoint, Krawcheck said. She said that research and experience have shown that more-diverse management teams tend to outperform less-diverse teams and even more-skilled teams. The benefit lies in having people with different viewpoints in the room, people who are not "part of the group," she explained. When decision makers all read out of the same book, draw on similar experience, they may reach consensus more quickly. But what's really needed, she said, is participants in the process who will ask questions that membrs of a homogenous group may not.

"Hiring the best person for the job sounds like a good idea," says Krawcheck. But often, she added, a group tends to feel best when a newcomer looks like current members.

"Research has shown that adding more points of view--different backgrounds and experiences--leads to higher returns and lower volatility," said Krawcheck.

Different styles, different results

Krawcheck noted that at one time Smith Barney used a screening tool adapted from the Marine Corps for evaluating candidates. She questioned the applicability of that to hiring financial executives, when the work of the Marine Corps differs markedly from the money business.

When she was with the firm, as CEO for two and a half years, Krawcheck said she found that there was a difference in job performance when men and women were compared.

Men, she said, tended to generate business more quickly. By contrast, women reached the levels that men did, after a few years. However, their books of business tended to suffer less attrition overall.

Financial women and social media

Kracheck, who currently serves on several boards, actively uses social media and has a wide following. She currently has nearly 173,000 followers on Linkedin and almost 14,300 followers on Twitter. She also maintains a website at www.rebelmouse.com/SallieKrawcheck.

Krawcheck noted that women tend to be more active social media users than men, and shared some advice with bankers who would get more involved in social media.

Engagement is what social media users should be looking for, said Krawcheck. "Today, on Twitter, most are still caught in the ‘Look at me, look at what I am doing' " pattern. This misses the potential of social media, she said.

"Don't sell to me—engage with me," Krawcheck insisted.

Banks that make this shift can benefit from feedback from customers and potential customers. Social media gets past the size and budget that a small institution doesn't have that a big player enjoys. "You can get feedback that only the big boys used to be able to get," said Krawcheck, gaining insights on what clients really want from providers. She sees social media as a leveler, eclipsing the advantages that used to accrue to those with size on their side.

Women in the workplace

A Colorado banker asked Krawcheck what part being a woman played in her career. She acknowledged that at some points, she had to work harder to be heard among male colleagues.

Unfortunately, attitudes towards men and women in such scrimmages differ. Krawcheck found that men can get angry in interactions and thereby be heard out, but that women who do the same get tagged for behaving emotionally. Self-control proves important for a woman to be heard, she advised.

Krawcheck also suggested that women had to move beyond a "Cinderella" attitude, that if they keep their head down and work hard, their effort and results will bring them notice. She said she found that women excel in situations where results can be measured. "Tell us what to do, and we will achieve it," she said.

But she also indicated that when women rise to higher positions, they tend to not share advice with other women attempting to climb the ladder to that level.

Advice on networking

While networking can be critical to advancing one's career, where a woman networks can require some balancing, Krawcheck warned her listeners.

In her own career, she said, she would have worked harder at contacts outside of her company, if she had it to do over again. When she left Merrill Lynch, she said, her internal network contacts dried up. An embarrassment factor comes in once someone leaves a firm. On the other hand, external contacts continue to work because they arose outside of the immediate job context.

Krawcheck said she's found that many full-time mothers would like to be working as well, but worry about the dual pull of motherhood and professional workload. They would like to have more flexibility.

The financial services industry has a ways to go here, Krawcheck indicated. One company told her that they were willing to give working mothers flexibility, believing that they'd rather have 60% of a happy person's time than 100% of a frazzled person's potential hours.

That was the official line. She added that a human resources staffer at the firm indicated that, in truth, "we'd rather have 100% of a frazzled person's time."

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of ababj.com, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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