IT Chief Of The Year: Bank Of America's Cathy Bessant

Bessant leads BofA's 100,000-person technology and operations group as the bank scraps back from financial and regulatory disaster. Her formula: Steady, reliable performance over glitz.

in the world for key executive as well as specialized tech roles (such as in high-frequency trading). She cites Reilly, who she hired away from Morgan Stanley in 2011 and who now oversees information security and vendor management as well as IT infrastructure, as someone even tech vendors "would kill for."

One former BofA tech manager calls out another exec on the GT&O leadership team: Bridget O'Connor, who Bessant promoted in 2011 to become CIO of consumer banking technology and operations. O'Connor is the C-level technologist driving mobile and data analytics, the former insider says. "Cathy has paved the way for someone like Bridget to one day make the hop from 'I' to 'E,'" the source says. "That's the future: CIOs becoming CEOs."

I ask Bessant whether she herself has ambitions of one day becoming BofA's CEO. She pauses for about five seconds before answering no -- the job is 24 x 7 and places too many demands on one's personal life. "I'm conscious of the fact that an answer like that, at the level that I operate at in this organization, can take away some of my power," she says.

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It becomes clear during our interview that Bessant, 54 years old, has done a lot of introspection about her own leadership qualities and how she comes off to others. I ask her how her management style is different today compared with earlier in her career, and she responds immediately: "I'm much more authentic than I used to be. There's no show to my go. I don't view anything that we do as a performance or a presentation or an event. And that wasn't always the case, for sure."

The former BofA insider agrees with Bessant's self-assessment: "At that level, tone is important. And she nails it: down to earth, fallible, focused on improving client lives. I wish people on the outside could hear her unfiltered, the way she talks to internal audiences. The sterilization of content by legal/marketing doesn't work in the bank's favor ... at least with her."

Fifteen years ago, Bessant says, people viewed her as a hard-driving machine. She had emotional intelligence but didn't use it, she concedes. One HR partner used to call her "neutron Cathy" -- lots of impact, but lots of collateral damage.

Bessant says being a breast cancer survivor (she was diagnosed with the disease in 2010 and is now in remission) has given her a new perspective on what's not important, like getting credit as opposed to doing meaningful work. She says she's not built to take on the "simple problem," that she loves what she does partly because it's "intellectually hard." Yet those around her won't mistake her evolved approach for going soft: Only one executive (chief operating officer Bill Lorenz) is left from the GT&O leadership team she took over in 2010, "and that has been on purpose," she says. By her design, six of the 11 execs on that team have an operations or other nontechnical background.

Pappas fires off three adjectives to describe his boss: "fearless," "principled," and "passionate." He adds another quality: her ability to receive bad news well. At the scale of a BofA, "not a lot of people come to us with good news," he says, and Bessant not only helps her people analyze a problem, giving them air cover in the process, but she also has a way of firing them up as they seek out the solution.

Bottom of Maslow's hierarchy
Banking wasn't Bessant's first career choice. During her senior year at the University of Michigan, where she was a business major, she took the LSATs and aspired to become a litigator. But the young woman who had grown up in a 900-square-foot house in less-than-tony Jackson, Mich., was drawn to the business cycle of doing good work, getting good reviews, taking home good pay, and getting regular promotions -- a prospect that kept law school at bay and sent her packing for Texas. "I was at the bottom of Maslow's needs hierarchy," she half jokes. "Now I need to be self-actualized, but I didn't then."

Bessant relates the story of her grandfather's death in 1985. She had traveled back to Michigan to visit him while he was sick, but after he died she couldn't afford another plane ticket home. While it wasn't quite a Scarlett O'Hara "as God is my witness..." moment, she says, she decided then that she and her family would never go wanting in that way. "My daughter and my son will be at my funeral no matter how expensive it is for them to get there," she says with a laugh.

Bessant uses the term "true north" several times during our conversation to describe her commitment to consistency and a long-term outlook. BofA and many of its competitors lost their true north in the years leading up to the financial crisis, and as a result they're under intense pressure to do things differently, often more conservatively, in order to toe the line with regulators and, more important, re-earn customers' loyalty. Bessant is the first to admit she doesn't have all the answers. "I'm at the point where I believe it's more important to see things through to execution and have them be 80% right than it is for them to be 100% brilliant but change direction every three or four years," she says. "If the true north is right, consistency and leadership matter."

[ Learn more about Cathy Bessant and her strategy: See Bank of America Tech Chief Cathy Bessant: What I Believe and How Bank Of America Taps Tech Startups.]

Chris Murphy contributed to this article.

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