Parting words from Beth Mooney: ‘Rebuild trust through your actions’
It wasn’t supposed to end this way for former KeyCorp Chairman and CEO Beth Mooney.
Mooney retired April 30 after nine successful years at the helm of the $156 billion-asset company, and she had intended to spend much of her time these last few weeks meeting with employees, customers and civic leaders to thank them for making her experience as CEO so rewarding. Then, on Friday May 1, she was supposed to board a plane for a France, where she planned to spend a couple of weeks touring wineries and enjoying French culture.
But, like the rest of us, Mooney, 65, has largely been quarantined at home for much of the last two months. Instead of thanking colleagues in person, she sent handwritten notes. Meetings with senior leaders were not held in her suite at the KeyBank Tower in downtown Cleveland but over Zoom and WebEx. And that trip to France? Postponed until May 2021.
“My friend that I was going to travel with, we are laughing that we will have a Zoom or FaceTime raising of the glass in lieu of being on the plane,” Mooney joked.
Mooney may not have been able to retire on her terms, but her accomplishments across her trailblazing career banking are certainly cause for celebration.
Mooney began her career in the late 1970s as a commercial lender at the old Republic Bank of Texas, at a time when there were few women in the ranks of commercial lenders, and over the next 30-plus years held increasingly high-ranking management roles at the likes of Bank One, AmSouth, Citigroup and Cleveland-based Key, which she joined in 2006 as its head of community banking. Five years later, she replaced the late Henry Meyer as Key's chairman and CEO, becoming the first woman to lead a top-20 U.S.-based bank.
Her tenure at Key was an eventful one. On her watch, the company more than doubled its assets, thanks largely to its 2016 acquisition of First Niagara Financial Group in Buffalo, N.Y. She also won high marks for reining in expenses following the financial crisis and beefing up Key’s commercial banking capabilities, and gained a reputation as one of the industry’s most ethical and civic-minded leaders. Mooney was honored as American Banker’s Most Powerful Woman in Banking for three years straight in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and was named its Banker of the Year in 2017.
Mooney spoke with American Banker two days before she retired. In a 45-minute interview, she reflected on her four-decade career in banking, shared her thoughts on leadership and described what it is like to retire in the middle of a pandemic. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
American Banker: You are winding down your career at a very awkward time. What have these last six or seven weeks been like for you?
BETH MOONEY: I didn’t plan to retire into a pandemic. It’s changed everything in how you say your goodbyes, and how you put closure on your career. You [don’t] have a last chance to meet with employees and tell them how much they mean to you. An event that was scheduled [in April] … with community leaders [was canceled]. What I’ve been trying to do is send a series of notes to our leadership team, people who would’ve been at that event, and just reaching out with my thoughts, my appreciation and my reflections, to put a period on the end of a sentence at a time when you can’t do it in person.
A time like this calls for real leadership. I know you’ve been transitioning the CEO role to Chris Gorman, but have you still had to take a leadership role in this?
Part of a legacy is the team you leave behind. I feel like I’m getting to see our legacy real-time, [seeing] our leadership team in action as we face the decisions, the choices in how do we continue to serve our clients, support our colleagues and communities. It’s been incredibly affirming to see Chris and the team step up.
Was Chris identified early on as a potential successor?
We have a really talented team at Key, and our board has always engaged in active succession planning. Chris played some critical roles. Not only did he lead our corporate bank, he was the leader of our First Niagara integration, and then coming out of that became president of our banking group. He has had a very successful run at Key, and he’s a terrific leader. I have a great deal of confidence in Chris and the leadership team.
You think about everything that’s happened these last few months and I’m sure there have been a lot of discussion about returning to normal, returning to work. What is your sense of what anxieties employees are feeling and what a return to work looks like for Key employees?
It’s going to be gradually, thoughtfully. Companies will have to come up with protocols that keep people safe … and employees are going to need to do a whole series of things to keep themselves safe. It’s going to be a shared responsibility. We’re going to have to be sensible, slow, rigorous, and make mutual commitments to each other.
We’ve heard CEOs talk about how this experience has gotten them to rethink how banks operate going forward. Maybe that means more branch consolidation, less office space because more people are working at home. I know you won’t be there for this, but do you see changes in the way Key and other banks operate?
All American businesses are going to have to look at some of their notions of how they do work and think in terms of alternatives as we try and work safely. There probably will be less travel, less need for office space, more work from home and virtual protocols. This concern of the health and safety and of the collective is going to be first and foremost. Work and workplaces and work strategies will evolve to support that.
Let’s reflect on your career. Can you recall a moment or an event that ended up being a turning point for you even if it didn’t look like a turning point at the time?
There is no one thing that stands out. We all get presented with many opportunities and challenges and … I was always a person who squared my shoulders, rose to the occasion, was determined to figure out what to do, how to do it, how to bring people along, how to be part of the solution. That is my basic approach to things, and it has served me well.
You became CEO in 2011. The country was still coming out of the financial crisis, and the industry was not seen in the best light. Did you come into the job thinking that CEOs, particularly bank CEOs, had to lead differently than in the past?
That was very much part of my thinking. I had the opportunity to attend a Harvard Business School class for new CEOs in spring of 2011, and one piece of what they emphasized was to start with the end in mind and have a point of view of what you were trying to do.
Part of what they had you do was write your retirement speech. I kept it and I’ve read it at least once a year. We were just coming out of the crisis, institutions, leadership all needed to redefine their value proposition with their employees, clients and communities, we needed to rebuild trust broadly, and the best way to rebuild trust is not just your words, but through your actions.
One of the lessons of the financial crisis was that there was an overemphasis on shareholder return [and] not enough about stakeholders: employees, clients and communities.
My notion was that we needed to have more balance. One of the lessons of the financial crisis was that there was an overemphasis on shareholder return [and] not enough about stakeholders: employees, clients and communities. I believed I was part of a new generation of leadership that could redefine that value proposition by doing the right things by our employees, the right things by our clients, the right things by our communities and to prove that, in the end, it would be good for shareholders as well. That was a defining way I thought about approaching my tenure as CEO.
That’s interesting. The Business Roundtable came out with that letter last year that shareholder value should no longer be the No. 1 thing companies think about, and that it’s now about creating value for all stakeholders. Do you feel that corporate America has been a bit late to this idea?
I’m on the Business Roundtable and was one of the CEOs who signed the pledge, and I will tell you it was one of the easiest things I ever did. It was consistent with my personal philosophy and how we have run KeyBank, and my sense was that it was the collective sentiment of how [CEOs] are running [their] companies. More of it was that our messaging had lagged our reality. There was a lot of agreement in the room that this was the right thing to do. It does reflect a more contemporary view of corporate responsibility.
Do you think it’s permanent?
American businesses, we have a role to play to bring this economy back and to bring it back safely and in a way where we can provide livelihood and support our employees. We also have a broader sense of how [the pandemic is] hitting communities and different kinds of businesses and vulnerable populations. If anything this is going to be another of those moments where you evolve, and define corporate responsibility, not retreat.
Looking back on your nine years as CEO, what are the accomplishments you are most proud of?
I do believe that our performance, our First Niagara acquisition, the things we did from a financial performance point of view are things I’m all very proud of. We are not just a bigger company, we are definitely a better company.
But I am also [proud of] the values-based culture, the fact that diversity and inclusion are so embedded. It evidences itself not just in our financial performance but in how we approach our clients, how we approach our communities, our mindset about how we design products, programs that we have chosen to embrace to make a difference. We are now the third-largest affordable housing lender in the U.S. Our community benefits plan, $16.5 billion, [was put in place] four years ago, and we’ve exceeded the metrics that we’ve set for ourselves. What we did, I’m proud of. How we did it, I’m even prouder of. The real pride is in the how. It’s based on doing the right things the right way.
When we talked maybe a year after you became CEO, you said that you wanted the fact that you were a woman leading a top bank to be a footnote, not the headline. Here we are, eight years later, and there are still not many women leading large banks. Are you surprised by that and in a sense disappointed by that?
When I look broadly across the industry, I believe I see real progress. I see [it] just in our own company, I see women and minorities in key positions, our leadership team, our board. It is a more just and equitable and diverse world, certainly more than in 1979 when I entered banking, but even in the decade [since] I became CEO.
You talked about your legacy earlier. What do you think that is?
The culture we have built. How we feel about each other, how we feel about what we do as bankers and realizing our role in the community and our role in helping our clients achieve their dreams. All that has made the journey worthwhile.
Your contribution is the other piece of your legacy. And I think contribution extends beyond what you did in your company. What you did in your industry, what you did within your community, what have you done to improve everyone and everything that you touch. [As CEO], you have an opportunity and an obligation to give back, and I have had the privilege of having many civic roles, many industry roles, and some piece of my transition into my next chapter is going to be that opportunity to continue to give of myself and contribute and fulfill my purpose through board work. I’m on the boards of Ford [Motor Co.] and AT&T, and I’m the chairman of board of the Cleveland Clinic. It’s an incredibly interesting time to be in that role.
What’s next for you? Do you see yourself pursuing more board positions?
My next chapter … will be based on this notion of continuing to give of myself. I’ll start with two corporate boards and chairmanship of the Cleveland Clinic. I have other things that I support. But a piece of advice I’ve gotten as I retire is that it’s real easy to overcommit. I want to make sure that I come at this thoughtfully and in a way where it will be not just a rewarding chapter in my career, but perhaps the most rewarding.
I am not seeking more. I’m seeking to understand ... what I’ve committed to do but also to give myself permission, for someone who has worked very hard for many years, to balance it with a little more time for family and friends.